MR. CALLOWAY: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s our honor to welcome the President of the United States, Barack Obama. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: It’s good to see you.
MR. CALLOWAY: Good to see you as well, Mr. President. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
MR. CALLOWAY: Looking bright, that’s right. Before we take our first question from the audience, I wanted to talk about a issue that’s been in global news — the Chilean miners who have just been rescued. The whole entire world was glued to their television sets, as well as their laptops. It was a very emotional story, very compelling story. I watched it from my hotel room. And I wanted to know, where did you watch it? And what went through your mind as you did?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I was watching it at the White House, and I think so many of you have seen the joy of the families as these miners were coming out. It was a testament to their personal strength. It was a testament to the way the Chilean people came together. But it was also a testament to how the world came together, because I think some of you may be aware that some of the drilling machinery that was used to get them out was made here in the United States of America; that NASA scientists helped designed the mechanisms to get the miners out. And so the fact that we played some small part, I think, in this terrific story is a testament to American know-how and ingenuity, but also how we try to help other people across the globe during trying times.
MR. CALLOWAY: Okay, thank you, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: It was very inspiring.
MR. CALLOWAY: Very inspiring. Great. Your first question is coming from April. She’s right there.
MS. WOODARD: Hello, Mr. President. Here’s our first question.
Q Thank you so much for taking my question, Mr. President. My name is Cynthia Meyer (ph), I’m from Austin, Texas, and I am a Republican.
So here’s my question: In 2008, you campaigned heavily on the issue of bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle, and as a Republican, I very much respected that. But, to be frank, when all was said and done, I don’t think that was — that actually happened. Specifically with health care, I think Republicans had a lot of really good ideas that were very reasonable, and a lot of the American people agreed. And so my question for you is, how are you going to improve the dialogue among the two parties?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, it’s a great question. And by the way, I love Austin, Texas. One of my favorite towns in the country.
When I ran, it was based on the notion that Washington was broken. We were having arguments that had more to do with who would win an election than how we were going to solve the country’s problems. And I continue to believe that that is holding us back.
So on a whole range of issues, my hope was, is that we could come together, Democrats and Republicans, to find practical, commonsense solutions to health care, to education, to energy issues, because although I’m a proud Democrat, I’m a prouder American. And I think all of us believe, regardless of our party affiliations, that this is a critical time, where we’ve got to solve big problems.
Now, I will tell you that with respect to health care, we actually spent months trying to obtain cooperation from Republicans to see if we could negotiate a commonsense solution. This is not, by the way, something that I’m just making up. I think the record will show that we had repeated meetings, hopeful that they would meet us halfway in terms of shaping legislation that would preserve the private insurance market, wouldn’t be disruptive so that people could still get the health care that they were currently obtaining if they were happy with it, but that we would also deal with some longstanding problems about skyrocketing costs and the fact that there were 30 million people without health insurance, and people were being dropped when they got sick, and we just couldn’t get there.
Partly — and I’ll be honest with you, part of it had to do with the fact that some folks made a decision that politically it would be useful for me to suffer this political defeat in terms of running against me the next time out. And some of them were pretty explicit about saying it.
Now, that’s all past history. Health care passed. I’m proud of the fact that a lot of the young people here are going to benefit very directly. If you are under 26 years old and you don’t have a job, or the job that you have doesn’t offer you health care, you can now stay on your parents’ health insurance till you’re 26 years old.
If you have a preexisting condition, you are going to be able to get health insurance. Insurance companies can’t deny it. We’ve eliminated things like lifetime limits, allowing insurance companies to drop you for your coverage when you get sick.
We’re doing a whole bunch of things to emphasize prevention so that you can get regular checkups and mammograms and things like that so that you don’t wait until you’re sick and have to go to the emergency room. And that can help drive down costs.
So there are a lot of things we’ve done well, but here’s the broader point. I do think that there are a lot of good Republican ideas out there. In fact, there were a number of them that were incorporated in this health care bill. And my hope is, is that as we look forward, let’s say on education or on energy, some of the things that we haven’t yet finished, that we’re going to have a greater spirit of cooperation after this next election.
And elections are always a little bit funny. People start saying things and emphasizing differences. After the election, my hope is, is that people start emphasizing what we have in common.
MS. WOODARD: Thank you, Mr. President. We have another question from Sway, across the aisle.
MR. CALLOWAY: Thank you.
Q Hello, my name is Adam Hunter. I live here in the District by way of Somerset, New Jersey. When you were first elected, it seemed as though the sky was falling in terms of the economy. There was a bailout that you supported. There was stimulus that added to our deficit. But yet it seems as though our unemployment rate still rises — you said it was going to go past 8 percent; now it’s at 9.4 percent. There were jobs added to the economy by the Census Bureau, by temporary workers, but now they’re out of work, back on our unemployment rolls.
