Interview: Barack Obama

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This health care bill, I think people need to understand just how significant this is. We’ve got 30 million people who are going to get health insurance because of this bill. And disproportionately they will be African American as well as Latino. One out of five African Americans don’t have health insurance — that’s almost double the general population.

[The Presidential Interview]

Q: I’m sitting in the Oval Office with the 44th President, President Barack Obama. Thank you so much for this interview, sir.
President Obama: Well, it’s great to see you and Merry Christmas to you and all your listeners.

Q: Well, first of all, let’s start off on a light note. You’re preparing to go away to Hawaii for vacation, and everyone around here is talking about you body surfing. Is that a healthy thing to do? (Laughter.)
Obama: It’s a wonderful thing to do. I grew up doing it, love the ocean. I’ll admit to you that the Secret Service these days does not like me doing it. The last time I tried it they had a bunch of people out on jet skis in the water and surrounding me with all kinds of stuff and it was a little distracting for the other swimmers. So I don’t know if I’ll get out there this year, but I tell you what I will definitely be enjoying some sun.

Q: Now with the holidays we have cold season, we have, as you say, Chicago snow — sniffles, coughs. And I understand possibly that you and your wife received the H1N1 shot this weekend. Is that true? And what would you say to the African American community and the Brown community, the Black and Browns of this nation who are leery because of past history — i.e., Tuskegee — of getting the shot?
Obama: Well, first of all, people need to understand that this vaccine is safe. Malia and Sasha actually had it several months ago, right when it was first being made available to school-age children. That’s the most important population because this flu, unlike seasonal flu, disproportionately affects children and young people — healthy children and young people as well as people with underlying conditions like asthma or neurological diseases.

So it is so important and, frankly, the African American vaccination rate has been lower, substantially lower so far than the general population. I think people just need to understand: If I had the two people that are most important in my life, my two daughters, get it right away — and they’ve been just fine with it and in fact haven’t gotten sick this entire flu season — then you need to know that you need to make sure your children get it as well.

Michelle and I just got the shots ourselves we wanted to make sure nationwide that children were getting it before adults did. And now there’s enough vaccine so that adults should get it as well.

Last point I’ll make on this, particularly if you’re a senior citizen, you should get both the seasonal flu and the H1N1 flu. They’re different flus. The seasonal flu is still deadly, particularly for older Americans. And if you haven’t already gotten your flu shot there’s ample seasonal flu vaccine available as well, so you should do both.

Q: As we’re talking about health, we’re talking about health care today — earlier this morning, 1:00 a.m. — were you up, first of all, to see the vote?
Obama: I was up because I wanted to make sure that I was watching what could end up being a historic moment.

This health care bill, I think people need to understand just how significant this is. We’ve got 30 million people who are going to get health insurance because of this bill. And disproportionately they will be African American as well as Latino. One out of five African Americans don’t have health insurance — that’s almost double the general population. So right off the bat you’re helping millions of people across the country.

Then if you’ve already got health insurance this says that insurance companies can’t engage in the kind of gimmicks and abuses that lead them to drop coverage right when you get sick or prevent you from getting health insurance because you’ve got a preexisting condition. So all the insurance reforms that we care about are in this package, which is why the insurance companies have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars in trying to fight this.

Then it’s deficit neutral. It’s not adding to the debt. Contrary to what you’re hearing from a lot of opponents it’s not adding to the debt. It’s subtracting from the debt because we’re going to be able to get a lot of savings in terms of how we provide medicine over the long term. There’s money in there for prevention, for community health clinics that serve underserved communities, particularly in the inner city. I mean, there is so much good in this bill and I’m now confident that it is going to pass and I think that the African American community — which has been suffering from health care disparities for such a long time — has a huge, huge interest in seeing this go through.

Q: That’s interesting you talk about the disparities in African Americans, because many civil rights leaders, to include persons in the NAACP, are upset that the Senate version does not have the public option; the House has the public option. And the Senate and the House version are very far apart. What are the fears that you have going forward with trying to get a health care reform bill together in a timely fashion?
Obama: Well, first of all, I think it’s important to understand, April, that the Senate and the House bills are 95 percent identical. There’s 5 percent differences, and one of those differences is the public option. But this is an area that has just become symbolic of a lot of ideological fights. As a practical matter, this is not the most important aspect to this bill — the House bill or the Senate bill.

And the idea behind the public option was is that alongside these choices that you could choose from in the private insurance industry, you could also potentially get a government-managed plan. But it was only going to apply to a few million people who were buying into the exchange. So it wasn’t like suddenly everybody would just go out there and buy a government-run plan; most people will still get health insurance from their employers. What will happen is, is that if you don’t get health insurance through your employers, you can then go to this what we’re calling a health care exchange, get a subsidy, and buy health insurance through that exchange.

But either way, whether there’s a public option in there or not, if you don’t have health insurance, you are going to have now the option of getting it at a reasonable cost. And that’s the most important thing. And as I said, nobody has a bigger stake than the African American community in this, because disproportionately, we’re the ones without health insurance.

