U. S. not ‘ cured’ of racism, Obama says

In a ‘ free- flow­ing’ in­ter­view, he re­flects on a num­ber of is­sues.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Michael A. Me­moli michael.me­moli@latimes.com Twit­ter: @mike­mem­oli

WASHINGTON — As much as Pres­i­dent Obama has bat­tled Repub­li­cans and even fel­low Democrats dur­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tion, he’s faced an equally dif­fi­cult op­po­nent dur­ing his six­plus years in the White House: the ex­pec­ta­tions that he would ful­fill the sweep­ing prom­ise of change of his 2008 cam­paign.

De­spite the frus­tra­tion of dis­ap­pointed sup­port­ers, the pres­i­dent ar­gued in a new in­ter­view that what he has done will leave the coun­try on a bet­ter path.

“The tra­jec­tory of progress al­ways hap­pens in f its and starts,” Obama told co­me­dian Marc Maron on his “WTF” pod­cast that was re­leased Mon­day. “I can say that in terms of not just man­ag­ing the gov­ern­ment but mov­ing the coun­try for­ward, we’ve had a lot more hits than misses. And we’ve made a dif­fer­ence in peo­ple’s lives.”

That’s true on sev­eral is­sues, he ar­gued, in­clud­ing the econ­omy, cli­mate change and ed­u­ca­tion. And more broadly, he said, it’s the story of Amer­ica, par­tic­u­larly as it re­lates to racism.

In a por­tion of the in­ter­view that at­tracted im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion, the pres­i­dent said that it was “in­con­tro­vert­ible” that race re­la­tions had im­proved in the coun­try dur­ing his life­time, but that the U. S. still has not been “cured” of racism.

“It’s not just a mat­ter of it not be­ing po­lite to say ‘ nig­ger’ in public. That’s not the mea­sure of whether racism still ex­ists or not,” he said. “So­ci­eties don’t overnight com­pletely erase ev­ery­thing that hap­pened 2- to 300 years prior.”

A White House spokesman said Mon­day that the pres­i­dent did not use the racial ep­i­thet to be in­ten­tion­ally provoca­tive but that he said it sim­ply dur­ing what was a “a free- f low­ing con­ver­sa­tion.”

The more than hour­long in­ter­view, recorded Fri­day in the garage of Maron’s High­land Park home, came less than a day af­ter Obama re­newed his call for stricter gun con­trol fol­low­ing the mass shoot­ing at a South Carolina church that left nine peo­ple dead. The sus­pect, who is white, had posted a racist man­i­festo online that was dis­cov­ered over the week­end.

In re­sponse not only to the Charleston shoot­ing but also to vi­o­lent clashes be­tween law en­force­ment and mi­nori­ties that have riven the U. S. in re­cent months, Obama said the na­tion needs a broader sense “that what hap­pens to those kids mat­ters to me even if I never meet them.”

He said that a num­ber of things, in­clud­ing such pol­icy de­ci­sions as re­form­ing po­lice prac­tices and mak­ing early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion more widely avail­able, can help peo­ple rec­og­nize that “my so­ci­ety’s go­ing to be bet­ter off, I’m go­ing to feel bet­ter about the Amer­ica I live in, and over time I’m con­fi­dent that my chil­dren and my grand­chil­dren are go­ing to live a bet­ter life if those kids also have op­por­tu­nity.”

The in­ter­view of­fered the pres­i­dent an in­for­mal op­por­tu­nity to ex­pand on his views about the dif­fi­culty of rec­on­cil­ing his own as­pi­ra­tions and deeply held ide­ol­ogy with their ap­pli­ca­tion in real- world sit­u­a­tions.

Obama said that the “Hope” and “Change” posters so preva­lent in his 2008 his­toric cam­paign to be the na­tion’s first black pres­i­dent cap­tured Amer­i­cans’ as­pi­ra­tions about where the coun­try should be, but that the chal­lenge for him was al­ways go­ing to be how to turn “those ab­stract con­cepts into some­thing re­ally con­crete.”

