President Barack Obama sat down with The Huffington Post's Sam Stein for an interview on Friday, discussing everything from sequestration, the Iran nuclear talks and presidential pardons, to overtime pay, athletic scholarships and sleep.
Below is the full transcript from the March 20 interview. Watch a video of the interview above.
HUFFPOST: Thank you very much, Mr. President, for doing this.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Great to be with you.
HUFFPOST: Let's jump right into it. Loretta Lynch's nomination is lingering in the Senate now for more than 130 days. And increasingly, we hear Democrats saying that race is a factor. Do you share their concerns?
OBAMA: I don't know about that. What I do know is, is that she is eminently qualified. Nobody denies it. Even the Republicans acknowledge she's been a great prosecutor. She has prosecuted terrorists in New York, she has gone after organized crime, she's gone after public corruption. Her integrity is unimpeachable. By all accounts, she's a great manager, and the fact that she has now been lingering in this limbo for longer than the five previous attorney general nominees combined, makes no sense. We need to go ahead and get this done.
HUFFPOST: What do you think is behind it?
OBAMA: Well, Senate dysfunction is part of it. But part of it, I think, is just a stubbornness on the part of Republicans to move nominees, period.
HUFFPOST: Well, they say they’ve got -- they’re holding up her nomination until they get to this human trafficking bill with a controversial abortion provision in it. Would you encourage Democrats to let the bill go through so you can get a confirmation?
OBAMA: You don't hold attorney general nominees hostage for other issues. This is our top law enforcement office. Nobody denies that she's well-qualified. We need to go ahead and get her done.
HUFFPOST: Is Eric Holder prepared to stay as long as possible?
OBAMA: Yes, he is. And the irony is, of course, that the Republicans really dislike Mr. Holder. If they really want to get rid of him, the best way to do it is to go ahead and get Loretta Lynch confirmed.
HUFFPOST: Looking at the congressional budgets that were released this week, and the one that you released in February, do you see any areas of potential collaboration between the two?
OBAMA: Well, let’s first talk about the contrasting visions in these budgets. I put forward a budget of what I called “middle-class economics” that continues to be fiscally prudent -- we’ve already reduced our deficits by two-thirds -- but makes necessary investments for us to continue the economic momentum and job growth that we’ve seen over the last several years.
So we invest in early childhood education. We invest additional job training dollars. We make sure that we’ve got a strong research and development strategy so that we continue to innovate. Rebuilding our infrastructure, which we know will attract businesses.
Then you look at the recently released Republican budget, which keeps in place a sequester -- a law that is slashing both defense and non-defense spending -- so that we would end up seeing hundreds of thousands of young people having less money for student loans. We would see early childhood education slots slashed. We would see the elimination of the Affordable Care Act, of course, which would mean not only that millions of people are losing health care coverage, but folks who have health care coverage -- 130 million of them -- would no longer be protected against discrimination because of pre-existing conditions. Four million seniors would suddenly be paying higher prescription drug prices.
So it is the classic trickle-down, top-down approach to economics that we know has failed. And the fact that they are putting this forward once again -- with tax cuts for the wealthiest, so that the average millionaire and billionaire would get a $50,000 tax cut, while middle-class families would end up losing tax credits that help them send their kids to college or help them save for retirement -- makes no sense.
The last point, which I don’t think has gotten enough attention -- their main argument for their budget was to balance the budget. This was their No. 1 priority. A couple of days after they released this budget, they introduced a bill that they’re now going to go ahead and try to pass through the House of Representatives, to eliminate the estate tax. Now understand that right now, you don’t even start paying the estate tax until $11 million worth of assets. So this benefits 0.1 percent of the population, and it would blow a $30 billion-a-year hole in our budget.
So if you’re really concerned about deficits, you cannot take seriously a budget that would give $30 billion a year worth of tax cuts to not just the top 1 percent but the top 0.1 percent.
HUFFPOST: Your argument is that they keep trying the same exact trick over and over again. Their argument is, you've changed. That in 2009 and 2010, you were talking about belt-tightening, you actually were explicit in talking about reforming entitlements. They look back at those years and they say, “Where’d you go?”
OBAMA: Well, actually, the truth is, is that circumstances changed. At that time, we were seeing significantly higher deficits, and the economy was just beginning to grow. We now know that we’ve got strong growth. As a consequence, as I argued at the time, the deficits have come down -- they are now below 3 percent of our GDP, our gross domestic product, which is a stable place for us to be.
What you have to do is to look at what’s going to keep our economic growth going, what’s going to make sure jobs are being created. If you implement their budget, in the first three years alone we would see about half a percentage point less of economic growth than we currently see. That’s hundreds of thousands of jobs that are eliminated.