Q: Speaking of the African American community, this seems to be a shift in Black leadership, as it relates to supporting you. You have the CBC that’s upset with you about targeting on the jobs front — African Americans, 15.6 percent unemployment rate, expected to go to 20 percent; mainstream America 10 percent. Then you have Black actors who supported you — Danny Glover, who’s saying that you’ve not changed, your Administration is the same as George W. Bush. What are your thoughts about the fact that Black leadership is grumbling, and the fact that people are concerned with you being the first African American President, and they thought that there would be a little bit more compassion for Black issues?
Obama: Well, first of all, April, I think you just engaged in a big generalization in terms of how you asked that question. If you want me to line up all the Black actors, for example, who support me, and put them on one side of the room, and a couple who are grumbling on the other, I’m happy to have that.

I think if you look at the polling, in terms of the attitudes of the African American community, there’s overwhelming support for what we’ve tried to do. And, so, is there grumbling? Of course there’s grumbling, because we just went through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And everybody is concerned about unemployment, everybody’s concerned about businesses not hiring, everybody’s concerned about their home values declining. And in each of these areas, African Americans have been disproportionately affected. We were some of the folks who were most affected by predatory lending. There’s a long history of us being the last hired and the first fired. As I said, health care — we’re the ones who are in the worst position to absorb companies deciding to drop their health care plans.

So, should people be satisfied? Absolutely not. But let’s take a look at what I’ve done. The Recovery Act helped to lift up an economy that was teetering on the verge of depression. We made sure that states didn’t engage in budget cuts to cut teachers and firefighters and police officers, many of whom are African American. Unemployment insurance we have put in place so that folks can still make their payments and keep their electricity on as consequence of what we’ve done. We have now made enormous investments, historic investments in education, a lot of that targeted into the inner city. Health care I already discussed. This will be hugely important for the African American community.

So this notion somehow that because there wasn’t a transformation overnight that we’ve been neglectful is simply factually not accurate.

Now, do we have to do more work? Absolutely. Because as I said before, the African American community was already hurting before the recession. And that means that the steps we’re taking around education reform, to make sure our schools are performing properly; the fact that, for example, we have recorded historic increases in Pell grants and Perkins loans, which disproportionately help our folks; that is all projected to get our education system up and running, so that it’s working for young people, they can take advantage of the jobs of the future.

When we are designing our green jobs initiatives, one of the things that we’re looking at is how do we make sure that young people in the cities who are going to be weatherized are trained for those weatherization jobs, to put them on a track for a trade over the long term. Small business lending, we have increased Small Business Administration loans by 73 percent, because banks weren’t lending. Those are being lent to African American small businesses, who are out there struggling because the larger banks aren’t helping them out.

So we have made a series of steps that make a huge difference. The only thing I cannot do is, you know, by law I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping Back folks. I’m the President of the entire United States. What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That in turn is going to help lift up the African American community.

But we’re going to have a hole that we have to dig out of for a long time, and it has to do with structural impediments to opportunity that we are going to continue to try to knock down. But it’s not going to happen in one year; it’s going to take not just one term, but it’s going to take years. The important point is that we’re moving in the right direction.

Q: And lastly, you’ll be coming up with your State of the Union, your first State of the Union in January. And I know you’re going to speak to all America. But, in your opinion, what is the state of Black America?
Obama: You know, I think this continues to be the best of times and the worst of times. I mean, I think it’s the best of times in the sense that never has there been more opportunity for African Americans who have received a good education and are in a position then to walk through the doors that are opened. And, obviously, you and me sitting here in the Oval Office is a testament to that.

I think it’s the worst of times in the sense that unemployment and the lack of opportunity, particularly in some cities, has never been worse. I mean, you look at a city like Detroit where you used to have an enormous African American middle class built on the auto industry — that city is in hard, hard times right now.

Now, just going back to the point you raised earlier about our responsiveness to the African American community, imagine what Detroit would look like if we hadn’t stepped in to make sure that GM stayed open, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. Having said that, if you’ve got double digit unemployment in cities like that, we’re going to have to make some special efforts, and it starts with early childhood education; it starts with education generally. That’s why I’m putting such a big emphasis on that. But it also means that every federal agency has to make sure that the assistance that’s being made available to the general population is targeting those hard to reach places, so that they are also benefiting from our overall efforts to lift up the economy.

I’m optimistic about the long term future of the African American community, but it’s going to take work. It was never going to be done just because we elected me. It’s going to be a collaborative effort between people in the community who recognize that we’re going to have to rely on government to do some things, but a lot of these things we’re going to have to do ourselves.

Q: Mr. President, thank you so much. Happy holidays. It’s awesome to be here in the Oval Office. It’s very nice — (laughter) — to say the least. But thank you so much, and thank you for giving us this interview for American Urban Radio Networks.
Obama: Well, it was great to talk to you. And I wish everybody out there a blessed and happy New Year, a wonderful Christmastime. And I feel pretty confident that 2010 is going to be better than 2009.


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