“As soon as you start talk­ing about specifics, then the world’s com­pli­cated,” Obama said. “You’ve got these big legacy sys­tems that you have to wres­tle with, and you have to bal­ance what you want and where you’re go­ing with what is and what has been.”

At this late point in his pres­i­dency, Obama said, he’s hav­ing many con­versa- tions with sup­port­ers who won­der why he couldn’t do more on one is­sue or another.

“What I have to ex­plain to them is progress in a democ­racy is never in­stan­ta­neous, and it’s al­ways par­tial. And you can’t get cyn­i­cal or frus­trated be­cause you didn’t get all the way there im­me­di­ately,” he said.

On healthcare, for in­stance, it was never go­ing to be pos­si­ble to re­place a healthcare sys­tem with public and pri­vate in­sur­ance mar­kets with one where the gov­ern­ment pays for care, which led him to pur­sue the Af­ford­able Care Act.

“Five years later, we’ve got mil­lions of peo­ple who have healthcare that didn’t have healthcare be­fore. We’ve got the low­est unin­sured rate that has ever been re­ported,” he said. “For a lot of peo­ple they’re look­ing at it and say­ing, ‘ Well we didn’t get ev­ery­thing we wanted.’ For me what I say to my­self is, for those mil­lions of peo­ple — many of whom write to me and say you saved my life — that’s democ­racy work­ing. That’s gov­ern­ment work­ing.”

In the end, Obama agreed with Maron’s con­ten- tion that in some re­spects the pres­i­dency is no more than a mid­dle man­age­ment po­si­tion.

“Some­times your job is just to make stuff work,” Obama said. “Some­times the task of gov­ern­ment is to make in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ments or try to steer the ocean liner 2 de­grees north or south so that 10 years from now, sud­denly we’re in a very dif­fer­ent place than we were. At the mo­ment, peo­ple may feel like we need a 50- de­gree turn, we don’t need a 2- de­gree turn. And you say, ‘ Well, if I turn 50 de­grees, the whole ship turns’ ” over.

Ar­guably no pres­i­dent has had to gov­ern in more hy­per­ac­tive times, with the 24- 7 news en­vi­ron­ment his pre­de­ces­sors crit­i­cized re­placed by an even more in­stan­ta­neous so­cial media age. Obama also lamented what he said was a grow­ing gap be­tween “who we are as a peo­ple and how our pol­i­tics ex­presses it­self,” and how var­i­ous fac­tors have led some to grow more cyn­i­cal about the process. That’s one rea­son the pres­i­dent made the un­con­ven­tional choice to sit for an in­ter­view in a venue like Maron’s.

“In­creas­ingly I’ve spent my time think­ing about how do I try to break out of these old pat­terns that our pol­i­tics has fallen into. Which is part of the rea­son why I’m here,” Obama said.

The pres­i­dent said that in part be­cause of his fa­mously cool tem­per­a­ment — inspired by his up­bring­ing in Hawaii — he has man­aged to block out voices de­mand­ing more im­me­di­ate ac­tions.

“Look, are there frus­tra­tions in my job? Yes,” he said. But if he is judged by Pres­i­dent Rea­gan’s ques­tion of whether you were bet­ter off now than you were four years ago, Obama said the an­swer was un­equiv­o­cally yes.

“That is ul­ti­mately what you’re look­ing for, when you wake up ev­ery day you say to your­self, ‘ Are things a lit­tle bit bet­ter?’ ” he said. “And if you take that long view, then you’re less ner­vous or stressed about the day- to- day ups and downs.”

Pete Souza White House

POD­CAST HOST Marc Maron in­ter­views Pres­i­dent Obama in High­land Park. Obama said of his years in the White House: “We’ve had a lot more hits than misses. And we’ve made a dif­fer­ence in peo­ple’s lives.”

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