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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Interview With President Barack Obama

Aired January 31, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Making headlines and prompting conversations all day, our exclusive interview with President Obama.

And now, for the very first time this hour, you can see the whole thing in its entirety right here.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can't wait. And the American people, more importantly, cannot wait.


TAPPER: The national lead, THE LEAD's exclusive with President Obama, his first interview since the State of the Union, the commander in chief very frank about using his pen as a sword against Congress, also talking about compromise with Republicans on immigration, Afghanistan, the NSA, why his policies still lump marijuana in with cocaine and heroin. How nervous is he about a terrorist attack at the Sochi Olympics? And, of course, a few lighter moments, including:


OBAMA: I think it's going to come down to the last play.


TAPPER: Like the rest of the America, the president will be in front of a TV on Sunday watching the Super Bowl. In perhaps the cagiest moment of our interview, I will try to pin down his call on who is going to Disneyland after the final play.

And the sports lead. Hey, guys, why don't you guys refill the bean dip this year? The ladies are too busy watching the Super Bowl. Women have become a huge part of the NFL audience, and they have got the Peyton Manning jerseys to prove it.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the national lead. The country watched this week as President Obama laid out his agenda for the year in his State of the Union address and warned that if the potential gridlock in Congress continues, he will not hesitate to go around them wherever and whenever he can. But there was only so much detail the president could get into during an hour-and-five-minute speech, and so he decided to sit down with us in Waukesha, Wisconsin, exclusively for his very first post-State of the Union interview, where he filled in some of the details of the grand plans he announced in his speech.

But our conversation went much further than that, encompassing everything from his battles with the Republicans to his views on legalizing marijuana to whether his early idealism has been tarnished.

The president is making good on his vow to go it alone through executive actions and executive orders. Just today, he met with CEOs from companies like Apple and Wal-Mart. He got 300 of these companies to sign a pact to give more consideration and not discriminate against the long-term unemployed, despite gaps in their resumes.

And then the president signed a memo directing the federal government to do the same. There are nearly four million of the long-term unemployed in the U.S. It's a big part of the unemployment problem, perhaps the biggest part.

And when I sat down exclusively with President Obama, our conversation quickly turned to them.


TAPPER: Thanks for doing this, Mr. President.

OBAMA: Great to be with you, Jake.

TAPPER: So your big push in the State of the Union and here is whatever you cannot accomplish with Congress, you will take executive action or issue executive orders.

How much can you really accomplish doing that?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, my big push is making sure we're focused on opportunity, making sure that every single day, all of us in Washington are trying to think about ways that we can help folks get good jobs, make sure that they're trained for the good jobs that are out there, make sure that those jobs pay, make sure our kids are getting a great education.

Those are the issues that the American people still, you know, very much are concerned about.

And, obviously, there is going to be more that we can do if Congress is able to break through some of the gridlock. And if we're able to, for example, pass immigration reform, that is going to add growth to our economy reduce our deficits...

TAPPER: You don't seem confident that that's going to happen, though.

OBAMA: No, actually I -- I actually think that we have a good chance of getting immigration reform done.

TAPPER: Oh, I don't mean immigration reform. I mean the jobs issue, though.

OBAMA: I -- I think there are going to be some issues where it's going to be tough for them to move forward. And I am going to continue to reach out to them and say here are my best ideas, I want to hear yours.

But, as I said at the State of the Union, I can't wait. And the American people, more importantly, cannot wait.

We know that one of the biggest problems right now in the jobs market is the long-term unemployed.

TAPPER: Yes, they're having trouble -- people won't hire them...

OBAMA: People...

TAPPER: ... because they've been unemployed so long.

OBAMA: ... because they've been employed -- unemployed so long, folks are looking at that gap in the resume and they're weeding them out before these folks even get a chance for an interview.

So what we have done is to gather together 300 companies, just to start with, including some of the top 50 companies in the country, companies like Wal-Mart and Apple, Ford and others, to say let's establish best practices. Do not screen people out of the hiring process just because they've been out of work for a long time.

We just went through the worst recession since the Great Depression. And so I'll be convening a meeting where a -- a number of these top companies will be coming in, agreeing to these best practices. And we'll have an opportunity to you know, encourage more people to come in.

All those things cumulatively are going to have an impact.

