NPR’s Steve Inskeep interviews President Obama at the White House this past December. The interview covers the President’s strategy fighting ISIS, the 2016 elections, his legacy and the Paris climate deal.
STEVE INSKEEP: I have been reading a history of part of the Cold War. Dwight Eisenhower was president, he’s meeting his Cabinet sometimes in this room where we’re sitting. The Soviet Union has emerged as a major nuclear threat. The country is very worried at this point in the 1950s. But Eisenhower is convinced that they are not that strong, that the United States is stronger, that the U.S. will win if we just avoid a huge war.
And he decides to try to reassure the public, gives a series of speeches, saying “keep your chin up, everything’s fine, our strategy is working.” It’s a total failure. The public doesn’t believe him. He is accused of a failure of leadership, and his approval rating goes down.
Are you going through the same experience now with regard to ISIS?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I tell you, first of all, I wasn’t the Supreme Allied Commander helping to defeat Hitler, so he had a little credibility that he was working with. But ISIL is also not the Soviet Union. And I think that it is very important for us to understand this is a serious challenge. ISIS is a virulent, nasty organization that has gained a foothold in ungoverned spaces effectively in Syria and parts of western Iraq.
We have to take it seriously. They’ve shown in Paris what they can do in an organized fashion, and in San Bernardino what we’ve seen is their ability to proselytize for their perverted brand of Islam and spur small-scale terrorist attacks. And those are very difficult to detect, so it is going to be important for us to be vigilant. We are pounding ISIL’s core structure in Syria and Iraq. We have put together a coalition that is increasingly effective. We have seen ISIL lose about 40 percent of its populated territory in the region, and both in terms of homeland security and in terms of our efforts over there, I am confident that we are going to prevail.
But it is also important for us to keep things in perspective, and this is not an organization that can destroy the United States. This is not a huge industrial power that can pose great risks to us institutionally or in a systematic way. But they can hurt us, and they can hurt our people and our families. And so I understand why people are worried.
The most damage they can do, though, is if they start changing how we live and what our values are, and part of my message over the next 14 months or 13 months that I remain in office is to just make sure that we remember who we are and make sure that our resilience, our values, our unity are maintained. If we do that, then ISIL will be defeated.
INSKEEP: What is the public missing about your strategy? And I say that simply because, according to polls, you don’t have very much approval for it.
OBAMA: Well, I think what’s fair is that post-Paris you had a saturation of news about the horrible attack there. And ISIL combines viciousness with very savvy media operations. And as a consequence, if you’ve been watching television for the last month, all you have been seeing, all you have been hearing about is these guys with masks or black flags who are potentially coming to get you.
And so I understand why people are concerned about it, and this is a serious situation, but what is important is for people to recognize that the power, the strength of the United States and its allies are not threatened by an organization like this; in the same way that al-Qaida was able to carry out one spectacular attack, we ended up making some significant changes to harden homeland defenses. It then took awhile for us to ultimately snuff out core al-Qaida in the FATA, and there are still lingering remnants, but at no point was there ever a sense that in fact it could do catastrophic damage to us.
INSKEEP: You referred to ISIL’s sophisticated media operation and also referred to what Americans are seeing in the American media. Are you suggesting that the media are being played in a sense here?
OBAMA: Look, the media is pursuing ratings. This is a legitimate news story. I think that, you know, it’s up to the media to make a determination about how they want to cover things. There is no doubt that the actions of ISIL are designed to amplify their power and the threat that they pose. That helps them recruit, that adds in the twisted thoughts of some young person that they might want to have carry out an action, that somehow they’re part of a larger movement. And so I think that the American people absorb that, understandably are of concern.
Now on our side, I think that there is a legitimate criticism of what I’ve been doing and our administration has been doing in the sense that we haven’t, you know, on a regular basis I think described all the work that we’ve been doing for more than a year now to defeat ISIL.
And so if people haven’t seen the fact that in fact 9,000 strikes have been carried out against ISIL, if they don’t know that towns like Sinjar that were controlled by ISIL have been taken back, or that a town like Tikrit, that was controlled by ISIL, now has been repopulated by previous residents, then they might feel as if there’s not enough of a response.
And so part of our goal here is to make sure that people are informed about all the actions that we’re taking. But one of the interesting things that you’ve seen evolve over the last several weeks, including in the debates that are taking place between the Republican candidates, is that those who are critics of our administration response, or the military, the intelligence response that we are currently mounting, when you ask them, well, what would you do instead, they don’t have an answer.
