Univision’s “Meet the Candidate” forum with President Obama
Q: Before we start, before talking about education and its future, we would like to talk about something that is happening right now in recent news. As we know, at the present time, 1,000 people are trying to get into the embassy in Pakistan, and we have seen protests, anti-American protests in thousands of countries.
We know in Libya, four Americans were killed. We know now that Ambassador Chris Stevens warned about security days before he was killed. Many people want to know whether — if you expected so much anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world. And why wasn’t your administration better prepared with more security at our embassies on September 11?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, obviously we mourn the loss of the Americans who were killed in Benghazi. But I think it’s important to understand that that’s not representative of the attitudes of the Libyan people towards America, because they understand because of the incredible work that our diplomats did as well as our men and women in uniform, we liberated that country from a dictator who had terrorized them for 40 years. And Chris Stevens, the ambassador there, was one of the leaders of that process. So when he was killed, there were vigils in Libya but also in front of the White House expressing the deep sorrow that the Libyan people felt towards them.
What we’ve seen over the last week, week and a half, is something that actually we’ve seen in the past, where there is an offensive video or cartoon directed at the prophet Muhammad. And this is obviously something that then is used as an excuse by some to carry out inexcusable violent acts directed at Westerners or Americans.
And my number-one priority is always to keep our diplomats safe and to keep our embassies safe. And so when the initial events happened in Cairo and all across the region, we worked with Secretary Clinton to redouble our security and to send a message to the leaders of these countries, essentially saying, although we had nothing to do with the video, we find it offensive, it’s not representative of America’s views, how we treat each other with respect when it comes to their religious beliefs, but we will not tolerate violence.
And our goal now is not only to make sure that our embassies and our diplomats are safe, but also to make sure that we bring those who carried out these events to justice.
There is a larger issue, and that is what’s going to be happening in the Arab Spring as these countries transition from dictatorship to democracy. And we cannot replace the tyranny of a dictator with the tyranny of a mob. And so my message to the Presidents of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and these other countries is, we want to be a partner with you, we will work with you, and we stand on the side of democracy, but democracy is not just an election; it’s also, are you looking out for minority rights, are you respecting freedom of speech, are you treating women fairly.
All these issues are ones that the region is going to wrestle with. The one thing we can’t do is withdraw from the region, because the United States continues to be the one indispensable nation. And even countries where the United States is criticized, they still want our leadership and they still look to us to make sure that we’re providing opportunity and peace. And so we’re going to continue to work in these regions.
Q: We have reports that the White House said today that the attacks in Libya were a terrorist attack. Do you have information indicating that it was Iran, or al Qaeda was behind organizing the protests?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we’re still doing an investigation, and there are going to be different circumstances in different countries. And so I don’t want to speak to something until we have all the information. What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests –
Q: Al Qaeda?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we don’t know yet. And so we’re going to continue to investigate this. We’ve insisted on and have received so far full cooperation from countries like Egypt and Libya and Tunisia in not only protecting our diplomatic posts, but also to make sure that we discover who, in fact, is trying to take advantage of this.
But this is part of the reason why we have to remain vigilant. Look, when I came into office I said I would end the war in Iraq — and I did. I said that we would begin transitioning in Afghanistan so that over time Afghans can take responsibility for their own security. But what I also said was we’re going to have to focus narrowly and forcefully on groups like al Qaeda, the ones that carried out the 9/11 attacks and the ones that still threaten U.S. interests.
And those forces have not gone away. We’ve decimated al Qaeda’s top leadership in the border regions around Pakistan, but in Yemen, in Libya, in other of these places — increasingly in places like Syria — what you see is these elements that don’t have the same capacity that a bin Laden or core al Qaeda had, but can still cause a lot of damage, and we’ve got to make sure that we remain vigilant and are focused on preventing them from doing us any harm.
Q: Mr. President, I want to ask you something that is known as the “Obama promise,” and you knew that I was going to ask you about that. On May 28th, 2008, we had a conversation in Denver, Colorado, and you told me the following — and I’m going to quote you: “But I can guarantee that we will have, in the first year, an immigration bill that I strongly support.”
I want to emphasize “the first year.” At the beginning of your governing, you had control of both chambers of Congress, and yet you did not introduce immigration reform. And before I continue, I want for you to acknowledge that you did not keep your promise.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me first of all, Jorge, make a point that when we talked about immigration reform in the first year, that’s before the economy was on the verge of collapse — Lehman Brothers had collapsed, the stock market was collapsing. And so my first priority was making sure that we prevented us from going into a Great Depression.
And I think everybody here remembers where we were four years ago. We lost 800,000 jobs the month that I took office. Small businesses and big businesses couldn’t get financing. People had seen their 401(k)s evaporate. People were losing homes left and right.