So to go back to your earlier question though, I do think there’s some areas where we should be able to cooperate. Both parties say they want greater infrastructure spending. Both parties are talking about simplifying our tax code.
If we can find some common ground around that, and if we can recognize that given the economic growth, given the reduction in deficits, now's the time for us to make sure that we are making the investments we need to continue to grow and to keep our country safe, then we can do what Senator Murray did with Congressman Ryan, and plus-up both the defense and non-defense budgets. I don’t expect to get 100 percent of what I want, but what we can’t do is go back to the kind of top-down economics that doesn't work.
HUFFPOST: Perfect segue into this. Having outlined your budget and strongly advocated for priorities like child care, infrastructure, research and development, how could you possibly sign a bill into law in October of 2015 that allowed sequestration to come back into effect? Could you do it?
OBAMA: I will not, and I’ve been very clear. We are not going to have a situation where, for example, our education spending goes back to its lowest level since the year 2000 -- since 15 years ago -- despite a larger population and more kids to educate. We would be spending less per pupil than we did back in 2000, at a time when, 15 years later, we know that the single most important thing in terms of how well we can compete around the world is the quality of our workforce. We can’t do that to our kids, and I’m not going to sign it.
HUFFPOST: On inequality, one thing you could actually do right now with the stroke of a pen is to require companies to pay overtime to people who make less than a certain salary and work more than 40 hours a week. Senate Dems have said set that threshold at $57,000 a year, House Dems, I believe, want it even higher than that. Considering the underlying objectives of your economic vision here, how big are you going to go?
OBAMA: Well, I’ll tell you when we announce it.
HUFFPOST: Why not now?
OBAMA: But you’re making an important point generally though. What we’ve seen is, increasingly, companies skirting basic overtime laws, calling somebody a manager when they’re stocking groceries and getting paid $30,000 a year. Those folks are being cheated. And what we want to make sure of -- and we’re working with Tom Perez, our secretary of labor, to set a standard that is fair and that acknowledges the history of people getting paid their fair overtime wages.
HUFFPOST: Any time frame for when we could expect that announcement?
OBAMA: It should be relatively soon.
HUFFPOST: Switching to foreign affairs. Given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent comments on a two-state solution in the close of his campaign, can the U.S. continue to oppose Palestinian efforts to gain statehood at the United Nations?
OBAMA: Well, I had a chance to speak to Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday, congratulated his party on his victory. I did indicate to him that we continue to believe that a two-state solution is the only way for the long-term security of Israel, if it wants to stay both a Jewish state and democratic. And I indicated to him that given his statements prior to the election, it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible.
So we’re evaluating what’s taking place. I think Prime Minister Netanyahu still has to form a government; we’ll be in close consultation with them. We're going to make sure, regardless of disagreements we have on policy, that our military and intelligence cooperation to keep the Israeli people safe continues and that cooperation also helps the American people stay safe.
But we are going to continue to insist that, from our point of view, the status quo is unsustainable. And that while taking into complete account Israel's security, we can't just in perpetuity maintain the status quo, expand settlements. That's not a recipe for stability in the region.
HUFFPOST: Is there any reason at this point to believe that he's serious about a Palestinian state?
OBAMA: Well, we take him at his word when he said that it wouldn't happen during his prime ministership, and so that's why we've got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don't see a chaotic situation in the region.
HUFFPOST: And what was your reaction to his warning on Election Day about Arab voters heading to the polls "in droves"?
OBAMA: We indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel's traditions. That although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly. And I think that that is what's best about Israeli democracy. If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don't believe in a Jewish state, but it also I think starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country.
HUFFPOST: I mean, can you unring that bell basically?
OBAMA: Well, I think that's probably a question better addressed to the prime minister.
HUFFPOST: That's our next sit-down, obviously.
What impact do you think the Israeli elections are going to have on your ability to sell any Iranian nuclear agreement to both the American public and this Congress?
OBAMA: I don't think it will have a significant impact. Obviously there's significant skepticism in Israel generally about Iran. And understandably. Iran has made vile comments, anti-Semitic comments, comments about the destruction of Israel. It is precisely for that reason that even before I became president, I said Iran could not have a nuclear weapon.
What is going to have an effect on whether we get a deal done is, number one, is Iran prepared to show, to prove to the world that it is not developing a nuclear weapon, and can we verify that in an intrusive, consistent way.
And frankly, they have not yet made the kind of concessions that are I think going to be needed for a final deal to get done. But they have moved, and so there's the possibility.