And the reason they don’t have an answer is because the truth is that the approach that we are taking is one that’s based on the best counsel and best advice of our top military, top intelligence, top diplomatic teams. And we are going after ISIL effectively. We are going after them hard. And we are confident that we are going to prevail.
INSKEEP: Your critics have said they want to use more force. You have sometimes responded by suggesting that people who want to use more force want another Iraq War and that that is not practical.
OBAMA: Well, when you listen to them, though, and you ask, well, what exactly are you talking about? “Well, we are going to bomb more.” Well, who is it you are going to bomb? Where is it that you are going to bomb? When you talk about something like carpet-bombing, what do you mean?
We carry out precision strikes based on intelligence of where ISIL is, where their infrastructure is, where their oil tankers are. And if the suggestion is is that we kill tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians and Iraqis, that is not who we are and that would be a strategy that would have enormous backlash against the United States. It would be terrible for our national security.
And, you know, unfortunately many of these critics can get away with just suggesting that bombing more, or being less discriminant in how we approach that, would make a difference. Let me put it this way. I trust my commanders, folks who have fought long and hard in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, when they describe to me, here’s how we’re going to gather intelligence, here is how we are going to approach targeting.
We’ve been at this for a long time in Afghanistan, Iraq, and places like Somalia and Yemen, where we have gone after terrorist targets. And the key is to make sure that we’ve got sound intelligence. And I make no apologies for us wanting to do this appropriately and in a way that is consistent with American values.
INSKEEP: Are you avoiding more force because you are concerned that even a little more force might call for the demand for even more force, and you would end up with a large war?
OBAMA: No. What’s interesting is that most of the critics have not called for ground forces. To his credit, I think Lindsey Graham is one of the few who has been at least honest about suggesting “here is something I would do that the president is not doing.” He doesn’t just talk about being louder or sounding tougher in the process.
But as I explained, and I’ve tested this repeatedly with our military intelligence folks, when you start looking at an Iraq-type deployment of large numbers of troops — 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 troops — we are now in a situation in which we are committing ourselves not only to going door to door in places like Mosul and Raqqa, which I’m confident that we could do, but we have essentially said to the Iraqis and the Syrians that we are going to govern for you. And that ends up being of an indefinite period.
So part of what we have to do for a sustained defeat of ISIL is to help local forces develop capacity, do it the right way, do it for themselves with our assistance and our help, so that we can actually create a stable government structure in this region. Now that sometimes requires more patience than simply deploying a bunch of Marines. Our fighting forces are the best in the world, but in order to defeat an enemy like this, what we have to do is have a situation in which people can govern.
INSKEEP: You’ve acknowledged this requires patience. It can be a slow process. During that slow process, there might be more attacks on the United States. In October, before San Bernardino, a Justice Department official stated that he believed that domestic terrorists were a greater threat to the United States than international groups like al-Qaida or ISIS.
Do you believe that still now, after San Bernardino and Paris?
OBAMA: I don’t know the exact citation that you are referring to. If you just …
INSKEEP: John Carlin on Oct. 14.
OBAMA: If you just look at the numbers, then non-Islamic, non-foreign-motivated terrorist actions have killed at least as many Americans on American soil as those who were promoted by jihadists. But what we have also seen is ISIL evolve, because of the sophistication of their social media, to a point where they may be inspiring more attacks, even if they are self-initiated, even if they don’t involve complex planning, than we would have seen two years ago, three years ago, five years ago.
Now this isn’t unprecedented. The Fort Hood attack was inspired by Anwar Awlaki, who was with AQAP, al-Qaida in the Peninsula or in Yemen, and we’ve seen periodically self-radicalization through the Internet or jihadist propaganda.
But ISIL is more systematic and more effective in their media, in their online presence, and that raises additional concerns. So part of what we have to do in response is to ramp up countering that narrative online, working with local communities to make sure that we are inoculating ourselves and our young people from this kind of recruitment.
It is a more complicated problem because of the fact that a couple like the San Bernardino couple, you don’t see in a way that you would see an organization that is planning a complex plot like 9/11.
So in that sense we have some new dangers, some new concerns that we have to deal with. But this is not completely new. It’s something that we’ve known could happen for quite some time, and it’s something that, as I said over at the National Counterterrorism Center today when I visited, it’s something that we’ve got some incredibly effective intelligence folks working on every single day.
INSKEEP: Leading candidates in both parties have suggested in one way or another that they want to be more active against this threat. You have argued for the approach that you are taking and that too much action would be unwise.