Now we have young people who are out of college, out of grad school, who don’t have the most experience, like myself, still trying to find work — but it’s hard. And then we’re looking towards our private industry to employ us, the young people, but they’re uncertain about it because of their tax policies about to change not in their favor because they’re looking at their tax rates going back up.
So my question to you is, why should we still support you going forward with your monetary and economic policies? And if the economy does not improve over the next two years, why should we vote you back in?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, that was a — there’s a lot of stuff in there, so let me try to unpack that. (Laughter.) First of all, with respect with unemployment, we lost 4 million jobs before I took office. The six months before I took office, we lost 4 million jobs. The month I took office, we lost 750,000 jobs; the month after that, 600,000; the month after that, 600,000 more. So most of the 8 million jobs that we lost during this recession were lost before my economic policies were even put into place. That’s point number one.
Point number two is that as a consequence of the Recovery Act that we put into place, there is no doubt that 3 million folks are working now that would not otherwise be working. That’s point number two.
So it worked in terms of helping to cushion the fall. But we went through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression — something that didn’t happen on my watch, although we have managed it in a way that prevented a second Great Depression and prevented the banking system from melting down completely.
Now, whereas the economy was contracting when I came into office, it’s now growing. With respect to the private sector, we’ve seen job growth nine consecutive months in the private sector. Where we’re actually losing jobs right now has to do with state and local governments who are having to lay off workers because at the state and local level, they’ve seen a huge drop in their tax revenues. And so they’ve got to lay off teachers and firefighters and police officers. And last month, that was where most of the job losses happened.
Now, that’s, again, behind us. What we have to do moving forward is to make sure that small businesses that account for most of the job growth in our economy are getting the kind of financing that they need. And that’s why I passed legislation just a couple of months ago that helps small businesses get loans and lowers their taxes, eliminates capital gains for startup companies, so that if you’re young entrepreneurs out here and want to start a business, you’re going to be able to do so with a lot more advantages than before we made some of these changes.
We’ve got to make sure that we rebuild the infrastructure in this country, because we used to be — have the best bridges, the best roads, the best airports. And now, when you go to China or you go to Europe, you see that they are outstripping us in terms of infrastructure. And if we put people back to work, that would be good not only in the short term, but it would also lay the foundation, the framework for long-term economic and job growth.
And in terms of tax policy, what we’ve said is we’re going to provide tax cuts to 98 percent of the American people. Corporate taxes are not higher than they were when I came in. They’re actually — they’ve been lower, because we passed a whole bunch of tax cuts. Ninety-five percent of Americans got a tax break under the Recovery Act that I passed. So taxes aren’t higher. The reason that there’s the possibility that taxes may go up is because the previous administration had put into place a tax policy that is supposed to run out at the end of 2010 and they never paid for it. And now we’ve got to figure out what to do.
What we’ve said is we’ll give tax cuts to 98 percent of Americans. Anybody who’s making $250,000 a year or less, we are going to continue the tax breaks that you’re receiving.
If you make more than $250,000, then you only get your tax breaks up to $250,000. And above that, if you’re a millionaire or a billionaire, then your taxes go back to the old rates that they were under Bill Clinton. And we could pass that tomorrow. I’m ready to pass that tomorrow. And that would provide businesses with certainty about what’s going to happen.
But keep in mind that taxes are not higher since I took office. Taxes are generally lower than since I took office.
MR. CALLOWAY: Thank you, Mr. President. We’re going to go to April for your next question on the other side of the room.
Q Good afternoon, Mr. President. My name is Tiara Washington (ph), and I am from Washington, D.C. And I’m a student at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, Maryland. I have a pretty personal story for you. Growing up, I was a victim of domestic violence, and even though there were physical and emotional signs of abuse, none of my teachers ever reached out and questioned if I was okay. Aside from that, after graduating from high school and entering college, I realized that the D.C. public school system didn’t properly prepare me for college-level coursework. And on top of that, I got into the school of my dreams, but I couldn’t afford to stay there.
My question is, what is your administration planning to do to improve comprehensive primary education and address college affordability?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I can tell that you have just been working so hard to overcome all these disadvantages, and so I just want to say how proud I am of you. And we’re going to get you back into school, if you’re not in school right now. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to afford to go to college.
There are two steps in terms of education. And keep in mind that what has made America the wealthiest, most successful country on Earth historically has been our commitment to education. We started the public school system very early in the century, and as a consequence we had more skilled workers than any nation on Earth, which meant that we were more productive than any nation on Earth. We then made a commitment, particularly after World War II with the GI Bill, to massively expand our commitment to college education, and that meant we had more engineers and we had more scientists and that meant we had better technology, which meant that we were more productive and we could succeed in the global marketplace.
And what’s happened in a generation is that our lead has slipped. We’re now — we rank 21st when it comes to math education. We rank 25th when it comes to science. We used to be number one in the proportion of college graduates. We now rank ninth. And at an age where knowledge, skills, are the determinant of how successful we’re going to be, unless we reverse that we’re going to keep slipping behind economically to a lot of other countries. I mean, China is not playing for second place. Germany, South Korea — these are all countries that are investing massively in education. We’ve got to do the same thing.