The other thing is going to be me being able to show not just the American people or the Israeli people but the world that, in fact, we have mechanisms in place that will prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon. And that the deal that is made not only is verifiable, but it also makes it much less likely that Iran is able to break out than if we have no deal at all. And that's an argument that we are going to have to make, if we have a deal. But we've still got some more to do.
HUFFPOST: Well, that's my next question. Recent reports say that a draft is circulating. But there are other reports that say a sticking point remains over the pace of U.N. sanctions relief. So where do things stand now, and how firm are you on the idea that international sanctions relief must be phased out over time?
OBAMA: There is no deal until everything is worked out. And I think that it's premature to suggest that there is a draft out there. What is true is that there has been movement from the Iranian side. We are consulting with the P5+1.
Negotiations have broken for a week because of the Nowruz holidays inside of Iran, which gives time for us to make sure that everybody within the P5+1 is comfortable with the current positions that are being taken. It allows them to consult. We'll be back in a week. Our goal though is to get this done in a matter of weeks, not months.
HUFFPOST: Quickly on domestic issues because we have limited time. Wanted to get through a few.
We've made a lot of progress on race relations, obviously you noted in your Selma speech. But then you have situations like what took place in Oklahoma -- fraternity brothers caught on video chanting about lynching. What was your reaction to that video?
OBAMA: Look, at any given point on any given day, somebody is doing something stupid out there. In the age of the Internet, it's going to attract attention. I don't think this is the first time that somebody at a fraternity has done something stupid, racist, sexist. It won't be the last.
What was heartening was the quick response from President Boren, somebody who I know well and I know who has great integrity. The quick reaction from the student body.
You know, the way we have to measure progress here is not, "Is there ever going to be an incident of racism in the country?" It's, "How does the majority of our country respond?" And on that front, there's no doubt that the overwhelming number of students at the University of Oklahoma, and around the country, think that kind of behavior is deplorable and don't accept it.
Frankly, 30 years ago or 40 years ago, there might have been a different reaction and more tolerance for that kind of racist chant.
HUFFPOST: Sticking to colleges -- it's bracket time. Your bracket is better than mine, I'm assuming at this point. Mine's pretty bad.
OBAMA: Not by much. (Laughter)
HUFFPOST: Not by much? OK. Shouldn't these players be compensated for all the revenue they're generating for the NCAA and the television stations and the advertisers?
OBAMA: Here's what I've said. That the students need to be taken better care of because they are generating a lot of revenue here. An immediate step that the NCAA could take -- that some conferences have already taken -- is if you offer a scholarship to a kid coming into school, that scholarship sticks, no matter what.
It doesn't matter whether they get cut, it doesn't matter whether they get hurt. You are now entering into a bargain and responsible for them.
Health care. You've got to make sure that if they get injured while they're playing that they're covered.
I do think that recognizing that the majority of these student athletes are not going to end up playing professional ball -- this isn’t just a farm system for the NBA or the NFL -- means that the universities have more responsibilities than right now they’re showing --
HUFFPOST: But what about compensation?
OBAMA: -- and what does frustrate me is where I see coaches getting paid millions of dollars, athletic directors getting paid millions of dollars, the NCAA making huge amounts of money, and then some kid gets a tattoo or gets a free use of a car and suddenly they’re banished. That’s not fair.
In terms of compensation, I think the challenge would just then start being, do we really want to just create a situation where there are bidding wars? How much does a Anthony Davis get paid --
HUFFPOST: A lot. (Laughter)
OBAMA: -- as opposed to somebody else? And that I do think would ruin the sense of college sports.
HUFFPOST: I wanted to go to a comment that former adviser Dan Pfeiffer made. Recently he said, "There's never been a time when we've taken progressive action and regretted it." Have you become a more progressive president over time?
OBAMA: No. I think that what we are constantly doing is looking for opportunities to advance the agenda that I talked about back in 2007 and 2008. I mean, remember, in the first two years of my administration we advanced more progressive legislation than anybody in 50 years.
The Recovery Act, which everybody has forgotten about, which helped saved the economy and prevented us going into the Great Depression, was the largest investment in green technology, the largest investment in education. We rebuilt roads and bridges. It was larger by a significant margin than the New Deal in real dollars and put us on a pathway for clean energy development, put us on a pathway for electronic medical records. All kinds of stuff that people forgot about.
The Affordable Care Act, which is working better than even I thought it was going to work, and we now have 16 million-plus people who are benefiting directly from having health insurance, and we have another 130 million who don't have to worry about losing their coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Millions of young people who are on their parents' plan. Those are pretty progressive.