Will we be able to have more of an impact if we can get Congress, for example, to pass a minimum wage law that applies to everybody, as opposed to me just through executive order making sure that folks who are contractors to the federal government have to pay a minimum wage?

Absolutely. And that's why I'm going to keep on reaching out to them. But I'm not going to wait for them.

TAPPER: Your critics say this is diminished expectations. And I've been covering you for a long, long time, as you remember, 2005-2006 in the Senate. I remember during the campaign when you talked about your presidency being a moment when the rise of the oceans would slow and the nation and the world would heel.

And now you're talking about pen and phone and executive orders and executive actions.

Do you think you were naive back then or have you recalibrated your expectations and your ambitions? OBAMA: Well, part of it is we got a lot of that stuff done. We've got in this country a health care reform that has already signed up millions of people and make sure that everybody who is watching, anybody who already has insurance, will not be dropped because of a preexisting condition. And if they don't have health insurance, they can get it on

We have made enormous strides on the education front, changing our student loan programs. And millions more young people get student loans.

And so part of what's happened is that checklist that I had when I came into office, we have passed a lot of that.

And so in no way are my expectations diminished or my ambitions diminished, but what is obviously true is we've got divided government right now. The House Republicans, in particular, have had difficulty rallying around any agenda, much less mine.

And in that kind of environment, what I don't want is the American people to think that the only way for us to make big change is through legislation. We've all got to work together to continue to provide opportunity for the next generation.

TAPPER: And let's talk about House Republicans, because -- and -- and Senate Republicans. And there's a -- they have -- there has been a large contingency of Republicans critical of your new approach. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who might run for president, calls this the imperial presidency.

And in the House, there is this thing, as you know, called the STOP Act. They want to rein in what you're trying to do.

How do you respond to that?

OBAMA: Well, I don't think that's very serious. I mean, the truth of the matter is, is that every president engages in executive actions.

In fact, we've been very disciplined and sparing in terms of the executive actions that we have taken. We make sure that we're doing it within the authority that we have under statute.

But I am not going to make an apology for saying that if I can help middle-class families and folks who are working hard to try to get in the middle class do a little bit better, then I'm going to do it.

And, you know, I think it's -- it's a tough argument for the other side to make that not only are they willing to do an -- not do anything, but they also want me not to do anything in which case, I think the American people who's, right now, estimation of Congress is already pretty low might have an even lower opinion.

TAPPER: The STOP Act is not something you take seriously?

OBAMA: I -- I am not particularly worried about it.

TAPPER: Let's talk about areas where you might be able to make some progress.


TAPPER: I know that a pathway to citizenship and immigration reform is very important to you. And it's very important to Democrats and others.

It's possible that you might be able to get an immigration reform bill on your desk that has legal status for the millions of undocumented workers who are in this country, but not citizenship.

Would you veto that?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I'm not going to prejudge what gets to my desk.

TAPPER: Right. But how important...

OBAMA: But...


TAPPER: ... is that principle?

OBAMA: Well, I think the principle that we don't want two classes of people in America is a principle that a lot of people agree with, not just me and not just Democrats.

But I am encouraged by you know, what Speaker Boehner has said. Obviously, I was encouraged by the bipartisan bill that passed out of the Senate. I genuinely believe that Speaker Boehner and a number of House Republicans, folks like Paul Ryan, really do want to get a serious immigration reform bill done.

If the speaker proposes something that says right away, folks aren't being deported, families aren't being separated, we're able to attract top young students to provide the skills or start businesses here and then there's a regular process of citizenship, I'm not sure how wide the divide ends up being. That's why I'd want to prejudge it.

TAPPER: I just wonder if you see this all -- this at all in terms of especially the pathway to citizenship...


TAPPER: ... in the way that you seemed to when we were -- when you were passing health care reform and I was covering it, the public option. In other words, it would be great, in your view, if you could do it. It's not going to happen and there might be some expectation setting you have to do because I -- having reported on this, I don't think House Republicans can pass anything that has a pathway to citizenship.

OBAMA: Well, here -- here's the good news, though.

Number one, there is a desire to get it done. And that, particularly in this Congress, is a huge piece of business, because they haven't gotten a lot done over the last couple of years out of the House Republican Caucus. They -- they've been willing to say what they're against, not so much what they're for.

