President Barack Obama recently sat down with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner for an interview that appeared in the magazine's latest issue. In a conversation suffused with themes and talking points sure to resurface during the election, the commander-in-chief touched on topics as diverse as climate change, the tenor of the rhetoric on Capitol Hill and his fondness for The Daily Show and Homeland.
The highlights of the interview, organized by topic:
The president has gone from conciliatory to combative over the last several months, regularly giving speeches in which he portrays Republicans as ideologically rigid, hostile to compromise and wedded to obsolete economic policies that favor the rich. He drew a distinction between Republican voters and the Republican Party in Washington, saying the latter has become too extreme and reiterating his contention that Ronald Reagan -- the patron saint of the modern Republican party -- might not survive in today's climate.
As examples of this rightward drift, Obama cited Republican presidential candidates infamously rejecting during a debate a debt deal that would cut $10 for every one dollar in tax revenue, Republican opposition to the DREAM Act -- a bill that would extend citizenship to some young undocumented immigrants -- and Republican efforts to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency.
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What's happened, I think, in the Republican caucus in Congress, and what clearly happened with respect to Republican candidates, was a shift to an agenda that is far out of the mainstream - and, in fact, is contrary to a lot of Republican precepts, Obama said. He added that there are Republicans in Washington who are reasonable and open to compromise, but right now, in an atmosphere in which folks like Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist are defining what it means to be a true conservative, they are lying low.
On Occupy Wall Street And Inequality
Beginning with a December speech in Osawatomie, Kan., Obama has begun lambasting Republican policies that he says benefit the wealthy while ignoring growing economic inequality -- a critique that dovetails with the anger expressed by Occupy Wall Street. When asked if the Occupy movement had influenced his rhetoric, the president called Occupy just one vivid expression of a broader anxiety that has been around in the United States for at least a decade or more.
People have a sense the game is rigged, so just a few people can do well, and everybody else is left to scramble to get by, the president said.
Obama reprised points from his recent speeches, emphasizing that he believes in the value of the free market but insisting that individual initiative has to be supported by the government ensuring everyone has an equal chance to succeed. He slammed Republicans who say government is always the problem.
Their vision is that if there's a sliver of folks doing well at the top who are unencumbered by any regulatory restraints whatsoever, that the nation will grow and prosperity will trickle down, Obama said. The challenge that they're going to have is: We tried it. ... It did not work out well, and I think the American people understand that.
Occupy Wall Street was fueled in part by a perception that those who caused the economic crisis have not been held accountable, and in may cases have prospered. Obama said that really irresponsible practices that hurt a lot of people might not have been technically against the law, but he pointed to a recent settlement with big banks implicated in improper mortgage servicing, overseen by state attorneys general, that leaves in place the possibility of prosecution.
On Medical Marijuana
Obama said during his 2008 campaign that he took more of a practical view than anything else on medical marijuana, saying he would respect states and municipalities that had decriminalized cannabis and that what I'm not going to be doing is using Justice Department resources to circumvent state laws on this issue. That has left medical marijuana advocates feeling betrayed by a series of federal raids on dispensaries, with the most recent ones targeting a prominent member of Oakland's pro-legalization movement.
In the Rolling Stone interview, Obama said his view has not changed. He noted that the raids in California have focused on large-scale commercial operations that fall outside the scope of doctors prescribing medical cannabis.
What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana, Obama said. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana -- and the reason is, because it's against federal law.
Obama also pointed to presiding over a change in federal sentencing guidelines that shrank the disparity between mandatory penalties for crack and powder cocaine users. Crack users have long been hit with far harsher sentences, disproportionately affecting the minorities who are far more likely to use crack than powder cocaine.
On Gay Rights
The president can point to some significant accomplishments on this front -- the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and his instructing the Department of Justice to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, a law prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriage -- foremost among them. But gay rights advocates have accused the president of being too timid on the topic of same- sex marriage. He has said the issue is up to the states and has deflected questions about his personal beliefs by describing his views as evolving, leading to calls for him to offer a more forceful defense.
The Rolling Stone interview was no different -- Obama said he was not going to make news in this publication. But he defended his record so far, dismissing concerns that the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell would hurt troop cohesion as the dog that didn't bark and pointing to less noted measures like his lifting a ban on HIV-positive people entering the U.S.
On the Arab Spring, Syria and Iran
Obama likened the sweeping changes brought by the Arab Spring to the period after the Berlin Wall fell and praised the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But he cautioned that these are countries where democracy was long stifled by autocrats and that longstanding sectarian divisions pose a risk of instability and violence.
As these transitions take place, democracy can easily turn to demagoguery, to civil strife, Obama said. So it is going to be a bumpy road, and a challenging time.
The president gave a vague answer to a question about the crisis in Syria, saying there was no easy solution and emphasizing the need for international pressure. On Iran, he said that his early gestures towards reconciliation in an effort to end 30 years of mistrust was rejected and emphasized that no one in the international community believes Iran's claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Still, Obama underscored the need for a diplomatic approach.
There is a window of opportunity to resolve this issue diplomatically, and that is my fervent preference, the president said. There's no reason why Iran shouldn't be able to rejoin the community of nations and prosper.
On the Lighter Side
The president also fielded some questions about his favorite TV shows (he professed a love for The Daily Show), his daily reading diet (mostly reports, studies and briefings, with at least a scan of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post worked in) and his decision to override a senior adviser and sing a few lines of Al Green while visiting New York's famous Apollo Theater.
I can sing, Obama said. I wasn't worried about being able to hit those notes.