What advice would you give whoever you are going to turn this room over to in a year or so?
OBAMA: Again, I would just repeat, Steve, that when you really sort through all the rhetoric, the notion more active or a stronger response …
INSKEEP: Hillary Clinton spoke about no-fly zones.
OBAMA: I was going to say. There are basically two things that I’ve heard people say. One would be we’re just going to bomb more, and that, I would advise, is not a wise course. You bomb ISIL. You’re not trying to bomb innocent people. And that requires intelligence and confidence in our military to be able to develop the kinds of targets that we need.
We are already doing special forces who are going to help us gather that intelligence and help advise and assist and train local forces so that they can go after ISIL in areas like Raqqa and Mosul.
The other new thing that people have suggested would be some variation of the no-fly zone or a safe zone. This is something we’ve been talking about for three or four years. The challenge there is that ISIL doesn’t have an air force, so the damage done there is not against ISIL, it’s against the Syrian regime.
And what is absolutely true is that we need to make sure that we bring about an end to the civil war in Syria, and John Kerry, through the work he’s been doing in Vienna negotiations and this week in New York, is seeing some progress in bringing Russians and Iranians together but creating a safe zone for Syrian refugees. We’ve tested, we’ve looked at repeatedly, the problem is that, again, without a large number of troops on the ground, it’s hard to create a safe zone like that. And that doesn’t solve the ISIL problem.
My point is, Steve, that I think my main advice to my successor — now hopefully by the time I turn over the keys, we’ve made the kind of progress that I am expecting and will have pushed for over the course of the next 13 months …
INSKEEP: Do you think there will be a united front against ISIS by then?
OBAMA: I think we will have made significant progress in degrading ISIL by then.
INSKEEP: But that there will be a united front, this negotiation of diplomacy …
OBAMA: Well, we’ll see. The diplomacy I think is critically important because to the extent that we can get the Syrian regime, Iran, Russia to recognize what we believe is the core threat, which is ISIL, and the disintegration of social order in Sunni-controlled areas in Iraq and Syria, the more effective and faster we can go.
But what I would say to my successor is that it is important not just to shoot but to aim, and it is important in this seat to make sure that you are making your best judgments based on data, intelligence, the information that’s coming from your commanders and folks on the ground, and you’re not being swayed by politics.
INSKEEP: Whoever takes over this office after you might be a Democrat, might be a Republican, there may be a Republican Congress again. There likely will be a majority of Republican governors across the country, Republican state legislatures, because Democrats have lost so very many elections in the last several years.
How much risk is there that they will undo large parts of your legacy, as many Republicans actually have promised to do?
OBAMA: Well, first of all I’m confident that a Democrat will win the White House, and I think when you look at the quality of our Democratic candidates and what the Republican Party seems to be offering up, I think we will do well.
Second of all, I think we’ve got a good chance of winning back the Senate, and the truth of the matter is is that where Democrats have had problems is we had the misfortune of doing poorly in 2010 when there was redistricting, and in many of the successive elections Democrats have actually voted at higher rates. This was true in 2012, for example. There were more Democratic ballots cast for Democratic candidates than there were Republicans, but because of where Democrats live and where Republicans live, and because of the nature of the Senate, we ended up having problems.
So one of the things that I will be arguing over the course of the next year is to make sure that Democrats run an issue-based campaign on the things that we believe in and care about, and I think we’ve got a great track record of real progress on a whole range of fronts.
If we make those arguments clearly and forthrightly and aren’t defensive, then I’m actually confident we will do just fine.
INSKEEP: Have you insulated the climate deal, for example, which is so important to your legacy, from being undone by future presidents, given that many of the commitments you made in Paris are not legally binding?
OBAMA: Well, keep in mind that the Republican Party in the United States is perhaps literally the only major party in the developed world that is still engaging in climate denial. Even far-right parties in other places acknowledge that the science shows that temperatures are going up and that that is a really dangerous thing we’ve got to do something about.
And the deal that we struck in Paris was an example of American leadership at its best. We were able to mobilize 200 countries to make serious commitments that are transparent, where every country is going to be held accountable, where everybody chips in, and it doesn’t solve the entire problem, but it puts the world on track to deal with a problem that could be monumental in its effect if we don’t do something about it.
Now, the Republican Party right now is still resistant to it, but I’m confident that given the progress we can make with the clean power plant rule that reduces carbon emissions through our power plants …
INSKEEP: Which dozens of Republican governors are suing.