Now, it’s not just a matter of money. It’s a matter of reform. So what we’ve done is at the K-12 level, the most important thing we can do is to make sure that we’ve got very high standards, we expect a lot out of all of our young people, and we make sure that we have the best teachers possible in every classroom. And so we’re working with states all across the country to invest in talented young people like some of you going into the teaching profession, getting the best professional skills possible. We want every math teacher to know math. We want every science teacher to have expertise in science. We want them to know how to inspire and engage young people.
And so we’re working to create an atmosphere where the best and the brightest are going into teaching, teachers are getting paid well, they have freedom within the classroom to do creative things, but they’re also held accountable.
And through something called Race to the Top, we’ve been inspiring reforms all across the country, using relatively little amounts of money, but we give them an incentive. We say, if you want some additional money for your school, we’ll give it to you. But you’ve got to compete, show us that you’re going to reform your education system so that our children are performing better. Now, that’s at the K-12 level.
We’re also emphasizing, by the way, math and science education, especially for women, young girls, and for minorities who oftentimes underperform in those fields. And we want to generate more math and science teachers, and we’re getting the private sector to help us by paying for the training and the scholarships for more math and science teachers.
Now, at the college level, this is something that many of you may not be aware of, so relative to the earlier question about what our Recovery Act did, part of the Recovery Act was to institute a American Opportunity Tax Credit that has benefitted 12 million young people across the country. It gives a enormous tax break to those of you who are going to college.
On average, folks save about over $1,000 a year using this tax credit. We’ve combined that with doubling the Pell Grant program. Part of what was happening before we passed some of this legislation was that the student loan program, which many of you may have used, was going through banks or financial intermediaries, and so they were siphoning off billions of dollars of profits before the loan went to the student.
But the problem was, these loans were guaranteed by the federal government, so they weren’t taking any risk. It was an unwarranted subsidy. We said, let’s just make these loans directly to students. That way we saved about $40 billion that is now going into the expansion of loan programs, grant programs.
And the final thing we did is, is that in a couple of years, we’ve set up a system whereby when you take on college debt, you will never have to pay more than 10 percent of your income in repayments. And what that will do is make sure that you will never be prevented from going to school just because of money. We want to make sure that you and others like you can succeed.
Q Thank you, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
MS. WOODARD: Thank you, Mr. President. Sway has a question behind you.
THE PRESIDENT: Okay.
MR. CALLOWAY: Thank you, I’m over here.
Q Hello, my name is Allie Vonparis (ph). I’m a junior at University of Maryland in College Park and also — this is more of a personal question — but I’m also a victim of anonymous, hurtful, degrading harassment over the Internet. Police and university officials have been unable to help put a stop to it. My question to you is, what can you do, if anything, to put a stop to these vicious attacks over the Internet while preserving our rights to freedom of speech? I also ask this in light of the recent — the tragic deaths recently on the news of young people who are bullied and harassed online. Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, it’s a great question. And obviously our heart breaks when we read about what happened at Rutgers, when we read about some of these other young people who are doing nothing to deserve the kind of harassment and bullying that just completely gets out of hand.
And so we actually, the Department of Education, has initiated a — we had a summit a couple of weeks ago just to talk about this issue: How can we help local and state officials set up structures where young people feel safe, where there’s a trigger that goes off when this kind of bullying starts taking place so that immediately school officials can nip it at the bud? So there are a range of cooperative efforts that we can initiate.
Now, in terms of the Internet, you’re right, it is a challenging thing because the Internet — part of the power of the Internet is, is that information flows out there and it’s generally not censored and it’s generally not controlled by any single authority.
But at your school, for example, I think there is nothing wrong with instituting policies that say that harassment of any form, whether it comes through the Internet or whether it happens to you face to face, is unacceptable; that we’ve got zero tolerance when it comes to sexual harassment, we have zero tolerance when it comes to harassing people because of their sexual orientation, because of their race, because of their ethnicity.
And I think that making sure that every institution, whether it’s our schools, our government, our places of work, take these issues seriously and know that in some cases there are laws against this kind of harassment and that prosecutions will take place when somebody violates those laws. Sending that message of seriousness is something that I think we all have to do.
Now, the last point I would make is that the law is a powerful thing but the law doesn’t always change what’s in people’s hearts. And so all of us have an obligation to think about how we’re treating other people. And what we may think is funny or cute may end up being powerfully hurtful. And I’ve got two daughters, 12 and nine, and Michelle and I spend a lot of time talking to them about putting themselves in other people’s shoes and seeing through other people’s eyes. And if somebody is different from you, that’s not something you criticize, that’s something that you appreciate.
And so I think there’s also a values component to this that all of us have to be in a serious conversation about. Because ultimately peer pressure can lead people to bully, but peer pressure can also say bullying is not acceptable.
MR. CALLOWAY: Thank you, Mr. President, very much. Your next question is coming from April right in front of you.
