As he approaches the end of his eight-year tenure as President of the United States, Obama sat down for an exclusive interview with The Daily Targum a few short days before he is due to speak at Rutgers—New Brunswick’s 250th anniversary commencement.
President Barack Obama said he has learned quite a bit about how to overcome conflict, from the 2013 federal government shutdown to the Senate's recent refusal to confirm Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
“I’ve always shown myself willing to compromise,” Obama said. “The issue here has never been both sides stuck in a corner, unwilling to meet in the middle. The challenge has been a Republican Party that has become increasingly ideological and extreme, and I think that’s reflected in the current presidential race.”
Obama acknowledged the challenge posed by Republican Party opposition, saying his administration overcame much of it by expanding Pell grants, transferring student loan programs from banks, avoiding an economic crisis with the largest recovery package in U.S. history and passing the Affordable Care Act.
Still, the President feels optimistic about the future of the Republican Party following the general election this November.
“There are a lot of good people out there who are Republicans who don’t recognize the direction that the party is taking,” he said. “My sense is that there will be a corrective at some point, perhaps after this next presidential election.”
Among registered Republican voters, 66 percent say that life in America today is worse than it was 50 years ago “for people like them," according to the Pew Research Center.
Obama said combatting low voter turnout would help solve Americans' dissatisfaction.
The United States should follow the lead of other developed nations by holding elections on weekend days or national holidays, Obama said. Doing so would facilitate greater voter participation and thus create a federal government more representative of the American electorate.
“The single most dramatic political change that could occur in this country — and the best way for us to relieve the frustrations that people feel around the political process — would be if we had greater participation that was more reflective of the day-to-day concerns that people have,” Obama said.
“People who vote and elect representatives who share their views end up determining the agenda — and that is not just at the presidential level,” he said. “If you want to move an agenda forward, you’ve got to make sure that your views and voice are heard at every level of government.”
Obama said “more needs to be done” to improve the lives of struggling Americans. Step one is with education.
The Obama Administration has made efforts toward making a college education more affordable, but the President said people should understand the nation’s place in the global economy.
“We have to make sure we also recognize this is a big country, and there’s very rarely a single set of silver bullets out there that would immediately solve all of these problems,” Obama said. “We’re part of an interconnected global economy now, and there’s no going back from that.”
Obama, who took office in 2009 — in the wake of the 2008 stock market crash — said many of his recovery policies will improve economic conditions for struggling Americans several years down the road.
“We have to make incremental changes where we can, and every once in a while you’ll get a breakthrough and make the kind of big changes that are necessary,” Obama said. “That consensus building is important because that’s historically how change has happened in America.”
Small changes can make large-scale change easier to accomplish, Obama said, proposing laws to close corporate tax loopholes.
Investment in easy access to education is also important, Obama said. The first step is accepting that young people need more than a high school diploma.
“If we … make sure that we’re investing in the kinds of things that make an economy grow, if we ensure that we’ve got a healthcare system that is affordable and accessible for all people, then I’m confident that America’s best days are still ahead,” he said.
Policymakers should continue to collaborate with institutions to reduce the costs that colleges and universities incur.
The President said his proposal for two free years of community college would be a step in the right direction.
“Lifelong learning is increasingly what’s going to be necessary to be competitive in this dynamic economy — and that it’s got to be affordable,” he said. “We can’t have situations where young people are loaded up with $50,000, $75,000 or $100,000 worth of debt coming out of school.”
Even though the U.S. has its flaws, Obama said Americans should remember that their country has resources to be taken advantage of.
“But that’s not a cause for complacency,” he said. “That just tells us that when we put our shoulder behind the wheel and we’re focused, that we can get things done.”
Dan Corey is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Targum. He is a Rutgers Business School sophomore majoring in marketing and journalism and media studies. Follow him on Twitter @danielhcorey for more.