President Barack Obama conducted an interview Friday with AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace that covered a wide range of topics — the government shutdown, the debt ceiling, health care, foreign affairs and the name of Washington’s professional football team.
A text of the interview:
Question: Mr. President, thank you so much for sitting down with us today.
THE PRESIDENT: Great to be with you.
Q: There is a lot that I want to ask you about the government shutdown and foreign policy, but I wanted to start with health care. The signature element of your health care law went online this week, and the interest seems to have really exceeded expectations, but there were some serious glitches with the online systems. And our reporting shows that the number of people who actually managed to sign up for insurance in the states using the federal system was in the single digits. How many people have actually signed up for insurance this week?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don’t have the numbers yet. What we know is that, as you indicated, the interest way exceeded expectations and that’s the good news. It shows that people really need and want affordable health care. And the product is a really good one. It turns out that choice and competition work. So what’s happened is you’ve got private insurers who have bid to get into this system to offer affordable health care at significantly lower prices than anybody could buy in the individual market, because basically they’re now part of a big group.
And it is true that what’s happened is the website got overwhelmed by the volume. And folks are working around the clock and have been systematically reducing the wait times, but we are confident that over the course of the six months — because it’s important to remember people have six months to sign up — that we are going to probably exceed what anybody expected in terms of the amount of interest that people have.
Q: Do you have a message for those Americans who tried to sign up this week and gave up in frustration?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, they definitely shouldn’t give up. Typically, what happens is when people are shopping for insurance, they visit a site or make phone calls or look at brochures five, six, seven times before they make a final decision. And they’re not going to have to pay premiums until December — the insurance doesn’t start until January. So they’ll have plenty of time.
And my message to them would be, each day the wait times are reduced. Each day, more and more people are signing up, and the product will save you money. People will save hundreds of dollars — in some cases, thousands of dollars — as a consequence of being able to get health insurance that is priced for them and gives them the choices that they need.
So the best example we have is actually Massachusetts, where they have a similar program. And what happened there is that the actual sign-up rate started fairly slowly, partly because people didn’t want to pay three or four months ahead of when they would get insurance. But the interest, their ability to window shop, identify what’s going to work for them, what suits their pocketbook, what kinds of tax credits they can get — that’s already happening. And what we know is that for at least 60 percent of the people who visit that site, they’re going to be able to get good-quality health insurance for less than their cellphone or cable bill. And that is something that is — a lot of people, understandably, recognize is going to give them the kind of security they haven’t had before.
Q: The health care law is obviously very central to the government shutdown that’s underway right now. Are you prepared — given that you’re not going to make concessions on your health care law, as you’ve said repeatedly, are you prepared to have the government stay shutdown up until the nation hits its debt ceiling in mid-October?
THE PRESIDENT: There’s no reason that that should happen, Julie. We can vote to open the government today. We know that there are enough members in the House of Representatives — Democrats and Republicans — who are prepared to vote to reopen the government today. The only thing that is keeping that from happening is Speaker Boehner has made a decision that he is going to hold out to see if he can get additional concessions from us.
And what I’ve said to him is we are happy to negotiate on anything. We are happy to talk about the health care law, we’re happy to talk about the budget, we’re happy to talk about deficit reduction, we’re happy to talk about investments. But what we can’t do is keep engaging in this sort of brinksmanship where a small faction of the Republican Party ends up forcing them into brinksmanship to see if they can somehow get more from negotiations by threatening to shut down the government or threatening America not paying its bills.
Q: But do you now see those two situations — the government shutdown and the debt ceiling — now merging together, given how close we are to the mid-October deadline, as Secretary Lew has said?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, keep in mind, America has never not paid its bills. And I’ve said repeatedly that that’s not something anybody should be threatening — the potential default of the United States, where we are essentially deadbeats. That’s never happened.
Q: But does that mean that if we get to the point where we’re right before October 17th, or whatever the day ends up being, that you would actually use some of these options that some of your allies say are available to you, like the 14th Amendment, to prevent a default?
THE PRESIDENT: Julie, I have said before, there is one way to make sure that America pays its bills, and that’s for Congress to authorize the Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, to pay bills that they have already accrued.
Look, I think it’s very important, because the name of this is the debt ceiling and so when people hear that, they automatically think, well, that must mean that somehow this is authorizing more spending and more debt for the United States. That’s not what this is. What this is, is the ability for the United States government to pay for things that Congress has already committed us to paying for. And as a result, this has been a routine vote. It has happened more than 40 times since Ronald Reagan was President.
Never before has a party threatened to not pay our bills except for 2011 — the last time that Speaker Boehner and some of the same people in the House of Representatives thought that it might give them more leverage in negotiations. And we can’t establish a pattern where one faction of one party that controls one chamber in one branch of government can basically hold its breath and say, unless we get 100 percent of our way, then we’re going to let the entire economy collapse, the entire economy shut down.
