OBAMA: All right. We’re ready? OK.
CUOMO: All right. Let’s begin with why you’re here in Syracuse, why you’re doing this particular bus tour what do you believe you can do to help lower the cost of college and give families who are struggling a chance to afford an education?
OBAMA: Well, first of all, you know, for the last month, I’ve been talking about the need for us to build a strong middle class and ladders of opportunity into the middle class. And nobody disputes that a higher education – in some form, two-year, four-year, technical college – is a necessity in a 21st century knowledge-based economy. And we’ve already done a lot over the last four years to increase Pell Grants, we changed the system so that money wasn’t going through banks, and we saved billions of dollars that allowed millions of students to get a better deal on their financial aid from the federal level.
But when you have over the last decade or so tuition going up 260 percent and family incomes are going up 16 percent, that’s unsustainable. So a couple of things we’re going to do. Number one, we want to create a new system of ratings for colleges so that parents and students know what schools graduate kids on time, are a good value for the money, lead to good jobs, because, right now, the rating systems – the commercial rating systems tend to just focus on what’s the most selective school or the most expensive school or has the nicest sports facilities.
The second thing we want to do is to work with colleges who are doing some really interesting things to figure out, how do you reduce costs? Can you help young people graduate a little faster so that they are measured by what they’re learning, as opposed to how many hours they’re sitting in a classroom? Can we use online learning more effectively?
And then the third thing we want to do is to build on something we’ve already done, which is to try to help students manage their debt. We’ve got a program right now where you never have to pay more than 10 percent of your income in – if, for example, you want to become a teacher, we want to expand that to more students, advertise it more so that young people understand they don’t have to defer their dreams if, in fact, they want to pursue a profession that may not make a lot of money, but still requires a lot of training.
CUOMO: There’s no question that the key to it is cost. The numbers of your own, income 16 percent, college education costs are going up by well over 200 percent.
CUOMO: How do you make them stop when they hold all of the cards?Because they charge what they charge because they can get it, right, Mr. President.
OBAMA: Well, when you look at public colleges and universities, part of what’s happened is state legislatures have dropped their support and so the universities, rather than thinking about how do we save money and do more with less, they just pass on automatically the costs to students. And we’ve got to put some pressure on state legislatures- if you are serious about training a great work force in your state, then you’ve got to invest in state universities and colleges and not just invest in prisons, which is part of what we did over a long period of time. But there’s no doubt that schools can do better. We know, because there are schools out there that are doing better. You know, I visited a school, Central Missouri University, where they’ve gotten arrangement with the local high schools, community colleges that allow young people to start accruing credits. By the time they get to school, not only are they graduating faster, debt-free, but they also have a job at the end of it.
So we know that there are ways of doing this. What we need to do is just spread the word. And we want college presidents and we want, you know, board of trustees and stuff to be thinking about this.
Now, one last element to it. Once we develop the rating systems, part of what we’re going to argue to Congress is that we should tie in some way the way federal financial aid flows to schools that are doing really well on this, and not so much on schools that aren’t. So if a school has a higher default rate than it does a graduation rate, then we should give them a chance to improve, but ultimately we don’t want kids saddled with debt. We want them to actually get a degree and to be able to get a good job.
CUOMO: Now, leaving the cliche of the dysfunction of Congress out of it for a second, because that’s assumed in the equation these days, there is what most recently happened. Many complain about the negotiated fix on student loans, that it actually puts students in a worse situation than they were before. Why should students feel and families feel that they’re going to be taken care of, when Congress just tied them to a rate that’s higher than just about any other lending?
OBAMA: Well, actually, that’s not true now, Chris. What happened was that the student interest rate had doubled. And what we were able to do was to negotiate it so it was back down to a low level. Now, what’s true is, as interest rates go up because it’s now tied to market interest rates, that could push the interest rate higher.
And that’s why it’s important for us to continue to act. That was in some ways a stop-gap measure. What we now need to do is to make sure that we are dealing with the underlying costs.
You know, the problem we’ve got right now is, is that on – when it comes to liberals, they’ve tended to say, “Let’s just give more money to the system and increase student loans and grants and aid,” and then, you know, you’ve got some on the right who’ve said, “Money doesn’t matter, and young people should be able to figure it out on their own.”
And what we’re saying is, no, we should provide more help to young people. Government shouldn’t be in the job of profiting from students who need to go to college. But we should also expect something from the colleges, which is they’re controlling their costs better, and we should expect something from the students. One of the problems we’ve found is, is that a lot of students, because in part they’re not well-informed, they’re taking out a lot of loans, but they’re not thinking through how fast they need to graduate, they never graduate, and they can’t pay back the loans. That means the taxpayer is getting stuck and the young person is no better off than they would have been. They’re worse off.