Q Hello, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: How are you?
Q I’m good, thanks. How are you?
THE PRESIDENT: I’m doing great.
Q Good. My name is Bridget Todd. I’m from Richmond, Virginia. I’m a faculty member at Howard University. I teach English.
THE PRESIDENT: You look like a student. (Laughter.)
Q Oh, thank you. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: It’s true.
Q I get that a lot.
THE PRESIDENT: Right.
Q I voted for you in the last elections based on your alleged commitment to equality for all Americans, gay and straight, and I wanted to know where you stood on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I know that you’ve mentioned that you want the Senate to repeal it before you do it yourself. My question is you as the President can sort of have an executive order that ends it once and for all, as Harry — as Truman did for the integration of the military in ‘48. So I wonder why don’t you do that if this is a policy that you’re committed to ending.
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I haven’t “mentioned” that I’m against “don’t ask, don’t ask” — I have said very clearly, including in a State of the Union address, that I’m against “don’t ask, don’t tell” and that we’re going to end this policy. That’s point number one.
Point number two, the difference between my position right now and Harry Truman’s was that Congress explicitly passed a law that took away the power of the executive branch to end this policy unilaterally. So this is not a situation in which with a stroke of a pen I can simply end the policy.
Now, having said that, what I have been able to do is for the first time get the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, to say he thinks the policy should end. The Secretary of Defense has said he recognizes that the policy needs to change. And we, I believe, have enough votes in the Senate to go ahead and remove this constraint on me, as the House has already done, so that I can go ahead and end it.
Now, we recently had a Supreme Court — a district court case that said, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is unconstitutional. I agree with the basic principle that anybody who wants to serve in our armed forces and make sacrifices on our behalf, on behalf of our national security, anybody should be able to serve. And they shouldn’t have to lie about who they are in order to serve.
And so we are moving in the direction of ending this policy. It has to be done in a way that is orderly, because we are involved in a war right now. But this is not a question of whether the policy will end. This policy will end and it will end on my watch. But I do have an obligation to make sure that I am following some of the rules. I can’t simply ignore laws that are out there. I’ve got to work to make sure that they are changed.
MS. WOODARD: Thank you so much. Thank you, Mr. President. We’re going to head over to Katie at our feedback station.
MS. COOK: Thank you so much, April. Mr. President, hi.
THE PRESIDENT: Hi, Katie. How are you?
MS. COOK: Hi, I’m fabulous. Thank you. I wanted to give you an idea, first of all, of some of our trending topics we’ve been seeing on Twitter. Pretty much number one for the last couple of days has been jobs, education in the second category there. LGBT issues have been kind of floating between third and fourth position, obviously a very, very important issue.
And also, just to update you, we’ve had over 100,000 tweets come in, in the last couple of days, and over 10,000 since we went live. And I have this one for you here now: “Dear President Obama, do you think being gay or trans is a choice?”
THE PRESIDENT: I am not obviously — I don’t profess to be an expert. This is a layperson’s opinion. But I don’t think it’s a choice. I think that people are born with a certain makeup, and that we’re all children of God. We don’t make determinations about who we love. And that’s why I think that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong.
MS. COOK: All right, well, thank you very much. Thank you for being here, answering our questions.
And we just want to remind everyone at home that you can continue to submit questions for President Obama via Twitter by simply using the hashtag and then “Ask,” followed by the issue you care most about.
And for the last 24 hours or so, we’ve also been asking people to share with us their greatest hopes and their greatest fears. Use the hashtag “My greatest hope and my greatest fear” to join the discussion, and we’ll be revealing what people are saying shortly after the break. We’ll be right back. (Applause.)
* * * * *
MS. WOODARD: We have a question here. Mr. President?
Q Mr. President, my name is Joe San Georgio (ph). I’m a senior at George Washington University. And my question is about Social Security. The Congressional Budget Office projects that Social Security could go into the red as early as 2018. And it seems to me there are only three options if we want to fix it: raise the retirement age, raise payroll taxes or reduce benefits.
I know in the past you’ve said that all options are on the table, but do you have a limit for what would be acceptable changes for each of those three things?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, let me just say something about these projections. According to the Congressional Budget Office, what’ll happen is around 2018, we’ll start taking in less money than we’re sending out. So right now Social Security generally runs a surplus; that surplus will start getting drained around 2018.
Now, that doesn’t mean that Social Security is going bankrupt. It doesn’t mean that Social Security is going away. What it does mean is if we don’t do anything about it, right around the time — you guys are a little young for you to retire — but let’s say when I’m retired. (Laughter.) What’s going to end up happening is, is that if you expected a dollar of benefits, you’ll only get about 75 cents, so people won’t get the full bargain that they thought they were getting when they paid into Social Security.