The fact that they're for something, I think, is progress. I do know that for a lot of families the fear of deportation is one of the biggest concerns that they've got.

And that's why we took executive actions given my prosecutorial discretion, to make sure we're not deporting kids who grew up here and are Americans for all practical purposes.

But we need to get that codified. And the question is, are -- is there more that we can do in this legislation that gets both Democratic and Republican support, but solves these broader problems, including strengthening borders and making sure that we have a legal immigration system that works better than it currently does.


TAPPER: We have more from my interview with the president coming up, including his connection to Sergeant 1st Class Cory Remsburg, the wounded Army Ranger President Obama honored so memorably during his State of the Union speech.

And then I got to the question on everyone's mind.


TAPPER: I'm going to give you a choice. You just have to pick one. I will give you two.


TAPPER: Hillary vs. Biden or Broncos vs. Seahawks. You have to tell me -- you have to pick one and give me the winner.




TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Continuing our national lead with more of my exclusive interview with President Obama, the first following his State of the Union Address. The president has been quite candid about his use of marijuana as a younger man. So candid, in fact, that some wondered just how much he supports the restrictions on pot as spelled out by his own administration's policies.

And that's where we pick up my conversation with the president right now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TAPPER: Another big issue in this country right now has to do with the legalization of marijuana. You gave an interview to "The New Yorker's" David Remnick, and you said that you thought smoking pot was a bad habit, but you didn't think it was any worse for a person than drinking.

Now, that contradicts the official Obama administration policy, both on the Web site of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and also the fact that marijuana is considered a schedule one narcotic, along with heroin and Ecstasy.

Now, do you think you were maybe talking just a little too casually about it with Remnick and "The New Yorker"? Or are you considering not making marijuana a Schedule One narcotic?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, first of all, what is and isn't a schedule one narcotic is a job for Congress. It's not --

TAPPER: I think it's the DEA that decides --

OBAMA: It's -- it's not -- it's not something by ourselves that we start changing. No, there are laws undergirding those determinations --

TAPPER: Would you support that move?

OBAMA: But the broader point, I stand by my belief, based, I think, on the scientific evidence that marijuana, for casual users, individual users, is subject to abuse, just like alcohol is and should be treated as a public health problem and challenge.

But as I said in the interview, my concern is when you end up having very heavy criminal penalties for individual users that have been applied unevenly, and in some cases, with a racial disparity.

I think that is a problem.

Over the long-term, what I believe is if we can deal with some of the criminal penalty issues, then we can really tackle what is a problem not just for marijuana, but also alcohol, also cigarettes, also, harder drugs, and that is, try to make sure that our kids don't get, don't get into these habits in the first place.

And, you know, the incarceration model that we've taken, particularly around marijuana, does not seem to have produced the kinds of results that we've set.

But I do offer a cautionary note. And I said this in the -- in the interview, those who think legalization is a panacea, I think they have to ask themselves --

TAPPER: Right.

OBAMA: -- some tough questions, too, because if we start having a situation where big corporations with a lot of resources and distribution and marketing arms are suddenly going out there peddling marijuana, then, the levels of abuse that may take place are going to --

TAPPER: Are going to be higher.

OBAMA: -- are going to be higher.

TAPPER: When your director of National Intelligence, General James Clapper, uh, testified before Congress and said, before the Snowden leaks, that there were no mass surveillance going on, a lot of Democrats in the Senate think that he was not honest. He said like -- later, that it was the least untruthful answer he could give.

I know that you have faith in Clapper. I know that you believe that these programs protect the American people.

But I can't believe that you weren't disappointed by his answer, because least untruthful is not a phrase I remember hearing on the campaign trail.

OBAMA: The -- I think that Jim Clapper himself would acknowledge, and has acknowledged, that he should have been more careful about how he responded. His concern was that he had a classified program that he couldn't talk about and he was in an open hearing in which he was asked, he was prompted to disclose a program, and so he felt that he was caught between a rock and a hard place.

Now, sub --

TAPPER: So you understand what he did?

