MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, many couples these days seem to act as though their wedding day is a celebration of historic proportions. But in the case of John Feinblatt and Jonathan Mintz, that is actually true. The New York couple are to be wed this Sunday by their boss, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and it will be one of the first to be performed under the state's new gay marriage law. We'll hear from both happy grooms in just a few minutes.
But first, a newsmaker interview. President Barack Obama has been at the center of the negotiations over government spending and raising the debt ceiling. A few weeks ago, the president set today, July 22nd, as the deadline to get an agreement in an effort to resolve the matter in advance of the August date on which the government will officially default on its obligations.
But with that deadline looming, a deal remains elusive. Many Republicans insist that they will not vote for a plan that includes any tax increases, while many Democrats say they won't cut entitlements.
We spoke with the president yesterday from the Oval Office. Mr. President, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.
President BARACK OBAMA: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: Of course, we want to talk about the negotiations over the debt and the debt ceiling on Wednesday. You said that you like the compromise offered by the so-called Gang of Six, that bipartisan group of three Republican and three Democratic senators. What's in this plan that's been missing from earlier efforts, that makes it appealing to you?
OBAMA: Well actually, its not so much that its hugely different from some of the previous frameworks that were, for example, put out by my fiscal commission or that I talked about several months ago. What was different was that you had Republican senators acknowledging that revenues need to be part of a balanced package. And you had Democratic senators acknowledge that we're going to have to make some difficult spending cuts in order to achieve the kinds of debt and deficit reduction that are important to the economy.
So what Ive said consistently, and what I think this bipartisan group of senators confirmed - and frankly, what everybody who has looked at this whos outside the political process has acknowledged - is, is that in order for us to solve the debt and deficit problems, we've got to cut spending that we don't need; we have to eliminate programs that may not be working; we've got to make some tough decisions around things like defense spending as well as domestic spending.
But we're also going to have to have more revenues, and we can do that in a way that is not hurting the economy; in fact, that could potentially help the economy by closing up some loopholes that distort the economy. So my hope is, is that with that acknowledgement that we need a balanced approach, that Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are going to be willing to engage in the kind of compromise that can resolve this problem.
MARTIN: What do you think the hold-up has been so far? Do you think that people - there are people who really do not believe the consequences will really be as dire as many people say they will be if the debt ceiling is not raised? Do you think it's the case that some people won't support a compromise just because you do? What - what do you think the hold-up's been?
OBAMA: Well, probably a little bit of all of the above. You've got some members of the Republican Party who've been downplaying the consequences of default. The irony is, you know, Ronald Reagan, I think, when he was president, repeatedly talked about how irresponsible it would be to allow the full faith and credit of the United States to be impaired in any kind of way. I think that there is some politics. And compromising with me, among some Republican leaders, is bad politics for them.
I also think that - in fairness - that the decisions we've got to make right now are tough ones, and nobody likes them. I mean, it's always easier to give people more benefits and cut their taxes than it is to raise more revenue and reduce benefits. And so what we've got to do is to have an honest conversation with each other about each side taking on some of their sacred cows.
And frankly, that's what the American people expect. I mean, what you've been seeing in recent polling is, the American people agree with the approach that I've talked about - a balanced approach. Even the majority of Republicans agree that it shouldn't just be spending cuts; that those, like myself, who've been incredibly blessed and can afford to pay a little more, or oil companies that are doing very well and don't need the tax breaks that are currently in the tax code, that weve got to make some sacrifices as well to solve the problem.
MARTIN: Well, lets talk a little bit more about those sacrifices, though. We've talked a lot about taxes and raising taxes, and the argument around that. But let's talk about it the other way. Specifically this plan, this bipartisan plan would trim the amount that goes into entitlement programs. Now, you've been saying everybody's got to give something
MARTIN: and you're willing to give up on some things that are important to other Democrats, to progressives. But what about - what is your message to Democrats - and perhaps I should say progressives - who say that the most vulnerable people in this country have already suffered too much in recent years and gotten too little?