And so we had to take a whole series of emergency actions to make sure that we put people back to work, cutting taxes for middle-class families and small businesses so that they could stay open or pay the bills, making sure that states got assistance so they didn’t have to lay off teachers and firefighters and police officers, saving an auto industry that was on the brink of collapse.
And so that took up a huge amount of time in the first year. But even in that first year, one of my first acts was to invite every single member of Congress who had previously been supportive of comprehensive immigration reform, and to say to them, we need to get this done. This is something I believe in deeply because we are a nation of laws and we’re a nation of immigrants. And I am willing to work with anybody to strengthen our border security and to crack down on employers who are taking advantage of undocumented workers, but what we also have to do is provide a pathway for all those millions of hardworking people who are simply here looking after their families, and oftentimes they’ve put deep roots in this country.
And what I confess I did not expect — and so I’m happy to take responsibility for being naive here — is that Republicans who had previously supported comprehensive immigration reform — my opponent in 2008, who had been a champion of it and who attended these meetings — suddenly would walk away. That’s what I did not anticipate.
And as you know, Jorge, even though we controlled the House of Representatives, even though we had a majority in the Senate, the way the Senate operates was if you couldn’t get 60 votes you couldn’t get something moving. So we initiated the meetings, had a series of meetings. And what we could not get was a single Republican, including the 20 who had previously voted for comprehensive immigration reform, to step up and say, we will work with you to make this happen.
Q: It was a promise, Mr. President. And I don’t want to — because this is very important, I don’t want to get you off the explanation. You promised that. And a promise is a promise. And with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, here is what I would say, Jorge, is that — and we’ve had this conversation before. There’s the thinking that the President is somebody who is all powerful and can get everything done. In our branch of — in our system of government, I am the head of the executive branch. I’m not the head of the legislature; I’m not the head of the judiciary. We have to have cooperation from all these sources in order to get something done. And so I am happy to take responsibility for the fact that we didn’t get it done, but I did not make a promise that I would get everything done, 100 percent, when I was elected as President.
What I promised was that I would work every single day as hard as I can to make sure that everybody in this country, regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they come from, that they would have a fair shot at the American Dream. And I have — that promise I’ve kept.
And what I’ve also — I think is relevant for today’s session is the fact that I have never wavered in my support of comprehensive immigration reform. We did put forward a DREAM Act that was passed in the House, got the overwhelming majority of support from Democrats in the Senate, and was blocked by the Republican Party.
We now are confronted with a choice between two candidates in which the candidate sitting here with you today is committed to comprehensive immigration reform, is committed to the DREAM Act, has taken administrative actions to prevent young people from being deported. And that stands in contrast with the other candidate who has said he would veto the DREAM Act, that he is uncertain about what his plan for immigration reform would be, and who considers the Arizona law a model for the nation and has suggested that the main solution for immigration is self-deportation.
So the issue here for voters — whose vision best represents the aspirations not just of the Latino community but of all Americans who believe that we are a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants? And that candidate, I believe, is talking to you right now. (Applause.)
Q: I’m going to ask you some questions — you promised that on Facebook — and we have received this question: If you are reelected, do you think you’ll be able to have immigration reform even though there’s a majority of Republican representatives? How can you promise the same thing if you’re not going to be able to do that?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I’m not going to concede that Republicans necessarily are controlling the Congress. That’s why we have elections. (Applause.)
But let’s assume that the Republicans do retain the House, let’s say. What I can — what I’m absolutely certain of is if the Latino community and the American community that cares about this issue turns out to vote, they can send a message that this is not something to use as a political football, that people’s lives are at stake, that this is a problem that we can solve and historically has had bipartisan support.
And I actually think the mindset within the Republican Party can change — because when you think about it, not only was it fairly recently that we had some Republican support, but even now you have voices like the former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, who has said that the Republican Party has taken an extreme view, a wrong approach when it comes to immigration reform.
So my hope is, is that after the election — when the number-one goal is no longer beating me, but hopefully the number-one goal is solving the country’s problems — if they have seen that people who care about this issue have turned out in strong numbers, that they will rethink it, if not because it’s the right thing to do, at least because it’s in their political interest to do so.
Q: Mr. President, you have been the President who has made the largest number of deportations in history — more than 1.5 million so far. You’ve separated many families. There are more than 5,000 children who are American citizens in foster care and in the adoption process. Would you just — since you’ve granted deferred action, would you like to do something — consider doing something similar to other groups of non-criminal illegal immigrants such as the parents of U.S.-born children?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me describe sort of how we’ve tried to approach this given that we haven’t gotten comprehensive immigration reform done yet. My instructions to the Department of Homeland Security has been that we have to focus our attention, our enforcement, on people who genuinely pose a threat to our communities, not to hardworking families who are minding their own business and oftentimes have members of their family who are U.S. citizens — because that’s a — that’s a priority in terms of limited enforcement resources. We don’t have the capacity to enforce across the board when you’re talking about millions of people. And we’ve done that.
