WASHINGTON — On Feb. 10, 2007, Barack Obama stood outside the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois, and announced his candidacy for president, promising a generational call to change the "ways of Washington," gauzily promising a "future of endless possibility." Reporters peered down at the senator from a building behind the sprawling, freezing crowd. "What's stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics," Obama said, "the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems."
Eight years later — to the day — President Obama offered a spirited, sometimes combative defense of his six years in office, and of the ways in which the politics he sought to change have turned his presidency harsher, more tactical, and at times more frustrating than the crowd in Springfield hoped. Obama's interview with BuzzFeed News Tuesday comes at a moment when he is feeling both the obvious satisfaction of forcing through major policy shifts, and the limits of his waning presidency. The interview was the latest in a series of conversations with media outlets that didn’t exist, or barely existed, when he first ran for president. And it was the latest effort to make himself, his message, and his appeal to young voters heard through a disorienting new media conversation that no public figure can control completely.
Obama cited frustrations from the intractability of urban poverty to the personality of Vladimir Putin. But he was most animated in his defense of what will be perhaps the two largest elements of his domestic policy legacy: the Affordable Care Act, which he passed at a high fiscal and higher political cost; and the arrival of true legal equality for gay and lesbian Americans. In the interview, he lacerated the CEO of the office supply giant Staples for avoiding providing health care to some workers, and he reflected on his own indirect path toward supporting the signature civil rights shift of his term, marriage equality.
“What I'm very proud of is to see how rapidly the country has shifted and maybe the small part that I've played, but certainly my Justice Department and others have played, in this administration, in getting to where we need to be,” he said. He said the Supreme Court’s refusal Monday to stop same-sex marriages in Alabama was a recognition that “having hit a critical mass of states that have recognized same-sex marriage — it doesn’t make sense for us to now have this patchwork system.”
Obama’s 2008 victory marked a moment of intense hope for many of the groups that make up the progressive movement — environmentalists, civil rights activists, immigrant advocates — who thought their long-sought policy goals could be on the brink of becoming reality. In fact, marriage activists were among the most skeptical of Obama in his early years, and pressed him hardest. But today, gay and lesbian leaders are perhaps the best satisfied of Obama’s supporters, others of whom have been disappointed at his inability to pass sweeping environmental legislation, rewrite labor law, or deeply alter the landscape of race in America or criminal justice.
Obama said that he doesn’t think LGBT activists organized better or pushed him harder, but rather that their goals were easier to achieve.
“I think the organized community did an excellent job. But, look, the immigrants’ rights organizations have done an excellent job, the civil rights organizations have done an excellent job,” he said. The dramatic shift on marriage “had to do with the willingness of people to recognize the regard they had for the LGBT communities or people in their families,” he said.
“But part of it is also, frankly, that an issue like nondiscrimination for the LGBT community is a little bit easier than the issues of inner-city poverty, right? You not discriminating against a gay person may require you to undergo some change of mind, but it doesn't require you potentially calling on the government to provide more support for impoverished children so they've got more day care that's high quality,” he said.
Domestic policy has had other frustrations — large ones like Congress’s early refusal to limit carbon emissions, and broader and complex questions like criminal justice policy. In the interview, Obama didn’t directly answer a question about a man struggling to find work after a marijuana possession conviction, saying the White House had begun a broad reform process, but that the government’s late embrace of prevention has “been particularly devastating in certain segments of the community.”
Foreign policy, meanwhile, has been dictated to a degree some around Obama didn’t fully expect by the priorities of other world leaders. China’s willingness to negotiate a climate deal offered a major recent victory. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly hemmed in U.S. efforts to exert power in Europe and the Middle East.
“He has a foot very much in the Soviet past. That's how he came of age. He ran the KGB. Those were his formative experiences,” Obama said of Putin. “So I think he looks at problems through this Cold War lens, and, as a consequence, I think he's missed some opportunities for Russia to diversify its economy, to strengthen its relationship with its neighbors, to represent something different than the old Soviet-style aggression.”
“I continue to hold out the prospect of Russia taking a diplomatic offering from what they've done in Ukraine. I think, to their credit, they've been able to compartmentalize and continue to work with us on issues like Iran's nuclear program,” he said, warning however that a weak Russian economy poses a major threat to both countries.
“That's bad for Russia and, over time, it's bad for the United States, because if Russia is doing badly, the concern is that they revert to old expansionist ideas that really shouldn't have any application in the 21st century,” he said.