That’s why we’ve got to strengthen it. And I have said that all options are on the table. I think we’ve got to look at how we preserve it for the next generation. I do think that the best way to do it would be to look at the fact that right now you only pay Social Security taxes up to about $106,000, and after that, you don’t pay any Social Security tax. So that means Warren Buffett, who makes more than $100,000 a year, the vast bulk of his income, he doesn’t pay Social Security taxes on it. That could be modified or changed in a way that would help extend the solvency of Social Security.
But this is an area where — I’m sorry, what was the young lady from Austin — this is where Cynthia’s point about bipartisanship is so important. I set up a bipartisan fiscal commission that is made up of Republicans and Democrats to sit and meet over the last several months to start looking at how we generally start reducing our debt and our deficit so we’re not leaving it to the next generation. They’re supposed to report back to me after the election because we specifically designed it so they wouldn’t get caught up with silly season and would be able to just focus on what makes sense.
They’re going to provide that report to us around the 1st of December, and my hope is from there that we can get a Republican-Democratic agreement on how we strengthen Social Security as well as looking at some of these other major expenditures that we have that we’ve got to deal with to make sure that we’re not just leaving you guys with a mountain of debt.
MS. WOODARD: Thank you, Mr. President. I want to talk to you for a moment about the Tea Party. We have the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who said “the Tea Party is Astroturf” — a false grassroots movement — “that is bankrolled by the wealthy conservatives.” I want to know if you agree with that assertion or do you believe the young people here today should say that the Tea Party is legitimate and be looking to participate in the fall with them?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, this is a democracy, so political participation generally is legitimate. I want to encourage people to get involved. That’s point number one.
Point number two is I think there are a lot of people who are involved in the Tea Party who have very real and sincere concerns about spending that’s out of control or generally philosophically believe that the government should be less involved in certain aspects of American life rather than more involved. And they have every right and obligation as citizens to be involved and engaged in this process.
I do think that what has happened is layered on top of some of that general frustration that has expressed itself through the Tea Party, there is an awful lot of corporate money that’s pouring into these elections right now. I mean, you’ve got tens of millions of dollars in what are called third-party expenditures that are being spent basically on negative ads. I mean, about 86, 90 percent of them are negative ads. And you guys have probably seen them more than I do, because I don’t watch that much TV.
But if you’re in a battleground state right now, you are being bombarded with negative ads every single day and nobody knows who is paying for these ads. They’ve got these names like “Americans for Prosperity” or “Moms for Motherhood” or — actually that last one I made up. (Laughter.) But you have these innocuous-sounding names, and we don’t know where this money is coming from. I think that is a problem for our democracy. And it’s a direct result of a Supreme Court decision that said they didn’t have to disclose who their donors are.
And so you don’t know is there — is an oil company that is unhappy about some environmental rules that we put in place funding these? Are the insurance companies that aren’t happy about some of the restrictions we’ve placed on insurance companies being able to drop your coverage — are they paying for them? We don’t know that. And I think it’s important for us to make sure that disclosure is available so that you guys can make your own decisions about if you see an ad, you know who is paying for it and you can make your own judgments about whether it’s true or not.
MS. WOODARD: Thank you, Mr. President. We’re going to Sway, to your right.
MR. CALLOWAY: Thank you, April.
Q Mr. President, my name is Nathan Martin. I actually help produce a conservative talk radio show, and I’m getting married in two weeks.
THE PRESIDENT: Congratulations.
Q Thank you very much. And my question for you deals with an issue that I saw back in my home state of Mississippi, and something that came up earlier this year. First I just want to say, like, my next-door neighbors are illegal immigrants and I play soccer with them — this is not an issue of race. But, Mr. President, at the same time, I’ve seen the drugs pour into my community, coming through Mexico. I’ve seen the cartels become more powerful. And I’ve also seen a state in Arizona that, when they tried to do something about it because they didn’t see anything coming out of Washington the last two years, that when they tried to do something about it they felt cut off. They were attacked. They were accused of some human rights infringements.
So my question for you is this: When Arizona passed a law, the Justice Department said it infringed upon their jurisdiction and struck it down. However, when California passed the legalization of marijuana, an issue with drugs — which also ties into federal policy — the federal government said that they would stay out of the way. How do you reconcile those two things, particularly how they relate to the border and the security of our country?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me first of all be clear. When it comes to our approach to federal drug enforcement, we take federal drug enforcement extraordinarily seriously, spend a lot of money on it. But obviously we have to figure out who is it that we’re going after, because we’ve got limited resources. And so decisions that are made by the Justice Department or the FBI about prosecuting drug kingpins versus somebody with some small amount in terms of possession, those decisions are made based on how can we best enforce the laws that are on the books.
When it comes to immigration, I have actually put more money, under my administration, into border security than any other administration previously. We’ve got more security resources at the border — more National Guard, more border guards, you name it — than the previous administration. So we’ve ramped up significantly the issue of border security.
What I have also said, though, is that if we’re going to solve the problem, then given the massive border that we have on the south — and by the way, a massive border on the north that nobody talks about — that the best way for us to solve it is in a comprehensive way. That means, number one, that we have serious border security. And we want to work with states like Arizona so that border security is meaningful.
