Obama and the Road Ahead: The Rolling Stone Interview

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Every so often I see CNN flash the Electoral College map on my TV screen, and some wizard pollster describes a convoluted formula, a running of the tables, in which Romney becomes president without winning Ohio. He probably can't. Shortly after Obama was elected, he provided U.S. auto manufacturers with $62 billion in emergency aid. The federal government, in essence, became the principal stockholder of General Motors (it still holds 500 million shares). Romney not only disagreed with Obama's decision but wrote perhaps the dumbest op-ed in American campaign history, titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." Theodore Roosevelt came to the rescue of San Francisco after the Great Earthquake of 1906 and George W. Bush helped rebuild New York City in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but Romney wanted to pull the plug on the Rust Belt as it struggled to jump-start its troubled economy. Thanks to the Obama bailout, which saved the auto industry, unemployment in Ohio stands at 7.2 percent, well below the national average. They should erect statues of Obama in Toledo and Akron. Name a boulevard after him in Dayton and Elyria. Without the bailout money, GM and Chrysler likely would have gone bankrupt, and many Ohio towns would have become Hoovervilles.

Over the summer, I brought my wife and kids to an Obama rally in the Ohio town of Maumee, not far from where I grew up. The president delivered a speech about how bailing out GM and Chrysler saved thousands of jobs in Ohio. When he started working the rope line, two young African-American girls began squealing with joy. Playing the good Samaritan, I escorted them to the front of the line so they would be sure to meet the president. The younger girl asked Obama to sign her T-shirt with a Sharpie.

"How old are you?" he asked.


He gladly obliged.

The older girl had the same request. Obama, however, eyed her with warm parental disapproval. "How old are you?" he asked.

"Fourteen," she replied. The same age as Malia Obama.

"Oh, no," the president said with a broad smile, crouching down to make eye contact. "You're too old to have someone writing on your clothes. Do you understand? That's a nice shirt you have. Take care of it. I'll give you a fist-bump instead."

It was a wonderful moment to witness. This wasn't a president who merely kissed babies for votes. Even though the commotion all around him was louder than a Sousa band, Obama was able to differentiate the ages of the two girls, and then offer the older one a lesson about being a young woman and having self­respect.

I was reminded of this incident when our interview with the president ended. As we left the Oval Office, executive editor Eric Bates told Obama that he had asked his six-year-old if there was anything she wanted him to say to the president. After a thoughtful pause, she said, "Tell him: You can do it."

Obama grinned. "That's the only advice I need," he said. "I do very well, by the way, in that demographic. Ages six to 12? I'm a killer."

"Thought about lowering the voting age?" Bates joked.

"You know, kids have good instincts," Obama offered. "They look at the other guy and say, 'Well, that's a bullshitter, I can tell.'"

Let's start with how the campaign has been going. Ever since the first debate, Romney has abruptly shifted his position on a whole host of issues, from his tax plan to financial regulation.
He made a strong sales pitch for what I think are really wrongheaded plans. But the facts haven't changed. The fundamentals haven't changed. The essence of this race is, "Do we have an economy that is building on all the work we've done over the last four years – an economy where we're focused on growing a strong, vibrant middle class, where we're focused on creating a strong manufacturing base here in the United States, where we are continuing to cut our imports of foreign oil, not only by developing homegrown oil and gas, but also by making sure that we are developing and taking leadership in clean energy? Are we going to continue to make investments in education that ensure that every kid in America has a shot at success if they're willing to work hard? Are we going to reduce our deficit in a way that's balanced and allows us to continue to make the investments that help us to grow?" That's what I'm putting forward.

What Governor Romney's putting forward is a return to the very same policies that got us into this mess in the first place: tax cuts skewed toward the wealthy and rollbacks of regulations that we fought very hard against lobbyists and special interests to put in place, to make sure that we don't have taxpayer­funded bailouts, to make sure that insurance companies aren't taking advantage of folks who need health care, to make sure that we have a strong consumer advocate in place to protect people from unscrupulous lenders.

So what I'm absolutely sure about is that we've got the better argument. And Governor Romney understands that. It's the reason why, after a year and a half of campaigning on plans that very clearly were going to involve $5 trillion worth of tax cuts, he's trying to fog up the issues, because he knows that the American people aren't buying what he's selling.