Obama saved his sharpest words Tuesday for American companies that have not entirely embraced the spirit of the Affordable Care Act, his health care overhaul. Under Obamacare, the federal government, beginning last month, requires that companies with 100 or more full-time workers either cover their employees’ health care or pay penalties of $2,000 to $3,000 per employee. The legislation applies to workers who put in at least 30 hours a week — and some companies are now going to great lengths to make sure their part-time workers do not exceed that threshold.
In particular, the office supply giant Staples, BuzzFeed News reported exclusively Monday, has warned workers who put in more than 25 hours a week that they could be fired.
“There is no reason for an employer who is not currently providing health care to their workers to discourage them from either getting health insurance on the job or being able to avail themselves of the Affordable Care Act,” Obama said. “I haven't looked at Staples stock lately or what the compensation of the CEO is, but I suspect that they could well afford to treat their workers favorably and give them some basic financial security, and if they can't, then they should be willing to allow those workers to get the Affordable Care Act without cutting wages.”
Staples CEO Ronald Sargent brought home $10.8 million in total compensation in the year that ended last Feb. 1. The company reported $707 million in profits.
“It's one thing when you've got a mom-and-pop store who can't afford to provide paid sick leave or health insurance or minimum wage to workers ... but when I hear large corporations that make billions of dollars in profits trying to blame our interest in providing health insurance as an excuse for cutting back workers’ wages, shame on them,” Obama said.
This is Obama at his most emphatic, weaving together his signature policy achievement and economic fairness. Obama has, in the final two years of his presidency, found obvious satisfaction in fighting, often unilaterally and with an increasingly populist edge, for his largest policy initiatives, like Obamacare, and in pushing through, in particular, deeply generational issues, notably the recent opening to Cuba.
But that singular clarity has not always extended to the core issues that will shape his legacy.
Obama told BuzzFeed News that his own reversals on same-sex marriage — he supported it in a questionnaire he filled out in 1996, opposed it in the U.S. Senate and as president, and then “evolved” toward supporting it again — had taught him a lesson about politics.
“These are the kinds of things you learn as you move forward in public life: that sometimes you can't split the difference,” Obama said. "That sometimes you just have to be very clear that this is what's right."
He disputed, however, the contention of his former top political adviser, David Axelrod, that he had misled voters in 2008 when he opposed marriage equality. Axelrod wrote in his new memoir that Obama “modified” his position because his aides worried about alienating black Christian leaders, and then complained that he didn’t like “bullshitting” voters about it.
“I think David is mixing up my personal feelings with my position on the issue,” Obama said. “I always felt that same-sex couples should be able to enjoy the same rights, legally, as anybody else, and so it was frustrating to me not to, I think, be able to square that with what were a whole bunch of religious sensitivities out there.”
Obama said he believed at the time that civil unions were “a sufficient way of squaring the circle,” but that “the pain and the sense of stigma that was being placed on same-sex couples who are friends of [his]” changed his mind.
“I think the notion that somehow I was always in favor of marriage per se isn't quite accurate,” Obama said. “The old questionnaire ... is an example of struggling with what was a real issue at the time, which is, how do you make sure that people's rights are enjoyed and these religious sensitivities were taken into account?”
The rapid change in Americans’ attitude toward gays and lesbians may be the most marked generational shift of Obama’s tenure. But the president also acknowledged Tuesday that American politics has taken a surprising generational turn backward: Leading candidates for the Democratic and Republican nominations are both baby boomers with their generation’s most famous political names.
“They're both obviously highly qualified candidates,” Obama said. “Hillary Clinton I know much better than I know Jeb Bush, and I think she'd be an outstanding president.”
The bottom line, Obama said, is that Clinton or any other candidate will have to address a set of issues beginning with how to turn an economic recovery into “broad-based prosperity.”
Obama has lost none of the swagger of 2008. Asked about his diverse coalition, he was quick to lay down a marker for the woman he defeated seven years ago: "I think it's also important to remember that I won Iowa, which doesn't have one of the most diverse populations in the country," he said.
The central question may be, however, whether Clinton or another Democrat can reassemble the new coalition that brought Obama to victory, a narrow but growing majority composed of overlapping sets of younger people, women, and black and Latino voters. Asked if the next nominee would inherit that coalition from him, Obama answered quickly in the negative.
“I don't think any president inherits a coalition," he said, shaking his head. "I think any candidate has to win over people based on what they stand for, what their message is, what their vision is for the future."
Read the full transcript of the BuzzFeed News interview with President Obama.