Number two, it means that we’re going after employers who are hiring and then taking advantage of and exploiting undocumented workers — which happens a lot. Undocumented workers can’t report if they’re not being paid overtime, or if their health and safety laws are being violated, of if they’re not getting the minimum wage. And so a lot of times companies prefer to hire them in order to take advantage of them. We’ve got to crack down on those employers.
The third thing I think we have to do is to make sure that the undocumented workers who are living here today, that they have to take responsibility. They’ve got to register, pay a fine, pay their back taxes, learn English and then get on a pathway in which they could have the prospect of being here legally.
If we can do that, that allows us then to focus our attention on folks who have violated laws, who are here illegally, drug cartels who are trying to take advantage of turmoil at the border in order to peddle their wares. That’s got to be the strategy — a comprehensive strategy. That’s something we’re committed to. And we’ve got to work with states to do it. It’s something that I welcome not only with Arizona but with every state down on those borders.
MR. CALLOWAY: Okay, thank you, Mr. President. Your next question is over your left shoulder, actually on the other side of the room.
MS. WOODARD: Right here.
Q Hi, Mr. President. My name is Kishor Nagua (ph). I’m a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And my question has to do with race relations with respect to the country.
Over the past several months, the racial climate seems to have deteriorated, manifested through the commentary from the Arizona immigration law, from the commentary with respect to the Republican candidacy for governorship in South Carolina, and through the commentary from the speculated Islamic center near Ground Zero.
This seems to run in utter contrast to the idealism that the country was endowed with after your election. So my question to you is, what’s happened?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, historically — when you look at how America has evolved, typically we make progress on race relations in fits and starts. We make some progress, and then there’s maybe some slippage.
Oftentimes, misunderstandings and antagonism surfaces most strongly when economic times are tough. And that’s not surprising. If everybody is working and feeling good and making money and buying a new house and a big screen TV, you’re less worried about what other folks are doing.
And when you’re out of work and you can’t buy a home or you’ve lost your home and you’re worried about paying your bills, then you become more worried about what other folks are doing. And sometimes that organizes itself around kind of a tribal attitude, and issues of race become more prominent.
Having said that, I think we’ve got to keep things in perspective. You look at this audience. This audience just didn’t exist 20 years ago. The amount of interaction, the amount of understanding that exists in your generation among people of different races and different creeds and different colors is unprecedented. And by the way, that goes — that cuts across party lines, that cuts across partisan lines.
I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that in your generation, everybody is constantly bombarded with all kinds of different input from different cultures, and that’s a strength, that’s a positive thing. That’s why I remain confident about America’s ability to compete in the world, precisely because we’ve got a little bit of everybody in this country.
But what is important is that we make sure to work together, that we understand our strength comes from unity and not division. And that’s going to be something that I think your generation is going to be especially important because if all of you lead, then your parents and your grandparents tend to follow. If you say, well, Mom or Dad, actually, I don’t agree with your opinion about such and such group, they listen.
I will be 50 next year and I will tell you, as you get older, your mind gets a little more set. And it needs the poking and prodding and breaking through of stereotypes that I think young people provide. So you guys are going to be the messengers of this continued strengthening of the diversity in this country.
But you shouldn’t be down about it. I think actually that the trend lines continue to be good.
MS. WOODARD: Thank you, Mr. President. We’re going to get some feedback. We’re going to head over to our feedback station and Katie.
MS. COOK: All right, thank you, April. Mr. President, as you can probably see on the screen there, we’ve had almost 15,000 tweets since we went live, so a lot of great interaction. And now we’re moving on to an issue that we’ve heard a lot about from our Twitter audience, and that is Sudan.
“Mr. President, the January referendum in Sudan could lead to an outbreak of war. How will you prevent this?”
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, this is an example of where young people have taken the lead. Sudan is where the genocide in Darfur took place. So many young people on college campuses across the country got engaged and involved in it. It helped to surface attention on the issue. And I actually think that the previous administration did some good work on this in helping to broker a peace deal between northern Sudan and southern Sudan. That’s one conflict. We have then worked to make sure that in Darfur, the violence against civilians was drastically reduced. We helped to stop an outbreak of war between Chad and Sudan.
But this is a tumultuous area. This is a dangerous area. The last time there was a war between north and south, 2 million people were killed. And so right now what we’re trying to do is organize a referendum where the south in a peaceful, legal fashion could decide to break off and form their own nation separate from what is currently all of Sudan. We’ve only got about 90 days to get this done.
So when I went up to the United Nations during the General Assembly, I helped to organize a forum in which we got the north and the south together to try to broker a deal. I’ve got Hillary Clinton, my U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, Special Envoy General Scott Gration, all working together. This is one of our highest priorities.