OBAMA: Well, they oppose, but it’s under the Clean Air Act and we are confident that it’s within our power. I think that the signal that we are sending to the private sector, that will in turn invest heavily in solar and wind and battery technologies, the doubling of fuel efficiency standards on cars, all these things start taking on a momentum of their own. And we have seen this since I came into office. Since my inauguration, the amount of wind power has tripled, the amount of solar power has gone up by 20 times. We’ve seen the costs of clean energy go down much faster than any of us anticipated. And the reason is is because people started adapting, and it turns out that, hey, Americans know how to innovate.
INSKEEP: So they can’t stop you?
OBAMA: And when we decide — what it means is that by the time that even a Republican president came into office, what you would have seen would be a growing realization that not only should we do something about climate change, but it’s not only a challenge, it’s also an opportunity, that it’s creating jobs, that it’s making a difference in people’s lives, that consumers are saving money.
When I doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars, that puts money in people’s pockets. When you retrofit a building so that it’s got better temperature control and you cut your light bill by 20 percent, 30 percent, you know what? Even consumers — or even Republican consumers end up saying that’s not a bad deal.
In fact, when it comes to solar power, you’ve got this weird coalition between environmentalists and Tea Party-ers in some Western states because the traditional dirty fuel industry is trying to prevent greater utilization of solar power.
So a lot of these things get institutionalized not just through government policy but through the impact that it has on the marketplace and the private sector.
INSKEEP: Mr. President, we are nearing the end of a year where the question of national identity, who we are, has been a part of one large event after another. I made a list here, in fact. Gay marriage, the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration, the question of whether to admit Syrian refugees into the country, the question of whether to admit Muslims into the country. All of them in some sense touch on that question of who we are.
What is the reason, the cause, what has caused that issue of who we are to come forward again and again and again at this moment in history?
OBAMA: Steve, it never went away. That’s at the center of the American experience. You pick any year or any decade in American history, and this question has been wrestled with. Sometimes it pops up a little more prominently, sometimes it gets tamped down a little bit, but this has been true since the founding and the central question of slavery and who is a citizen and who is not.
It was a debate that took place when, you know, there were signs on the doors saying “no Irish need apply.” It was a debate that happened during Japanese internment in World War II. It was obviously a debate in the South for most of our history and during the civil rights movement. And it’s been a debate that we’ve been having around issues of the LGBT community for at least most of my adult life.
So I don’t think there’s anything new about it. I do think that the country is inexorably changing, I believe in all kinds of positive ways. I think we are — when I talk to my daughters and their friends, I think they are more tolerant, more welcoming of people who are different than them, more sophisticated about different cultures and what’s happening around the world.
But I do think that when you combine that demographic change with all the economic stresses that people have been going through because of the financial crisis, because of technology, because of globalization, the fact that wages and incomes have been flatlining for some time, and that particularly blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy, where they are no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck, you combine those things and it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear. Some of it justified but just misdirected. I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that. That’s what he’s exploiting during the course of his campaign.
But in other cases, an issue like Black Lives Matter and the question of whether, you know, the criminal justice system applies equally to everybody, that’s been an issue in the African-American community, and to some degree in the Latino community, for decades. There’s no black family that hasn’t had a conversation around the kitchen table about driving while black and being profiled or being stopped.
I think really what’s changed over the last several years is the pervasiveness of smartphones and the visuals that suddenly have sparked a conversation about how we can deal with it. And although it’s uncomfortable sometimes, I actually think that over the long term it’s how, in Dr. King’s word, you get a disinfectant by applying sunlight to it, and people see, you know what? This is a true problem, and as a consequence we’ve been able to have conversations that might not have happened 20, 30, 40 years ago, with police chiefs who genuinely want to do the right thing, law enforcement who recognize that they are going to be able to deal with crime more effectively if they’ve got the trust of the communities.
You know, during that process there’s going to be some noise and some discomfort, but I am absolutely confident that over the long term, it leads to a fair, more just, healthier America. Sometimes progress is a little uncomfortable.
INSKEEP: Let me follow up on a couple of things you mentioned. You mentioned slavery. Among the many protests this year are two small but symbolically interesting ones at Ivy League universities. At your alma mater, Harvard Law, there is a seal for the school that is based on the family crest of a slave owner. At Yale there is a school named after John C. Calhoun, who was a great defender of slavery.
The call is to get rid of those symbols. What would you have the universities do?