CUOMO: True. But when we say it’s a priority – that’s where you’re going to say this matters this most, this is the new reality for our economy as what you know…
CUOMO: … you then tie it to the Treasury rate. You make sure that students are going to borrow at a rate that’s much higher than banks get, right, because our government is effectively allowing banks to loan our money to whomever they want and borrow themselves at about 0 percent. They’re going to borrow, these students, at almost twice the rate of a home mortgage. Why not make this the new home mortgage, treat it like that, get the rates lower so that the students don’t pay the most, more than banks, more than homeowners?
OBAMA: Well, as I said, Chris, actually right now, because of the deal that was cut, they’re not going to be borrowing at a higher rate than our mortgage. That had happened because Congress hadn’t acted…
OBAMA: … because they hadn’t done anything. Now, the key here to understand, though, is that the student interest rate needs to stay low, but if you’re borrowing $100,000 and you’re a teacher and you’re making $35,000, then whether the interest rate is 3.5 percent or the interest rate is at 6 percent…
CUOMO: You’re underwater.
OBAMA: … you’re going to be underwater. So what we need to do is to figure out, how can you come out with less debt in the first place and keep those interest rates low? And that is achievable, but to do that, everybody is going to have to work together. The colleges are going to have to do a better job. State legislatures have to put money where they say their priorities are. And we’re going to need to make sure that students are thinking and parents are thinking in terms of, what gives them good value for the money they’re spending. And that means we have to give them better information than we’re giving them right now.
CUOMO: Families certainly need the help. That’s for sure. Let me ask you about some of the emerging situations, most recently, Syria. You’ve seen the images; you know the situation very well. Do you believe at this point you need to investigate in order to say what seems obvious, which is, we need to do more to stop the violence in Syria, that the U.S. needs to do more?
OBAMA: Well, we are right now gathering information about this particular event, but I can say that unlike some of the evidence that we were trying to get earlier that led to a U.N. investigator going into Syria, what we’ve seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern. And, you know, we are already in communications with the entire international community. We’re moving through the U.N. to try to prompt better action from them. And we’ve called on the Syrian government to allow an investigation of the site, because U.N. inspectors are on the ground right now.
We don’t expect cooperation, given their past history, and, you know, what I do believe is that – although the situation in Syria is very difficult and the notion that the U.S. can somehow solve what is a sectarian, complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated…
CUOMO: But delay can be deadly, right, Mr. President?
OBAMA: … there is – there is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale – and, again, we’re still gathering information about this particular event, but it is very troublesome…
CUOMO: There’s strong proof they used them already, though, in the past.
OBAMA: … then that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.
So, you know, I think it is fair to say that, as difficult as the problem is, this is something that is going to require America’s attention and hopefully the entire international community’s attention.
CUOMO: Senator McCain came on “New Day” very strong on this. He believes that the U.S.’s credibility in the region has been hurt, that a situation like Syria – that he believes there’s been delay, and it has led to a boldness by the regime there, that in Egypt, that what many believe was a coup wasn’t called a coup that led to the problems that we’re seeing there now, do you think that’s fair criticism?
OBAMA: Well, you know, I am sympathetic to Senator McCain’s passion for helping people work through what is an extraordinarily difficult and heartbreaking situation, both in Syria and in Egypt, and these two countries are in different situations.
But what I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of, what is in our long-term national interests? And, you know, I – you know, sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.
So, you know, we remain the one indispensable nation. There’s a reason why, when you listen to what’s happened around Egypt and Syria, that everybody asks what the U.S. is doing. It’s because the United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders.
But that does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately. We have to think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.
CUOMO: The red line comment that you made was about a year ago this week.
CUOMO: We know since then there have been things that should qualify for crossing that red line.
OBAMA: Well, Chris, I’ve got to – I’ve got to say this. The – when we take action – let’s just take the example of Syria. There are rules of international law.
OBAMA: And, you know, if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.
CUOMO: You don’t believe we’ve seen enough?
OBAMA: Now, this – well, this latest event is something that we’ve got to take a look at. But keep in mind, also, Chris – because I know the American people keep this in mind – we’ve still got a war going on in Afghanistan.
CUOMO: True. True.
OBAMA: You know, we’re still spending tens of billions of dollars in Afghanistan. I will be ending that war by the end of 2014, but every time I go to Walter Reed and visit wounded troops, and every time I sign a letter for a casualty of that war, I’m reminded that there are costs and we have to take those into account as we try to work within an international framework to do everything we can to see Assad ousted – somebody who’s lost credibility – and to try to restore a sense of a democratic process and stability inside of Egypt.
CUOMO: It doesn’t have to be military, of course. I take your point, Mr. President. When you look at Egypt, it’s an example of that.
CUOMO: Senator McConnell is saying, hey, I think it’s time to vote on the aid…
CUOMO: … and whether or not you give it. That’s a non-military measure that could make a difference in a situation where now we see Mubarak is now in a hospital.
OBAMA: Right. Well…
CUOMO: Whatever that means.
OBAMA: You know, my sense is with – with Egypt is that the aid itself may not reverse what the interim government does. But I think what most Americans would say is that we have to be very careful about being seen as aiding and abetting actions that we think run contrary to our values and our ideals.