But it’s something that we all have to pay attention to, because if you have an outbreak of war between the north and south in Sudan, not only could that erupt in more violence that could lead to millions of deaths, but solving the problem in Darfur becomes that much more difficult, because Khartoum, the seat of government for northern Sudan, could end up feeling more threatened and not being willing to deal with some of the continuing violence that exists in western Sudan and Darfur.
So this is a huge issue, something that we’re paying a lot of attention to. I hope all of you continue to pay attention to it and put pressure on your elected representatives to get involved, because we’re going to need to give these countries help.
And it’s important for us to prevent, by the way, these wars not only out of charitable reasons, but also out of self-interest, because if war explodes there, it could have a destabilizing effect that creates more space for terrorist activity that could eventually be directed at our homeland.
MS. COOK: It’s certainly a very difficult situation. Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
MS. COOK: April has your next question.
MS. WOODARD: Okay, Mr. President.
Q Good afternoon, Mr. President, my name is Alejandro Gonzales. I’m a junior at Georgetown University. And I came from Cuba when I was six years old. Since coming from Cuba, I have been able to live the American Dream, because I’ve been able to get a higher education. Others haven’t been as lucky as I am, and there’s a lot of immigrants in this country today who unfortunately can’t do that. How will your administration take concrete steps to make sure that legislation like the DREAM Act gets passed before the end of your term, so that these immigrants don’t live the dream — don’t dream the dream, live the reality?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the DREAM Act, this is a concept that I think is central to the American story. Each wave of immigrants that have come in have been able to assimilate, integrate and then rise up and become part of this great American Dream.
We’ve now got a group of young people in this country who for all practical purposes are American. They grew up here. They’ve gone to school here. They don’t know anything other than being American kids. But their parents may have brought them here without all the proper paperwork — might have brought them here when they were three, might have brought them here when they were five.
And so, lo and behold, by the time they finish school, and they’re ready to go to college, they find out they can’t go to college and, in fact, their status as Americans are threatened.
And so what we’ve said is for those young people, who didn’t break any laws, they didn’t have a choice when they came here, give them a chance by getting an education, or serving in our military, having a series of standards that they have to meet in terms of showing good character. And if they do that, then give them a pathway for finally getting their paperwork straight and being full-fledged American citizens.
It’s the right thing to do. It has received bipartisan support in the past. My strong hope is that we can get bipartisan support for this in the future. And this is something that I’ve been a cosponsor of this legislation on. I’m going to keep on pushing.
I actually feel somewhat optimistic that we can get it done in the next legislative session.
Q Thank you.
MS. WOODARD: Thank you, Mr. President. We’re going to go back to the feeding station and Katie.
MS. COOK: All right, thank you so much for all of these answers once again. And I just want to remind everybody that is watching at home, that we want to know your greatest hope and we want to know your greatest fear. Please share your thoughts now via Twitter using the hashtag, “My greatest hope and my greatest fear.”
We’re going to be discussing your answers with the President when we come back.
* * * * *
MS. WOODARD: Welcome back to our conversation with President Barack Obama. We have another question right here, Mr. President.
Q Hi, Mr. President. My name is Adrian (ph). I’m from Butner, North Carolina. I just wanted to ask you a question about environmental justice. I am a big fan of the city of New Orleans. It’s my favorite city in the country. And obviously Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, and not only just the land but the people there as well, and they are still struggling. Hopefully that will not happen again. I don’t think it will, especially under your administration. However, there are still quite a few landfills and there are nuclear power plants that are in low-income communities. And this is definitely not just an environmental issue but also a civil rights issue. It’s also, aside from a civil rights issue, it’s a public health issue because these people are getting sick and they cannot afford to get the health care they need to get well.
So my question is, what sort of steps is your administration planning to take to address the issue of environmental justice?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me say first of all that this is an example of where the issue probably has more to do with income than it has to do with race or ethnicity. Generally speaking in this country, a lot of environmentally problematic facilities tend to be located in places where poor folks live because wealthier folks have the ability to say, “not in my backyard.”
And I got firsthand experience of this when I was a community organizer. I was working in Chicago in a place called Altgeld Garden. It was down at the tip of Chicago. It had a landfill on one side; it had a polluted river on another; it had a sewage treatment plant on another. And folks who were living there had higher cancer rates and they had asbestos in their buildings. And it was just a toxic soup down there — because they didn’t have power.
And so part of what we have to do is to make sure, number one, that we are enforcing generally our environmental policies. Without regard to whether some place is wealthy or poor, everybody should have the chance at clean air and clean water.
Number two, we’ve got to identify new strategies to use cleaner energy, because that is a recipe for reducing the overall amount of pollution that’s out there. And one of the things that we’ve done during the course of the last 20 months that I’ve been in office that I’m very proud of is generating more investment in clean energy — solar panels, wind turbines, biodiesel. The more we are using clean energy, renewable energy sources, the less this ends up being a problem for everybody, but particularly for folks who have to suffer the consequences of some of these facilities.
MS. WOODARD: Thank you, Mr. President. We’re going over to Katie in the feedback station.