OBAMA: You know, as president of the United States I probably don’t need to wade into every specific controversy at a …
INSKEEP: But you can do it. We’re here.
OBAMA: But here’s what I will say generally. I think it’s a healthy thing for young people to be engaged and to question authority and to ask why this instead of that, to ask tough questions about social justice. So I don’t want to discourage kids from doing that.
As I’ve said before, I do think that there have been times on college campuses where I get concerned that the unwillingness to hear other points of view can be as unhealthy on the left as on the right, and that, you know …
INSKEEP: Meaning listen to people that you might initially think are bigoted or …
OBAMA: Yes, there have been times where you start seeing on college campuses students protesting somebody like the director of the IMF or Condi Rice speaking on a campus because they don’t like what they stand for. Well, feel free to disagree with somebody, but don’t try to just shut them up.
If somebody doesn’t believe in affirmative action, they may disagree — you may disagree with them. I disagree with them, but have an argument with them. It is possible for somebody not to be racist and want a just society but believe that that is something that is inconsistent with the Constitution. And you should engage.
So my concern is not whether there is campus activism. I think that’s a good thing. But let kids ask questions and let universities respond. What I don’t want is a situation in which particular points of view that are presented respectfully and reasonably are shut down, and we have seen that sometimes happen.
INSKEEP: And you mentioned Donald Trump taking advantage of real anxieties in the country but that the anxieties are real. Some of that anxiety, as you know, focuses on you, Mr. President. And I want to set aside the politicians for a moment and just talk about ordinary voters. Do you feel over seven years that you’ve come to understand why it is that some ordinary people in America believe or fear that you are trying to change the country in some way that they cannot accept?
OBAMA: Well, look, if what you are asking me, Steve, is are there certain circumstances around being the first African-American president that might not have confronted a previous president, absolutely. You know, I think …
INSKEEP: I don’t know if that’s all of it.
OBAMA: I’m sure that’s not all of it …
INSKEEP: It’s not all I am asking, anyway. You could answer it anyway you want.
OBAMA: Well, you are asking a pretty broad question. I don’t know where to take it, so if you want to narrow it down, I can. If what you are suggesting is is that, you know, somebody questioning whether I was born in the United States or not, how do I think about that, I would say that that’s something that is actively promoted and may gain traction because of my unique demographic. I don’t think that that’s a big stretch.
But maybe you’ve got something else in mind.
INSKEEP: Years ago you made that remark, you were much criticized for saying something about people clinging to guns and religion. This is before you were even elected president. And although you were criticized for the phrasing of that, it seemed to me that you were attempting to figure out, what is it that people are thinking, what is it that’s bothering people? Now you’ve had several more years to think about that.
OBAMA: Well, keep in mind, Steve, I was elected twice by decent majorities. So the fact of the matter is that in a big country like this there is always going to be folks who are frustrated, don’t like the direction of the country, are concerned about the president. Some of them may not like my policies, some of them may just not like how I walk, or my big ears or, you know. So, I mean, no politician I think aspires to 100 percent approval ratings.
If you are referring to specific strains in the Republican Party that suggest that somehow I’m different, I’m Muslim, I’m disloyal to the country, etc., which unfortunately is pretty far out there and gets some traction in certain pockets of the Republican Party, and that have been articulated by some of their elected officials, what I’d say there is that that’s probably pretty specific to me and who I am and my background, and that in some ways I may represent change that worries them.
But that’s not to suggest that everybody who objects to my policies may not have perfectly good reasons for it. If you are living in a town that historically has relied on coal and you see coal jobs diminishing, you probably are going to be more susceptible to the argument that I’ve been wiping out the economy in your area.
It doesn’t matter if I tell them actually it’s probably because natural gas is a lot cheaper now so it doesn’t pay to build coal plants. If somebody tells you that this is because of Obama’s war on coal, well, you know, that’s an argument you may be sympathetic to. And that’s perfectly legitimate. So as I said, you asked a pretty open-ended question. I think you were being a little coy in how you asked it.
INSKEEP: I’m trying to give you room to answer.
OBAMA: No, I understand, but what I’m saying is that I think that there’s always going to be, every president, a certain cohort that just doesn’t like your policies, doesn’t like your party, what have you. I think if you are talking about the specific virulence of some of the opposition directed towards me, then, you know, that may be explained by the particulars of who I am.
On the other hand, I’m not unique to that. I always try to remind people that, goodness, if you look at what they said about Jefferson or Lincoln or FDR — finding reasons not to like a president, that’s, you know, a well-traveled path here in this country.