So what we’re doing right now is doing a full evaluation of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship. We care deeply about the Egyptian people. This is a partnership that’s been very important to us, in part because of the peace treaty with Israel and the work that’s been done to deal with the Sinai.
But there’s no – there’s no doubt that we can’t return to business as usual, given what’s happened. There was a space right after Mr. Morsy was removed in which we did a lot of heavy lifting and a lot of diplomatic work to try to encourage the military to move in a path of reconciliation. They did not take that opportunity.
It was worth it for us to try that, despite folks who wanted more immediate black-and-white action or statements, because ultimately what we want is a good outcome there. But there’s no doubt that, at this point, we’ve got to take a look and see, what’s in the long-term interests of the Egyptian people? What’s in the long-term interests of the United States
CUOMO: Is it safe to say that we have a shorter time frame now, in terms of what the U.S. can use as a period of decision…
CUOMO: … in Syria and Egypt?
CUOMO: It’s a more abbreviated timeframe now?
CUOMO: To come back home, because you could make the argument that the most perilous situation for the president of the United States exists in Washington, D.C., right? You have had a very difficult legislative session that you’ve had to deal with down there.
OBAMA: Well, there hasn’t been a legislative session as far as I can tell.
CUOMO: Well, right, if – I guess if you’re going to judge it on the basis of past legislation, you could…
CUOMO: But there’s been a lot going on. That’s…
OBAMA: There’s been a lot of talk.
CUOMO: There’s been a lot of talking going on. That’s what the place is about these days. When they get back in session…
CUOMO: … do you believe you know the way to get things done for the American people so that we don’t have another shutdown of the government, which effectively punishes everybody else, except the lawmakers?
OBAMA: There is a very simple way of doing this, which is the Senate passed a budget and the House passed a budget. And, you know, maybe you’re not old enough to remember “Schoolhouse Rock,” but…
CUOMO: Oh, I remember it.
OBAMA: … you remember – you remember how the bill gets passed? You know, the – you know, the House and the Senate try to work out their differences. They pass something. They send it to me, and potentially I sign it.
And, you know, we like to make things complicated, but this is actually not that complicated. The job of Congress – Congress doesn’t have a whole lot of core responsibilities. One core responsibility is passing a budget, which they have not done yet. The other core responsibility that they’ve got is to pay the bills that they’ve already accrued.
And if Congress simply does those two things when they get back, then the economy can continue to recover, and folks out there who are working hard, who are trying to find a job, will have some sense of stability and we can start thinking about things like college education and some of the big structural changes that we have to continue to make to ensure that we’re competitive.
CUOMO: Nobody knows better than you that it is a big part of the job of the president to make that happen. How much of the lack of action in Washington do you put on yourself, in terms of blame?
OBAMA: Well, look, ultimately, the buck stops with me. And so any time we are not moving forward on things that should be simple, I get frustrated. And, you know, I’ve said before – and I continue to say – you know, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get Congress – and Republicans in Congress in particular – to think less about politics and party and think more about what’s good for the country.
There is nobody out there who thinks that us not paying bills we’ve already racked up is good for the economy, is appropriate, that America losing its reputation and the full faith and credit of the United States would somehow improve the prospects of working families or businesses around the country. Nobody thinks that. So why are we even talking about? Why aren’t we just getting that done?
When it comes to the budget, we know that we shouldn’t be cutting more on core investments like education that are going to help us grow in the future. And we’ve already seen the deficit cut in half. It’s going down faster than any time in the last 60 years. So why would we make more cuts in education, more cuts in basic research? Nobody thinks that’s a good idea.
And then, finally, now what we’ve got is Republicans talking about the idea that they would shut down the government – bad for the economy, bad for not just people who work for the government, but all the contractors who – and the defense folks and everybody who is impacted by the services that they receive from the federal government, we should shut that down, because Republicans, after having taken 40 votes to try to get rid of Obamacare, see this as their last gasp.
Nobody thinks that’s good for the middle class. So the question is ultimately, if you are putting the American people first, if you are prioritizing them, then this shouldn’t be that difficult. And I’ve made this argument to my Republican friends privately, and, by the way, sometimes they say to me privately, “I agree with you, but I’m worried about a primary from, you know, somebody in the Tea Party back in my district,” or, “I’m worried about what Rush Limbaugh is going to say about me on the radio. And so you got to understand, I’m – it’s really difficult.”
Well, you know what? I can’t force these folks to do what’s right for the American people, because they’re independently elected, it’s a separate branch of government, and I don’t have a vote in Congress. But what I sure as heck can do is stay focused on what I know will be good for the American people.
CUOMO: Last point on that. There’s been a lot of discussion about what the NSA does and the surveillance programs.
CUOMO: You have said it is not the business of the U.S. government to spy on its own people.
CUOMO: But the more that seems to come out, the more questions seem to be raised. Are you confident that you know everything that’s going on within that agency and that you can say to the American people, “It’s all done the right way”?