What we have done though is consistently looked for additional opportunities to get stuff done. Wherever we see a possibility of increasing wages, creating more jobs, making sure that more people are able to access opportunity, we're gonna seize it. And we're going to, wherever possible, try to reach out to Republicans and see if they can work with us. And where they're not willing to work with us, we will do it administratively or we will convene the private sector.
By hook or by crook, we're going to make sure that when I leave this office, that the country is more prosperous, more people have opportunity, kids have a better education, we're more competitive, climate change is being taken more seriously than it was, and we are actually trying to do something about it. Those are going to be the measures by which I look back and say whether I've been successful as president.
HUFFPOST: Two very quick questions to close. On pardons, you've given out pardons at a slower rate than your predecessors. Why?
OBAMA: Well, I will tell you, the first year the way this system worked was the Department of Justice recommended -- there was an office that would recommend the pardons. And in looking at it, I noticed that what I was getting was mostly small-time crimes from very long ago. It'd be a 65-year-old who wanted a pardon to get his gun rights back. Most of them were legitimate, but they didn't address the broader issues that we face, particularly around nonviolent drug offenses.
So we've revamped now the DOJ office. We're now getting much more representative applicants.
And I think what you'll see is not only me exercising that pardon power and clemency power more aggressively for people who meet the criteria -- nonviolent crimes, have served already a long period of time, have shown that they're rehabilitated -- but also we're working with Democrats and Republicans around criminal justice reform issues.
Can we eliminate some of the mandatory minimum sentencing that's resulting in somebody on a nonviolent drug charge getting more time than a rapist? Are we doing a better job in terms of rehabilitation?
And what's been encouraging is this is a rare area where we're actually seeing significant bipartisan interest. Some of the most conservative members of the Republican Party -- either because of libertarian reasons or because they're concerned about the costs of --
HUFFPOST: Governor Rick Perry --
OBAMA: Rick Perry in Texas -- you know, we're seeing an interest in reform. And if we can get some action done at the federal level, that will make a difference in terms of how I think more and more states recognize it doesn't make sense for us to treat nonviolent drug offenses the way we do.
HUFFPOST: Last question. In your seventh year in office, what have you learned about pacing yourself and managing the stress of the job?
OBAMA: You know, the truth is that I'm lucky to, by inclination and temperament, be fairly steady.
HUFFPOST: Your Hawaiian roots, basically?
OBAMA: Yeah, exactly. I think that's probably what it is. Good weather and beaches.
HUFFPOST: Just like today. (Laughter)
OBAMA: So I don't get too high, don't get too low.
I've been very consistent about exercising in the morning. That helps.
But I think the most important -- I'm very consistent about spending time with family. And when you have dinner with your daughters -- particularly teenage daughters -- they'll keep you in your place and they'll teach you something about perspective.
But I think the most important thing is to take the long view on things. We live in such a 24/7, Twitter-fed, constant news cycle, and everything's a crisis, and everything's --
HUFFPOST: You're not on Twitter. (Laughter)
OBAMA: Well, I'm not. But everything's a crisis, everything is terrible, everything is doomsday, everything is -- if it doesn't get solved tomorrow, you know, your presidency is going off the rails.
There must have been what, 15, 20 things that over the last seven years folks have said, "This is it. It's over."
You know, we had the Gulf oil spill, worst environmental disaster in history. Everybody said, "Ah, he's handling this terribly." A year later, nobody was talking about it, and in retrospect, it turns out that we handled that as well as any environmental crisis has been handled.
Ebola -- remember that?
HUFFPOST: I do.
OBAMA: Obviously it's still a serious problem and we've got to get down to zero. But that was probably one of the most effective international public health responses in history, and that was led by us. If we hadn't acted, it would still be raging and everybody else would be at risk.
And so those experiences, I think, remind you that my job is to keep my eye on the ball and to stay focused on what can we get done every single day to advance the vision and values that brought me here. What can I do to make sure that middle-class families are feeling more secure, that more young people are able to access opportunity, that we are safe, that we are working with our international partners to try to create more order at a time when there's a lot of chaos? How do we deal with terrorism in a way that's consistent with our values?
As long as I stay focused on those north stars, then I tend not to get too rattled.
HUFFPOST: I was wondering how many hours of sleep you're getting a night.
OBAMA: Probably not enough.
HUFFPOST: That's what I figured you'd say.
OBAMA: I will say that when people leave the administration and I see them six months later, they've got the post-administration glow. (Laughter) They really look good. So I'm hoping that the same happens to me.
HUFFPOST: There's hope for you. Thank you, Mr. President.
OBAMA: Great to see you, Sam.