OBAMA: Well, I think what's absolutely true is, is that core commitments that we make to the most vulnerable have to be maintained. And so a lot of the spending cuts that we're making should be around areas like defense spending, as opposed to food stamps. I do think that when it comes to entitlements, when we're talking about Social Security and Medicare, that those aren't entitlement programs where people aren't contributing; it would be that they are social insurance programs that people have been making contributions to, and they are the most important part of our social safety net so that when people retire, they can retire with dignity and respect.
What is true is that given the rising number of seniors, and given the huge escalation in health-care costs, that if we don't structure those programs so that they are sustainable, then its going to be hard for the next generation to enjoy those kinds - same kinds of benefits. And so we are going to have to make some modest changes that retain the integrity of the program, but make sure that they're there for years to come. And that's not even just a deficit problem, that's a - a step that even if we were all Democrats up here on Capitol Hill, we'd have to start making, to make sure that the integrity of those programs are preserved.
MARTIN: Let's talk about the unemployed for a minute.
MARTIN: I think you probably know the numbers better than I do
MARTIN but just for those who don't, that there are 14 million Americans who don't have jobs right now. Perhaps the real number might be as high as 16 million, and the overall rate is 9.2 percent. Among Latinos, its 11.6 percent; among African Americans, its 16 - 16.2 percent, which is a very large number. You know, theres - so much of the conversation in recent days has been around the debt, the $14 trillion debt. What do you say to people who might be listening to our conversation right now, who are unemployed, and who are saying: When will there be daily meetings about us?
OBAMA: Well, first of all, in the White House there are daily meetings about the unemployed. The single most important thing we can do for the economy is putting people back to work. And by the way, if we put more people back to work, that in and of itself reduces the deficit because those folks are paying taxes and less in need of things like unemployment insurance and - and that's part of the reason why the deficit exploded over the last decade. But also over the last two years, in particular, is because a lot of folks have been not getting raises, not seeing their wages increase. Or they've been losing their jobs, or they don't have health care and so they make more demands on government. So we've got to focus on jobs.
Now, there are some things that we can do right now that would make a difference. Some of the tax breaks to small business, the payroll tax cut that put a thousand dollars into the pockets of the average family - all those things are designed to boost the economy, allow businesses to hire back workers. I've talked about the need for infrastructure. We've got all sorts of work that needs to be done on roads and bridges and broadband lines and high-speed rail that could put folks who've been laid off from the housing industry and construction back to work right now in rebuilding America.
We've got trade deals pending that could create tens of thousands of jobs here in the United States of America. So there are things that we can do right now. The argument that I've consistently made is that if we are able to do some serious work on debts and deficits, then it removes the focus solely on what we can't do- what government can't do - and we can get back to talking about what are some things that we can do, that can really make a difference.
And you know, I don't think that it's contradictory to say that we want to get our fiscal house in order so that we can really make sure that we're doing everything we can on education, and doing everything we can on research and development, everything we can on promoting clean energy jobs, because as long as our fiscal house isn't in order, then its very hard to move forward on new initiatives that would make a big dent on the unemployment front.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our guest is the president of the United States, Barack Obama.
I wanted to dig in a little bit more on the 16.2 percent unemployment figure, which is - it seems to set off a fairly intense debate, particularly among African- American intellectuals. The Princeton professor Cornell West, whom you know, who was a supporter of yours in the last election, recently called you - forgive me - a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.
And the question is, do you think you have any special responsibility to look out for the interest of African-Americans?
OBAMA: I have a special responsibility to look out for the interests of every American. That's my job as president of the United States, and I wake up every morning trying to promote the kinds of policies that are going to make the biggest difference for the most number of people so that they can live out their American Dream.
MARTIN: But you know, of course, many people said that Dr. West's remarks were over the top and out of bounds, but their criticism of his remarks were that number one, talking about race is just not productive and two, that those remarks enable people who are not according you and your presidency respect - the respect that they feel is owed, in part, because of your race. And I wonder if you think that any of that is true.
OBAMA: I think that when you're president of the United States, it comes with the territory that folks are going to criticize you. That's what I signed up for.
MARTIN: We need to take a short break. And in a moment, we will bring you the rest of our conversation with President Obama, including his thoughts about criticism of his wife, and what's on his wish list for his upcoming 50th birthday. And later in the program, we'll hear what the Barbershop guys have to say. That's ahead.
Please stay with on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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