Many observers have commented on how Romney has misrepresented or even changed his positions in this last leg of the campaign – that he's been like a chameleon on plaid. Do you feel that he has lied to the American people?
What I think happened is that we won the battle of ideas during the course of the last year. His argument for a $5 trillion tax cut skewed toward the wealthy – which would necessarily involve either blowing up the deficit or increasing taxes on middle-class families – is not a recipe for growth. It won't create jobs, it won't reduce the deficit, and the American people understand that. So two weeks ago, or three weeks ago, they had to figure out, "Is there some way that we can fuzz up what we've been proposing?" In the first debate, he made as good a presentation as he could on what is a fundamentally flawed economic theory. What we're going to be focused on is making certain that he has to answer for those theories – ones that will not be good for the middle class and won't grow the economy long term.

But understand, there's no doubt that what he has campaigned on for the last year is what he believes, because we've seen it before. We saw it when he was the governor of Massachusetts: His efforts to balance the budget involved raising taxes and fees on middle-class families, even as wealthy families were getting tax breaks, gutting investments in education and forcing costs down to local school districts and local communities. We saw it in how he answered a question on 60 Minutes as recently as two weeks ago, when he said he thought it was fair for someone like him, who's making $20 million a year, to pay a lower tax rate than a teacher or bus driver making $50,000 a year. His basic theory is that if folks at the top are doing well and are unencumbered, that prosperity will rain down on everybody else, because they'll make better decisions about allocating capital.

I've got a different theory. I believe that when middle-class families are doing well – they've got money in their pockets, they're getting decent wages, they've got some health care security – then we all do better. Because those are customers who are buying goods and services, so businesses do better. It goes back to what Henry Ford understood when he decided to pay higher wages to his workers: that meant those workers on the assembly line making those Model T's could end up buying those cars. That's how we grew a middle class. So more than anything, our task over the next four weeks is just to lay bare just what these economic choices are. The American people are going to understand which choice is better for them and what is going to be better for the country as a whole.

Where were you when you first saw Romney's speech in Boca Raton about the 47 percent? What was your first reaction?
We were out campaigning. I don't remember which state we were in – probably Ohio. [Laughs] Since we've been there so often, the odds are, it was probably Ohio.

It took a while before we actually saw the full transcript of what he said. I think it was pretty surprising. It's an indication of a story that Republicans have been telling themselves for a while, at least a sizable portion – that somehow, half the country consider themselves victims and want to be dependent on government. Obviously, he was wrong on the facts, since the overwhelming majority of that 47 percent are either folks that are working every day and paying all kinds of taxes but just don't earn enough money to pay income tax; or are senior citizens who worked all their lives and did everything right so they could count on some sense of security as they got older; or they are veterans who have sacrificed for our country, or soldiers who are sacrificing as we speak on behalf of our country. But that sense that folks who have contributed to this country but are at the lower ends of the income scale are somehow looking for government to do something for them, or feel some sense of entitlement, is just fundamentally wrong. It doesn't jive with what I see as I travel across the country every day.

Are there people who, both at the top and the bottom, aren't pulling their weight and are looking for a special deal? Sure. But as was pointed out when this controversy erupted, there are a whole bunch of millionaires who aren't paying any income tax, as well as people at the lower end of the income spectrum who may be taking advantage of the safety net that we've put in place. We should hold everybody accountable who's not doing their fair share. That's what the American people believe: They don't like bailouts, they don't like handouts, but they do understand that we have to have a government that ensures that if somebody is working hard and carrying out their responsibilities, that they can succeed and that they can give the prospects of a better life to their kids and their grandkids.

What has surprised you the most about the Republican campaign this year?
What was interesting was the degree to which Governor Romney was willing to embrace the most extreme positions in the Republican Party: on immigration, on environmental issues, on women's issues and on the economy. Frankly, I think that's telling when you start thinking about the presidency. If you can't say no to certain elements of your party, if you don't have sets of principles that you're willing to fight for, even if they're not politically convenient, then you're gonna have a tough time in this office.

It was only at a point where it was determined that the American people had soundly rejected those views that you started seeing him try to fuzz up those positions. But they remain his positions. He continues to believe, when it comes to immigration, that the Arizona law is a model for the nation, and that self-deportation is the answer. When it comes to women's health issues, he continues to believe that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. He would be supportive of a constitutional amendment overturning a woman's right to choose, would eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, is supportive of legislation that would allow employers to make determinations as to whether women could get contraception through their insurance companies.

Four weeks out from an election, you can't hide from positions that ultimately are out of sync with how the majority of Americans think. I guarantee if you talk to not just Democratic women, but a whole bunch of Republican and Independent women, they will tell you they're very capable of making their own health care decisions. If you have a chance to meet these Dream Act kids, some of whom were brought here when they were two or three or five, and are American in every sense, except for their papers – love this country, have pledged allegiance to this flag, want to contribute – then you would reject the idea that somehow they should be deported to some country where they've never been. But those are Governor Romney's positions, and we gotta make sure that the American people understand those positions.

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