In working with the Republicans in this term, it seems clear that the traditional rules of give-and-take politics have changed – that the Republicans have been playing a "lose-lose" game with you. What's your relationship with the GOP leadership at this point? A little frosty?
It's not frosty. This isn't personal. When John Boehner and I sit down, I enjoy a conversation with him. I don't think he's a bad person. I think he's patriotic. I think that the Republicans up on the Hill care about this country, but they have a very ideologically rigid view of how to move this country forward, and a lot of how they approach issues is defined by "Will this help us defeat the president?" as opposed to "Will this move the country forward?"
Is there any way to break through that obstructionism by Republicans?
My hope is that if the American people send a message to them that's consistent with the fact that Congress is polling at 13 percent right now, and they suffer some losses in this next election, that there's going to be some self-reflection going on – that it might break the fever. They might say to themselves, "You know what, we've lost our way here. We need to refocus on trying to get things done for the American people."
Frankly, I know that there are good, decent Republicans on Capitol Hill who, in a different environment, would welcome the capacity to work with me. But right now, in an atmosphere in which folks like Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist are defining what it means to be a true conservative, they are lying low. My hope is that after this next election, they'll feel a little more liberated to go out and say, "Let's redirect the Republican Party back to those traditions in which a Dwight Eisenhower can build an interstate highway system."
Do you think racial politics and race relations in America are any different now than when you first took office?
Look, race has been one of the fault lines in American culture and American politics from the start. I never bought into the notion that by electing me, somehow we were entering into a post-racial period. On the other hand, I've seen in my own lifetime how racial attitudes have changed and improved, and anybody who suggests that they haven't isn't paying attention or is trying to make a rhetorical point. Because we all see it every day, and me being in this Oval Office is a testimony to changes that have been taking place.
When I travel around the country, a lot of people remark on how inspiring seeing an African-American president or an African-American first lady must be to black boys and girls, how it must raise their sense of what's possible in their own lives. That's hugely important – but you shouldn't also underestimate the fact that there are a whole bunch of little white girls and white boys all across the country who just take it for granted that there's an African-American president. That's the president they're growing up with, and that's changing attitudes.
My view on race has always been that it's complicated. It's not just a matter of head – it's a matter of heart. It's about interactions. What happens in the workplace, in schools, on sports fields, and through music and culture shapes racial attitudes as much as any legislation that's passed. I do believe that we're making slow and steady progress. When I talk to Malia and Sasha, the world they're growing up with, with their friends, is just very different from the world that you and I grew up with.
You've shied away from demanding marriage equality for all. Are you at least willing to say that you support it on a personal level?
I'm not going to make news in this publication. I've made clear that the issue of fairness and justice and equality for the LGBT community is very important to me. And I haven't just talked about it, I've acted on it. You'll recall that the last time you and I had an interview, we were getting beat up about "don't ask, don't tell" in the LGBT community. There was skepticism: "Why's it taking so long? Why doesn't he just do it through executive order?" I described very specifically the process we were going to go through to make sure that there was a buy-in from the military, up and down the chain of command, so that it would be executed in an effective way. And lo and behold, here we are, and it got done.
Ending "don't ask, don't tell" has been the dog that didn't bark. You haven't read a single story about problems in our military as a consequence of the ending of the policy. So whether it's on that, or changing the AIDS travel ban, or hospital visitation rights, or a whole slew of regulations that have made sure that federal workers are treated fairly in the workplace, we've shown the commitment that I have to these issues. And we're going to keep on working in very practical ways to make sure that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are treated as what they are – full-fledged members of the American family.
Let me ask you about the War on Drugs. You vowed in 2008, when you were running for election, that you would not "use Justice Department resources to try and circumvent state laws about medical marijuana." Yet we just ran a story that shows your administration is launching more raids on medical pot than the Bush administration did. What's up with that?
Here's what's up: What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana – and the reason is, because it's against federal law. I can't nullify congressional law. I can't ask the Justice Department to say, "Ignore completely a federal law that's on the books." What I can say is, "Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage." As a consequence, there haven't been prosecutions of users of marijuana for medical purposes.
The only tension that's come up – and this gets hyped up a lot – is a murky area where you have large-scale, commercial operations that may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users. In that situation, we put the Justice Department in a very difficult place if we're telling them, "This is supposed to be against the law, but we want you to turn the other way." That's not something we're going to do. I do think it's important and useful to have a broader debate about our drug laws. One of the things we've done over the past three years was to make a sensible change when it came to the disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. We've had a discussion about how to focus on treatment, taking a public-health approach to drugs and lessening the overwhelming emphasis on criminal laws as a tool to deal with this issue. I think that's an appropriate debate that we should have.
Occupy Wall Street seems to have influenced your rhetoric. Has it had a deeper impact on your thinking about America?
You know, I think that Occupy Wall Street was just one vivid expression of a broader anxiety that has been around in the United States for at least a decade or more. People have a sense the game is rigged, so just a few people can do well, and everybody else is left to scramble to get by.
The free market is the greatest generator of wealth in history. I'm a firm believer in the free market, and the capacity of Americans to start a business, pursue their dreams and strike it rich. But when you look at the history of how we became an economic superpower, that rugged individualism and private-sector dynamism was always coupled with government creating a platform so that everybody could succeed, so that consumers weren't taken advantage of, so that the byproducts of capitalism, like pollution or worker injuries, were regulated. Creating that social safety net has not made us weaker – it's made us stronger. It liberated people to say, "I can move to another state, but if I don't find a job right away, my kids aren't going to go hungry. I can start a business, but if it doesn't work out, I'm going to be able to land on my feet." Making those kinds of commitments to each other – to create safety nets, to invest in infrastructure and schools and basic research – is just like our collective investment in national security or fire departments or police. It has facilitated the kind of risk-taking that has made our economy so dynamic. This is what it means for us to live in a thriving, modern democracy.
One of the major arguments we'll be having in this election season is a contrasting vision that says not just that government is part of the problem, but essentially that government is the entire problem. These guys, they don't just want to roll back the New Deal – in some cases, they want to go back even further.
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