Q: That’s interesting you talk about the disparities in African Americans, because many civil rights leaders, to include persons in the NAACP, are upset that the Senate version does not have the public option; the House has the public option. And the Senate and the House version are very far apart. What are the fears that you have going forward with trying to get a health care reform bill together in a timely fashion?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I think it’s important to understand, April, that the Senate and the House bills are 95 percent identical. There’s 5 percent differences, and one of those differences is the public option. But this is an area that has just become symbolic of a lot of ideological fights. As a practical matter, this is not the most important aspect to this bill — the House bill or the Senate bill.
And the idea behind the public option was is that alongside these choices that you could choose from in the private insurance industry, you could also potentially get a government-managed plan. But it was only going to apply to a few million people who were buying into the exchange. So it wasn’t like suddenly everybody would just go out there and buy a government-run plan; most people will still get health insurance from their employers. What will happen is, is that if you don’t get health insurance through your employers, you can then go to this what we’re calling a health care exchange, get a subsidy, and buy health insurance through that exchange.
But either way, whether there’s a public option in there or not, if you don’t have health insurance, you are going to have now the option of getting it at a reasonable cost. And that’s the most important thing. And as I said, nobody has a bigger stake than the African American community in this, because disproportionately, we’re the ones without health insurance.
Q: Speaking of the African American community, this seems to be a shift in black leadership, as it relates to supporting you. You have the CBC that’s upset with you about targeting on the jobs front — African Americans, 15.6 percent unemployment rate, expected to go to 20 percent; mainstream America 10 percent. Then you have black actors who supported you — Danny Glover, who’s saying that you’ve not changed, your administration is the same as George W. Bush. What are your thoughts about the fact that black leadership is grumbling, and the fact that people are concerned with you being the first African American President, and they thought that there would be a little bit more compassion for black issues?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, April, I think you just engaged in a big generalization in terms of how you asked that question. If you want me to line up all the black actors, for example, who support me, and put them on one side of the room, and a couple who are grumbling on the other, I’m happy to have that.
I think if you look at the polling, in terms of the attitudes of the African American community, there’s overwhelming support for what we’ve tried to do. And, so, is there grumbling? Of course there’s grumbling, because we just went through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And everybody is concerned about unemployment, everybody’s concerned about businesses not hiring, everybody’s concerned about their home values declining. And in each of these areas, African Americans have been disproportionately affected. We were some of the folks who were most affected by predatory lending. There’s a long history of us being the last hired and the first fired. As I said, health care — we’re the ones who are in the worst position to absorb companies deciding to drop their health care plans.
So, should people be satisfied? Absolutely not. But let’s take a look at what I’ve done. The Recovery Act helped to lift up an economy that was teetering on the verge of depression. We made sure that states didn’t engage in budget cuts to cut teachers and firefighters and police officers, many of whom are African American. Unemployment insurance we have put in place so that folks can still make their payments and keep their electricity on as consequence of what we’ve done. We have now made enormous investments, historic investments in education, a lot of that targeted into the inner city. Health care I already discussed. This will be hugely important for the African American community.
So this notion somehow that because there wasn’t a transformation overnight that we’ve been neglectful is simply factually not accurate.
Now, do we have to do more work? Absolutely. Because as I said before, the African American community was already hurting before the recession. And that means that the steps we’re taking around education reform, to make sure our schools are performing properly; the fact that, for example, we have recorded historic increases in Pell grants and Perkins loans, which disproportionately help our folks; that is all projected to get our education system up and running, so that it’s working for young people, they can take advantage of the jobs of the future.
When we are designing our green jobs initiatives, one of the things that we’re looking at is how do we make sure that young people in the cities who are going to be weatherized are trained for those weatherization jobs, to put them on a track for a trade over the long term. Small business lending, we have increased Small Business Administration loans by 73 percent, because banks weren’t lending. Those are being lent to African American small businesses, who are out there struggling because the larger banks aren’t helping them out.
So we have made a series of steps that make a huge difference. The only thing I cannot do is, you know, by law I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks. I’m the President of the entire United States. What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That in turn is going to help lift up the African American community.
But we’re going to have a hole that we have to dig out of for a long time, and it has to do with structural impediments to opportunity that we are going to continue to try to knock down. But it’s not going to happen in one year; it’s going to take not just one term, but it’s going to take years. The important point is that we’re moving in the right direction.
Q: And lastly, you’ll be coming up with your State of the Union, your first State of the Union in January. And I know you’re going to speak to all America. But, in your opinion, what is the state of black America?
THE PRESIDENT: You know, I think this continues to be the best of times and the worst of times. I mean, I think it’s the best of times in the sense that never has there been more opportunity for African Americans who have received a good education and are in a position then to walk through the doors that are opened. And, obviously, you and me sitting here in the Oval Office is a testament to that.
I think it’s the worst of times in the sense that unemployment and the lack of opportunity, particularly in some cities, has never been worse. I mean, you look at a city like Detroit where you used to have an enormous African American middle class built on the auto industry — that city is in hard, hard times right now.
Now, just going back to the point you raised earlier about our responsiveness to the African American community, imagine what Detroit would look like if we hadn’t stepped in to make sure that GM stayed open, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. Having said that, if you’ve got double digit unemployment in cities like that, we’re going to have to make some special efforts, and it starts with early childhood education; it starts with education generally. That’s why I’m putting such a big emphasis on that. But it also means that every federal agency has to make sure that the assistance that’s being made available to the general population is targeting those hard to reach places, so that they are also benefiting from our overall efforts to lift up the economy.
I’m optimistic about the long term future of the African American community, but it’s going to take work. It was never going to be done just because we elected me. It’s going to be a collaborative effort between people in the community who recognize that we’re going to have to rely on government to do some things, but a lot of these things we’re going to have to do ourselves.