President Barack Obama defended himself against critics of his foreign policy, arguing he’s well aware of the challenges facing the nation internationally and has made strides in confronting them.
“I get a thick book full of death, destruction, strife, and chaos. That’s what I take with my morning tea,” he said in a wide-ranging interview with Vox on his foreign and domestic policy priorities published Monday.
He said that the “basic goals” on national defense that he set when he came into office — preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, protecting against terrorism and trying to improve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — “still hold true.” But he acknowledged that people “rightly have been concerned” about the “forces of disorder — sectarianism” in Middle Eastern countries that have contributed to the challenges in that part of the world.
“It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris,” Obama allowed.
Obama said, however, the extremist violence arising from sectarian divisions won’t be an easy problem to solve. The U.S., he said, is “going to have to have some humility in recognizing that we don’t have the option of simply invading every country where disorder breaks out.”
“We have the opportunity, I think, to lessen those tensions and to lift up voices that are less prone to exploit those sectarian divides, but, you know, we’re not going to eliminate that stuff overnight,” he said.
He also defended two of the more controversial international agreements he’s made priorities for his administration in his final years in office — an Iran nuclear deal and a new international trade agreement — arguing that though neither may be perfect, something is better than nothing.
Obama dismissed opponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal who’ve expressed concerns that it would cause an exodus of American jobs overseas, because “that horse is out of the barn.”
“And what we have the opportunity to do is to set long-term trends that keep us in the game in a place that we’ve got to be,” he added.
And on Iran, Obama confronted critics — largely Republicans in Congress — that have called for another round of tougher sanctions against the nation, which Obama has said would poison talks that he believes are moving in the right direction.
Obama said he wants “an additional two to three months to exhaust all possibilities of a deal.”
“My message is that we have to test the proposition, and if, in fact, a deal is struck, then it’s going to be a deal that everyone around the world is going to be able to look at,” he said.
In the interview, the President described Vox as an outlet “for the brainiac-nerd types,” and played to his audience in the interview, getting into the wonky specifics of his theories on health care and tax reform.
Obama touted the improvement in the economy since he took office and said that now that it’s on a more solid footing, it’s time to tackle the growing gulf between the richest and poorest Americans. He said part of the issue is simply a shift in the number and types of jobs, and argued that the government needs to help Americans deal with the new normal.
“Our job now is to create additional tools that, number one, make sure that everybody’s got a baseline of support to be able to succeed in a constantly moving economy,” he said, citing health care “that survives job loss,” access to childcare and a higher minimum wage as examples.
And he also argued for a more progressive tax policy as a necessary duty of government, and defended against critics who say raising taxes on companies and wealthy Americans would stifle innovation.
“Whether that’s building roads, or setting up effective power grids, or making sure that we’ve got high-quality public education — that teachers are paid enough — the market will not cover those things. And we’ve got to do them together. Basic research falls in that category,” he said.
Asked what he would fix about Obamacare, the President said it was too soon to say what wasn’t working, but fingered the Supreme Court’s decision to make Medicaid expansion in the states optional as “the biggest challenge for us.”
“I think seeing if we can do more on delivery-system reform, making sure that we fill the gaps in those states that haven’t expanded Medicaid,” he said.
The President stayed largely nonpartisan in the interview, but also took a shot at “Congress — and the Republican Party in particular” as being “resistant to letting drug makers and Medicare negotiate for the lowest price.”
And though Obama’s tenure has been marked by deep racial divisions and political polarization, he said he’s “hopeful” about the nation’s ability to overcome that unrest.
“I don’t worry about that, because I don’t think that’s going to last,” he said in the Vox interview, when asked about statistics that show the Democratic and Republican Parties becoming increasingly polarized on issues of race.
Obama noted that the influx of immigrants has made people “more and more comfortable with the diversity of this country,” but that “the key is to make sure that our politics and our politicians are tapping into that better set of impulses rather than our baser fears.”
“And my gut tells me, and I’ve seen it in my own career and you see it generally, a politician who plays on those fears in America, I don’t think is going to over time get a lot of traction,” Obama added.
“The Republican party, even the most conservative, they have much less ability, I think, to express discriminatory views than they did even 10 years ago. And that’s a source of optimism. It makes me hopeful.”
For his successor, Obama suggested to overcome the political polarization, that person should bypass traditional media and speak to people directly.
“The balkanization of the media means that we just don’t have a common place where we get common facts and a common worldview the way we did 20, 30 years ago,” he said.
“My advice to a future president is increasingly try to bypass the traditional venues that create divisions and try to find new venues within this new media that are quirkier, less predictable.”
Vox itself was an example of the President putting that theory into practice. His choice to speak with the outlet and BuzzFeed — two relatively young, niche media properties — made headlines and created early buzz around the President’s late-term interview.
Though he targeted the media as the cause of political polarization, Obama also cited the influx of outside spending as a cause, and said he would “love to see some constitutional process that would allow us to actually regulate campaign spending the way we used to, and maybe even improve it.” He also targeted gerrymandering as a key issue, but noted that polarization is ultimately nothing new for America.
“There’ve been periods in the past where we’ve been pretty polarized. I think there just wasn’t polling around. As I recall, there was a whole civil war — that was a good example of polarization that took place,” he said.