Obama, the President and the Dad
The president discusses unemployment, gas prices, tax cuts, Social Security ... parenting and Father's Day
En español | Q: Do you have any Father's Day traditions? What do you like to do with your girls?
A: We just do ordinary stuff. We might rent a movie. We might play a board game. There's the presentation of the tie, or the painting they've made, where I make a big fuss out of it. But the greatest pleasure I get is just spending time with them.
See also: Speak out on the future of Medicare and Social Security.
Q: What was your proudest moment as a parent? Your worst moment?
A: Well, my worst memory as a parent was when Sasha was 3 months old and got meningitis. Being at the hospital and hearing her crying and having to give her a spinal tap. I think somebody once said that being a parent is basically like having your heart outside of your body. You feel so vulnerable in those moments. Best moments come all the time. Malia and Sasha, they'll bring home report cards that I never saw in my life! [Laughs.] But the thing I'm most proud of is that they are kind, respectful, good kids.
Q: What can the many single moms and grandparents in the country who are raising boys with absentee fathers do to build them into men of character?
A: There are single moms and grandparents who are doing a great job all the time. Your kids can grow up to be president of the United States. And I think what makes up for everything else is love. What I always had growing up was a mother and grandparents who thought I was terrific. I'm a big believer in providing structure along with love. The big disadvantage for single parents is you're on all the time and you don't have somebody to hand off to. Having a community can help you — so if you're a single mom, to have your parents or grandparent involved. If you don't have grandparents close by, having an aunt or uncle or close friends who can just relieve some of that pressure.
Q: Last year you told us your 50th-birthday wish was lower unemployment and lower gas prices. Unemployment seems to be edging down. But there are people who are still hurting. What do we do for the 50-plus group, dubbed "the new unemployables"?
A: Well, first of all, that particular segment of the workforce will benefit if the unemployment rate generally comes down and the economy's growing. So the fact that over the last two years we've created over 4 million new jobs, the fact that manufacturing jobs are coming back in a way we haven't seen since the 1990s — all that makes a difference. Because the tighter the labor market, the more employers are going to look outside of the narrow, stereotypical target that they want.
You're absolutely right, though, that when you lose your job in your 50s, it's a lot tougher, because a lot of employers say to themselves, "Well, I might have to pay those people more. I may have to retrain them. I may not keep them as long. Their health care costs may be higher." So what we've tried to do is to make sure that retraining is linked to jobs that we know are going to be in high demand.
Last week I was at Lorain County Community College in Ohio. What they've been able to do is to take older workers who have a lot of skills and training, but maybe for jobs that no longer exist, and specifically shape their training experience to an industry or a job that is hiring now. The other thing is that for workers over 50 who've got a wealth of experience, some may want to start their own business. And we've actually put more financing through the Small Business Administration.
Q: But what would you say to a guy like my brother, a small-business owner who took out a second mortgage many years back, took a big risk. Four kids, nobody was going to be there to bail him out if he failed. Over the years he's built a successful business with 300 employees. But he feels now that he's being singled out as one of "the most fortunate among us," almost in a negative way. He feels he should be rewarded rather than taxed more.
A: What I would say to him, first of all, is that I've cut taxes on small businesses 17 times since I've been in office.
Q: But he says that he doesn't really feel that.
A: Well, people don't generally feel tax cuts. They feel tax hikes. But the tax burden on small businesses is lower now than it was when I came into office. It is true that if he's a successful CEO of a company with 300 employees, earning a really good salary, the tax burden on those folks — I'm one of them, by the way — is actually lower than probably at any time in 50 years. And all I've said with respect to that $250,000-to-$1 million group is, we can afford to go back to the Clinton tax rates if we want to close the deficit, which ultimately will be good for his business.
He may be concerned about making sure that our infrastructure is tip-top. That our broadband connections are sound. That our airlines are operating effectively. All those things are part of what allows him to be successful. So we've got to pay for it. And those of us who have done well can afford to do a little bit more, and those who have done really, really well, like Warren Buffett, should be able to do more. I think it's important to remember that even for folks who don't feel rich, if you're making over $250,000 a year, there's 98 percent of the country who are making less than you.
Q: Your other wish was lower gas prices. Fuel is America's top export now. If we have the supply, why are prices still so high?
A: The biggest reason is that China in 2010 bought [more than] 10 million cars. India is suddenly using a lot more oil. All these emerging countries, as their standards of living rise, suddenly want to use more oil. U.S. oil production is higher than it's been in eight years. [But] you have a world oil market, and even as we're producing more, demand is going up faster than supply. So we can't just drill our way out of the problem.
Q: Is the Keystone XL pipeline more about jobs than oil?
A: Canada has what are called tar sands. It's an expensive way of extracting oil, but they're producing a lot of it now. And they want to build a pipeline to pump from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, where they can then export that oil all around the world. It's not going to make a dent in gas prices here in the United States. Ultimately, the way we free ourselves from this annual spike in gas prices is to diversify our energy to solar, wind and biofuels. I want to produce more oil. We probably have a 100-year supply of natural gas. Most importantly, I want to continue to be more efficient in how we use energy. So, for example, me doubling fuel-efficiency standards on cars ultimately will save the average consumer $8,000 at the pump [over time] when it takes full effect a decade from now, because everybody's going to be getting 55 mpg on their car. And that savings is equal to what would be pumped through the Keystone pipeline for 45 years.
Q: You talked to us about Medicare a year ago, so I want to ask about Social Security. Are there any benefit adjustments you would support to put it on more stable footing into the future?
A: Social Security is not in an immediate crisis. It's not the driver of our deficits, the way Medicare and our health care programs are. We can easily tweak the Social Security program while protecting current beneficiaries, ensuring that it's there for future generations. There are ways that involve, for example, slightly raising the [payroll] cap. I think it's a pretty sensible thing to do. What I've said to [Republicans] is, "I am prepared to sit down with you, the way Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill sat down together. And make very modest adjustments that extend the life of Social Security for 75 years." We can do that again. But it's going to require us not playing politics with Social Security. Understanding that millions of Americans have been lifted out of poverty because of Social Security. It is the linchpin of our social safety net. We can't privatize it. We don't want it to be subject to the winds in the stock market. We want it there for people over the long run.
Q: We have a story in this issue about reinvention, which pushes readers to do the thing they're scared to do. What would you do?
A: There's all kinds of things I might do if I wasn't president. Starting with just going out that gate and taking a walk! I think that what I'd love to do, and I may very well do, after I get out of office, is to learn a foreign language. Malia and Sasha are getting pretty good at Spanish, and I always regret the fact that I didn't do it.