So what I’ve said to them is this: Make sure that the United States government pays its bills. That’s not negotiable. That’s what families all around the country do. If I buy a car and I decide not to pay my car note one month, I’m not saving money — I’m just a deadbeat. Well, this is the exact same situation.
Q: But if they don’t, if they get up to this deadline and they are not willing to pass this clean debt ceiling that you’re asking them to do, would you be willing to take other action to prevent default?
THE PRESIDENT: I don’t expect to get there. There were at least some quotes yesterday that Speaker Boehner is willing to make sure that we don’t default. And just as is true with the government shutdown, there are enough votes in the House of Representatives to make sure that the government reopens today. And I’m pretty willing to bet that there are enough votes in the House of Representatives right now to make sure that the United States doesn’t end up being a deadbeat. The only thing that’s preventing that from happening is Speaker Boehner calling the vote.
And I think most Americans, when they think about how our government is supposed to work, they say to themselves, each member of Congress has their conscience, they’re supposed to represent their constituents back home. And if, in fact, there’s a majority of the members of the House of Representatives who are prepared to move forward so that families can get back to work, so that people who are — whether it’s veterans or children or small businesses who are getting services from the federal government can start getting those services again — I think most people would say, if there are votes to do it, let’s go ahead and do it.
And then we’ve got a whole bunch of things that we’ve got to have a serious conversation about. We should be having a conversation not just about debt and deficits; we should be also having a conversation about how are we making sure that young people are getting a great education; how do we rebuild our infrastructure and put people back to work; how are we going to make sure that we fix a broken immigration system; how are we going to do all the things that we need to grow the economy and make sure that we are building a strong middle class and providing ladders for opportunity for people to get into the middle class if they’re willing to work hard.
Q: Well, the tea party has really stood in the way of a lot of those objectives that you’re seeking. Do you think the tea party has been good or bad for America?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don’t want to paint anybody with a broad brush. And I think one of the great things about our democracy is, is that we’ve always had a whole bunch of different regional attitudes and philosophies about government and ideologies, and the tea party is just the latest expression of probably some very real fears and anxieties on the part of certain Americans. And I get that. So there’s nothing objectionable to having strong principled positions on issues, even if I completely disagree with many of their positions.
But there are certain rules to make sure that everybody is participating, everybody is respected, the process moves forward in an orderly way, and we don’t create chaos. So my concern has less to do with the tea party, per se, or the particular positions that they take on issues, but rather it’s this idea that if they don’t get 100 percent of their way, they’ll shut down the government or they’ll threaten economic chaos. That has to stop.
Q: Some of these tea party senators are in their first term, and you were a first-term senator who came in and had a lot of public attention around you, you didn’t sort of take the traditional route, you weren’t a backbencher. I’m wondering if you feel like you set a precedent for people like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul to come in, in their first term, and really take a high-profile role in the Senate?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, if you recall, when I came into the Senate, my attitude was I should just keep a pretty low profile in the Senate and just do the work.
Q: The media certainly didn’t let you do that.
THE PRESIDENT: The media may not have, but I didn’t go around courting the media, and I certainly didn’t go around trying to shut down the government. And so I recognize that in today’s media age, being controversial, taking controversial positions, rallying the most extreme parts of your base — whether it’s left or right — is a lot of times the fastest way to get attention or raise money, but it’s not good for government. It’s not good for the people we’re supposed to be serving.
And one thing I just have to remind members of Congress about is these are real folks that are being impacted. I’ve got staff here who may be expecting their first child, and right now they’re not sure about whether or not they’re going to be able to meet expenses. I’ve got young staff who, if they have a car accident, they may have a thousand dollar premium on their car insurance — or deductible on their car insurance, and if they don’t get a paycheck, they may be broke. They will not be able to pay the bills.
I’m getting letters every single day from farmers who have been waiting to buy some land and now they may not get a loan, and from small businesses. We give a billion dollars’ worth of small business loans every single month — those loans are not being processed.
So this is something that is concretely affecting real people. There is no reason government should be shut down. I think it’s very important for the public to understand that a bill passed the Senate — Democratically-controlled Senate — that set budget levels at the levels that Republicans preferred — not Democrats.
I mean, essentially what’s happened here is Democrats are saying they are prepared to pass a Republican budget for two months while negotiations continue. We just can’t have a whole bunch of other extraneous stuff in it, and the obsession with the Affordable Care Act, with Obamacare, has to stop; that that is not something that should be a price for keeping the government open.
Q: I want to switch to foreign policy. You’ve swapped letters with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, you’ve talked to him on the phone now, you’ve had an opportunity to listen to him give several speeches and interviews. I know you’ve said he needs to back up these words with actions, but I’m wondering if you just have a gut feeling at this point on whether he really represents a different type of Iranian leadership.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, here’s what we know: He was not necessarily the preferred candidate of some of the ruling clerics when he initially threw his hat into the ring. He won pretty decisively.
So what we know is, is that in the Iranian population at least, there is a genuine interest in moving in a new direction. Their economy has been crippled by international sanctions that were put in place because Iran had not been following international guidelines, and had behaved in ways that made a lot of people feel they were pursuing a nuclear weapon.