Katie, what do you got?
MS. COOK: All right, thank you, April.
Mr. President, of course we asked people to send in their greatest hopes and their greatest fears. I’ll read a couple of the fears here first. “My greatest fear is that we are turning into a communist country.” And another one here: “My greatest fear is that Obama will be reelected.”
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, no. (Laughter.)
MS. COOK: Would you like to respond to those?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, I mean, this is an example of how our political rhetoric gets spun up. And the Internet and Twitter and all these things are very powerful, but it also means sometimes that instead of having a dialogue we just start calling folks — calling each other names. And that’s true on the left or the right.
That’s something I think we’ve got to avoid. We’ve got to be able to have a conversation and recognize we’re all Americans; we all want the best for this country. We may have some disagreements in terms of how to get there, but all of us want to make sure that our economy is strong, that jobs are growing. All of us want to make sure that people aren’t bankrupt when they get sick. All of us want to make sure that young people can afford an education.
And I’m pretty confident that if we work together over the next several years, that the political temperature will go down, the political rhetoric will go down, because we’ll actually be making progress on a lot of these issues.
But we’ve got to stop the name-calling and we’ve got to stop looking at the next election. We’ve got to be focused on figuring out what we’re doing for the next generation.
MS. COOK: All right, well, thank you very much. I believe Sway has your next question.
MR. CALLOWAY: I’m over here behind you.
MS. COOK: There you are.
MR. CALLOWAY: Mr. President.
Q Hi, Mr. President, my name is Anna, and I want to share with you my greatest fear. I moved here when I was 14 in 2003, and I followed every legal step. I come from Colombia, and I’m waiting for my green card and I have been waiting for it for about three years. My grandma turned 92 and I’m afraid that my green card will not get here in time for me to see her for a last time. Sorry.
THE PRESIDENT: No, no. Well, look, first of all, say hi to your grandma for me.
Q On the phone, yes.
THE PRESIDENT: And second of all, one of the things that we’re trying to do to deal with the immigration issue is to accelerate the process for legal immigration. This is something that we don’t talk about a lot. A lot of the focus is on illegal immigration. But we’re a nation of immigrants. And so the question is, how do we make legal immigration faster, less bureaucratic, cut the red tape?
And so I’ll be interested in finding out after maybe this session from you what your experience has been with the office, because what we’re trying to do is reduce the backlog so that those people like yourself that are doing things the right way and the legal way, that you don’t get so tangled up in a bunch of bureaucracy that you end up being discouraged. There’s no reason why you should be discouraged. We want you here, because I can tell you’ve got a great deal to contribute to the country.
Q Thank you so much.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
MR. CALLOWAY: Thank you, Mr. President. We’re going to go back to Katie over there.
MS. COOK: All right, thank you, Sway. And let’s move on to some hope, what do you say? Let’s see, I’ve got a couple tweets here. “My greatest hope is that my children will have better teachers than I had.” And the second one here: “My greatest hope is something will be done about young kids having guns. I live in South Jersey and the crime rate is crazy down here.”
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we’ve already addressed the teachers issue. That’s one of my greatest hopes. We’ve got to make sure that teachers are respected, that they are rewarded, that young people like yourself who have talent and want to work with people, that you’re able to support yourself and live out a great life being a teacher. And so we’re doing everything we can to encourage it.
In terms of guns, obviously school violence is still a big problem. We’re spending a lot of time, the Department of Justice, working with local school districts to figure out how can we keep guns out of the hands of kids. It’s a top priority, especially in a lot of urban districts.
MS. COOK: Yes, it is. All right, thank you. April.
MS. WOODARD: I just wanted to let you look at this form that you filled out. We gave them an opportunity to fill out their greatest hope. Did you want to express to the President what your greatest hope is?
Q Hello, Mr. President, my name is Alicia Thompson (ph). I’m a communication sciences and disorders major from Howard University. I’m from Edison, New Jersey. My greatest hope would be that basically right now through a lot of research I’ve realized that there is more black men incarcerated than in college. So my greatest hope is that by 10 years from now, that there will be more black men enrolled in college than incarcerated.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, it is a goal that you and I share. And as I said, it starts young. I mean, African American boys oftentimes fall behind in school early, start feeling discouraged, check out, drop out, end up on the streets and then get into trouble.
And if we can make sure that that young boys starting at the age of three or four already knows their colors and their letters and are getting good preschool, and by the time they get into school they’ve got a good teacher and are getting the support that they need and are able to keep up with their classwork, that is going to do more to reduce the incarceration rate at the same time, obviously, as it increases the college enrollment rate.
That’s why we’ve got to prioritize education going forward. Thank you.
MS. WOODARD: Thank you, so much. Thank you, Mr. President. We want to thank you on behalf of everyone, on behalf of BET, MTV and CMT. Thank you so much for joining us.
And thank you all and everyone in the world that is watching here today. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, thank you very much, April. Thank you so much.
MS. WOODARD: Sure.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.