OBAMA: -- subsequently, I think he's acknowledged that he could have handled it better. He's spoken to Mr. Wyden, personally. I think the broader point is that everybody that I've dealt with in our intelligence community is really working hard to try to do a very tough job to protect us, when there are constant threat streams coming at us, but doing so in a way that's consistent with the law and is consistent with our Constitution, consistent with our privacy rights.

I am actually confident that we can continue to have the best intelligence service in the world, but win back the confidence of both the American people, as well as folks oversees.

But it's going to take some time, it's going to take some work, partly because the technology has just moved so quickly that the discussions that need to be had, didn't happen fast enough, didn't happen on the front end. And, you know, I think that we have the opportunity now to move forward in a way that is going to make a difference.

TAPPER: A lot of members of Congress and not just like the fringe ones, the ones who actually are serious lawmakers, have said to CNN that they would not let their family members to go Sochi, that they are not confident that it will be safe.

You see all the intelligence.

OBAMA: I do.

TAPPER: I know that you're not going. I know Michelle and Sasha and Malia are not going.

But if close friends of yours, or close friends of the girls', said, hey, we're thinking about going, what would you tell them?

OBAMA: I'd tell them that I believe that Sochi is safe and that there are always some risks in these large international gatherings. I'm always going to feel even better if it's inside the United States, because then we have full control over what happens.

But the Russian authorities understand the stakes here. They understand that there are potential threats that are out there. And, we are coordinating with them. We've looked at their plans. I think we have a good sense of the security that they're putting in place to protect not only the athletes themselves, but also visitors there.

So what I would say is, is that if you want to go to the Olympics, you should go to the Olympics. And, you know, we're not discouraging, in any way, Americans from participating in what is just always an amazing, wonderful event.

In these large settings like this, there are always some risks involved. And I don't want to completely discount those, but as we've seen here in the United States and, you know, at the Boston marathon, I mean there were -- there were some risks if you have lone wolves, or small cells of folks who are trying to do some damage.

TAPPER: I just want to say, as somebody who's covered the war in Afghanistan, the moment where you honored Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg --


TAPPER: -- at the State of the Union, I felt, was a very moving and important moment. And what I admired about it was the nation, so many times, doesn't seem to want to know the costs of war and seeing him and his struggle, I thought, was very important for the country to see.

OBAMA: It -- the biggest honor I have is serving as commander-in- chief. And you meet these amazing people every single day. But they're carrying a big burden. And, you know, on the one hand, we've got this all volunteer army that makes it outstanding. These are people who want to serve, who are eager to serve, who are trained to serve. We've never had a better military in our history.

But it also means only 1 percent of the American people are in harm's way. And their families are the ones who are bearing that burden, which means that when we make decisions about war, it is that much more important for lawmakers and the president to understand that there are consequences to this. And, I think, you know, folks like Cory are the first ones to say, we volunteer because we want to defend this country.

And what we accomplished in Afghanistan in terms of pushing back the core of al Qaeda has been critical to our national security.

But as I said at the State of the Union, I am not, as commander-in- chief, going to be sending our young men and women into open-ended conflicts, or deploying our troops in large numbers overseas without thinking about folks like Cory before I send them.

And, it's -- you know, it's the most profound, solemn decision that any president makes. I'm sure that was true for all my predecessors and will be true for my successors. All of us, as Americans, have to just keep that in mind, that a -- that just because there isn't a draft and just because this is an all volunteer army, that the burdens that are being carried by this small group of Americans is profound and we owe them thanks. We owe them all the support they deserve, once it's over.

TAPPER: Thank you for your time, sir.

OBAMA: Thank you.

TAPPER: Really appreciate it.

OBAMA: Appreciate it.


TAPPER: When we come back, what power does the president have to change marijuana classification? Well, perhaps a little bit more than he said.


TAPPER: The politics lead. A teeny bit of a fact here. During my exclusive interview with President Obama, the commander in chief said that marijuana is a drug that's subject to abuse just like alcohol. But when I asked him if he was willing to downgrade pot from a schedule one narcotic, along with heroine, a category with LSD and Ecstasy, the president put the responsibility on Congress to make the move.

Now, we checked it out. According to the DEA's own Web site, the president's attorney general has the authority to, quote, "remove any drug or other substance from the schedules if he thinks it's been mislabeled. So, Congress certainly has input into these things. But if this is an issue the president happens to feel strongly about, he can tell his administration to act.