I think Rouhani has staked his position on the idea that he can improve relations with the rest of the world. And so far, he’s been saying a lot of the right things. And the question now is, can he follow through? The way the Iranian system works, he’s not the only decision maker — he’s not even the ultimate decision maker.
But if in fact he is able to present a credible plan that says Iran is pursuing peaceful nuclear energy but we’re not pursuing nuclear weapons, and we are willing to be part of a internationally verified structure so that all other countries in the world know they are not pursuing nuclear weapons, then, in fact, they can improve relations, improve their economy. And we should test that.
Q: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that Iran is about six months away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon (CORRECTION: Netanyahu said last year that Iran was about six months away from having most of the enriched uranium needed to produce a nuclear weapon). You said in March, before your trip to Israel, that you thought Iran was a year or more away. What’s the U.S. intelligence assessment at this point on that timetable?
THE PRESIDENT: Our assessment continues to be a year or more away. And in fact, actually, our estimate is probably more conservative than the estimates of Israeli intelligence services.
So we share a lot of intelligence with Israelis. I think Prime Minister Netanyahu understandably is very skeptical about Iran, given the threats that they’ve made repeatedly against Israel, given the aid that they’ve given to organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas that have fired rockets into Israel. If I were the Prime Minister of Israel, I would be very wary as well of any kind of talk from the Iranians.
But what I’ve said to Prime Minister Netanyahu is that the entire point of us setting up sanctions and putting pressure on the Iranian economy was to bring them to the table in a serious way to see if we can resolve this issue diplomatically. And we’ve got to test that. We’re not going to take a bad deal. We are going to make sure that we verify any agreement that we might strike.
But it is very much in not only the United States’ interest but also Israel’s interest to see if we can resolve this without some sort of military conflict. And so we now have the time to have those serious conversations, and we’ll be able to measure how serious the Iranians are.
Q: You have a decision coming up on troop levels in Afghanistan. Have you made a decision yet on how many U.S. troops you’d like to see in Afghanistan after 2014? And are you comfortable with a scenario that would leave no American troops there after the end of next year?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I’m glad you brought this up, because given what’s been happening in Syria and Egypt and Iran, I think sometimes we haven’t seen enough reminders in the news that we still have tens of thousands of American troops on mission in Afghanistan, making enormous sacrifices. And there are still folks who are getting killed and getting hurt, and doing incredibly courageous work.
We are going to end combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of 2014. What I’ve said is that if, in fact, the Afghan government is interested and willing to work with us in a cooperative way that protects our troops and other coalition partners, we would consider a train-and-advise mission that would extend beyond 2014 — greatly reduced from what we’re doing now.
We have not yet signed what’s called a bilateral security agreement that would make sure that, if in fact American troops were on Afghan soil, that they were fully protected. And we still have some time to discuss this — we’re in discussions with the Afghan government and President Karzai. But no matter what, by the end of next year, we’ll be finished with combat operations.
Q: Are you comfortable, though, with this — what has become known as the “zero option” at the end of 2014?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that it is in both the interest of the Afghans and the United States that we are in a position to continue to help their military consolidate security in their country. We have helped them ramp up so that they now have a fighting force that is increasingly effective, increasingly well-equipped. My preference would be that they can manage security on their own, and that we don’t see a return of al Qaida or any other terrorist organization operating on Afghan soil. And they’re getting there; they’re not quite there yet.
So if in fact we can get an agreement that makes sure that U.S. troops are protected, makes sure that we can operate in a way that is good for our national security, then I’ll certainly consider that. If we can’t, we will continue to make sure that all the gains we’ve made in going after al Qaida we accomplish, even if we don’t have any U.S. military on Afghan soil.
Q: If I could just ask you one last question on something that’s not politically related, but is getting a lot of attention in Washington — the name of the Washington Redskins football team. There is a lot of people who say it’s time to change the name of that team, considering that it’s insulting to many Native Americans. What’s your position on that?
THE PRESIDENT: You know, Julie, obviously, people get pretty attached to team names, mascots. I don’t think there are any Redskins fans that mean offense. I’ve got to say that if I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it.
But I don’t want to detract from the wonderful Redskins fans that are here. They love their team, and rightly so — even though they’ve been having a pretty tough time this year. But I think — all these mascots and team names related to Native Americans, Native Americans feel pretty strongly about it. And I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things.
But I don’t have — I don’t have a stake in this in the sense that I’m not a part owner of any football team. Maybe after I leave this –
Q: Maybe after the presidency.
THE PRESIDENT: Maybe after I leave the presidency. (Laughter.) I think it would be a lot of fun. Although, I’d probably play — I’d probably look at a basketball team before I looked at a football team. I know more about basketball than I do about football.
Q: Get the Bulls ready.
THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely. I think they’re going to be good this year.
Q: Thank you very much for sitting down with us today. I appreciate it.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much. Great to talk to you, Julie.