Obama Hopes To Seize Momentum For Criminal Justice Reform : It's All Politics "Frankly, we've done a pretty good job on some big pieces of business, which then allows me also to focus on some issues that we might have been working on quietly," Obama told NPR.

Obama Hopes To Seize Momentum For Criminal Justice Reform

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We have watched the events in Ferguson, Mo., in recent days - the anniversary of Michael Brown's death, more protests, more tension with police.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This past year has seen civil unrest in many places in this country - Long Island, Baltimore, Cleveland - as people protest the treatment of African-Americans by police.

GREENE: The nation's first African-American president has had to confront this issue head on. And he's repeatedly made statements about race. As he prepared for a summer vacation, he sat down with our colleague Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The president's most notable statement came in Charleston, S.C. That's where he delivered a eulogy for nine African-Americans killed by a white man in a church. He's also been pushing to reduce the number of prison inmates, who are disproportionately black. And the president has continued addressing the killings of black men at the hands of police. Some of his supporters feel the president has finally found his voice. That was on our minds as we met Obama at the White House late last week.

Michael Eric Dyson wrote the other day in The New York Times about your presidency and began his article with this sentence - we finally have the president we thought we elected, one who talks directly and forcefully about race and human rights. Now, it could be that you're talking more about these issues simply because of the news in the past year or so - a series of shootings.

BARACK OBAMA: Right.

INSKEEP: But I'd like to know if you think there is something else that is prompting you to hold forth more or hold back less on that issue.

OBAMA: You know, I think I've been pretty consistent if you look at my statements throughout my presidency. Some of it, I think, is events. My first two years, people were very interested in making sure we didn't sink into a Great Depression. And so I had a lot of commentary on the economy and on the financial system and on the need for Wall Street reform, and that occupied a lot of soundbites. Yeah, we still had two wars that we were in the midst of. And so there's a lot of big business that I've had to do.

What is true is that there has been an awakening around the country to some problems in race relations and police community relations that aren't new. They date back for decades. Because of smartphones and cameras and, you know, social media, I think people have become more aware of them, both black and white. And that gives me an opportunity, I think, then to try to help to constructively shape the debate.

INSKEEP: Were you looking for that opportunity all along?

OBAMA: Yeah, I think that one of the things I've learned about being president is that, you know, we'll work on issues for a long periods of time, sometimes in obscurity. For example, on the issue of criminal justice reform, I had a conversation with Eric Holder when I came into office...

INSKEEP: Your former attorney general?

OBAMA: My former attorney general - about how could we address the issue of these ridiculous mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses that are filling up our jails. And we did a whole bunch of work without getting a lot of attention with U.S. attorneys around the country changing incentives so that they didn't feel as if being a good prosecutor meant always slapping the longest sentence on people.

INSKEEP: The president says the prison population is already dropping, and he wants to do more.

OBAMA: Wherever I see an opportunity these days, with only 18 months to go, I intend to seize it.

INSKEEP: But is this also an issue where the first black president just couldn't attack it very hard in the first term because other things had to be dealt with first, other ground had to be covered first...

OBAMA: Well, yes...

INSKEEP: ...For political reasons, if nothing else?

OBAMA: See, that I don't buy. I think it's fair to say that if in my first term Ferguson had flared up, as president of the United States I would have been commenting on what was happening in Ferguson. So here's one thing I will say, is that I feel a great urgency to get as much done as possible. And there's no doubt that after over six-and-a-half years on this job, I probably have an easier time juggling a lot of different issues. And it may be that my passions show a little bit more just because I've been around this track now for a while.

And I think I can keep - and frankly, we've done a pretty good job on some big pieces of business, which then allows me also to focus on some issues that we might have been working on it quietly but weren't getting as much attention. But the main - you know, the main thing that may have changed is instead of having a year and a half behind me and six-and-a-half years in front of me, I now have six-and-a-half years behind me and a year and a half in front of me, so I got to keep moving. I - you know, it's like - what'd Satchel Paige say? Don't look behind you. You don't know what might be catching up. You know, you just want to keep on running.

INSKEEP: Those were the president's last words to the media before traveling to Martha's Vineyard - or almost the last words.

OBAMA: Thank you guys. I'm going on vacation, so leave me alone.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: I'm going on vacation, he said, so leave me alone.

GREENE: The full video of Steve's interview with President Obama, including the president's defense of the nuclear deal with Iran, is at our website, npr.org.

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