So more than half of our enforcement now is directed at people with criminal records. Of the remaining half, about two-thirds are actually people who are typically apprehended close to the border, so these are not people who have longstanding roots in our community. And what we’ve tried to do then is focus our attention on real threats, and make sure that families of the sort that you describe are not the targets of DHS resources.
Now, what I’ve always said is, as the head of the executive branch, there’s a limit to what I can do. Part of the reason that deportations went up was Congress put a whole lot of money into it, and when you have a lot of resources and a lot more agents involved, then there are going to be higher numbers. What we’ve said is, let’s make sure that you’re not misdirecting those resources. But we’re still going to, ultimately, have to change the laws in order to avoid some of the heartbreaking stories that you see coming up occasionally. And that’s why this continues to be a top priority of mine.
The steps we’ve taken with the DREAM Act kids, one of the great things about it is to see that the country as a whole has actually agreed with us on this. There are voices in the Republican Party have been very critical, but the good news is, is that the majority of Americans have said, you know what, if somebody lives here, has gone to school here, pledges allegiance to our flag, this is the only country they’ve known, they shouldn’t be sent away. We should embrace them and say we want you to help build this country.
So we’ve got public opinion on our side on that issue. And we will continue to make sure that how we enforce is done as fairly and justly as possible. But until we have a law in place that provides a pathway for legalization and/or citizenship for the folks in question, we’re going to be — continue to be bound by the law. And that’s a challenge.
Q: Mr. President, the fact that you mentioned deferred action was granted months before the election has led some of your critics to say that it was just only to win the Hispanic vote. Why didn’t you do that earlier during your presidency?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think if you take a look at the polls, I was winning the Latino vote before we took that action — partly because the other side had completely abandoned their commitment to things like comprehensive immigration reform.
But I did this because I met young people all across the country — wonderful kids who sometimes were valedictorians, would participate in the community, has aspirations to go to college, some who were serving in our military — and if you heard their stories, there’s no way that you would think it was fair or just for us to have them suffering under a cloud of deportation.
And so part of the challenge as President is constantly saying, what authorities do I have. What we wanted to do was first make sure that we were directing our enforcement resources towards criminals and we’ve done that. And after we put that system in place we said, you know what, we’re still hearing stories of young people being scared about being deported; it’s time to see if we can take even further action. And that’s what we’ve done.
Q: Thank you. Mr. President, now we are going to talk about education. One out of 10 Hispanics — only one out of 10 graduates from college. And you know that one out of three, not even 25 percent, finishes high school.
And this is the question: First of all, I want to say, Mr. President, it’s an honor for me to be here. I’m a candidate for a doctorate in special education studies at the university level. So I would like to know, what do you attribute the dropout rate among Hispanics in the United States — 15 percent — and what plans do you have to change that?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, one of my most important plans is to make sure that people like you can continue your studies and help solve the problem. And that’s why we’ve put such a big emphasis on making sure that college is affordable.
And some of the work that we’ve done over the last four years to make sure that the student loan interest rate stays low, expanding Pell grants for millions of students, including millions of Latino students, so that we are seeing the highest college enrollment rate among Latino students in history — all that is going to help to contribute to us being able to deal with the problem of secondary and high school educations because you’re going to be inspiring a whole lot of students to say, I can do that, too; I can achieve that dream.
Now, one of the things we know is going to make a big difference is early childhood education. So we’ve put enormous effort not only in providing additional funding for early childhood education, but also to improve the quality of early childhood education — because not all programs work perfectly.
We’ve also been very proud to be able to initiate reform in 46 states around the country — almost every state has initiated reforms — because what we’ve said is we’ll give you more money if you initiate reforms that focus on dropout rates, that focus on some of the hardest-to-reach students, that focus on getting great teachers in the classroom and holding yourself to high standards and accountability.
So we’ve seen already gains in math and science in many of these schools. We’ve given additional dollars to some schools, predominantly Latino and African American, where the dropout rate is sky-high. And we’ve said, in some cases, you may just have to rework the school entirely. Get a great principal in there, hire wonderful teachers, and we will provide you additional help.
Now, for those of you who care deeply about education — because education was a gateway of opportunity for me, for Michelle, and for many of the people sitting here — this should be a vital decision that guides you in this upcoming election. Because even as we’ve done all this work to make sure that college is more affordable, that we’re reforming our schools, what you’ve seen on the other side and what’s been proposed by my opponent is a budget that would cut 20 percent of education funding, that would roll back tax credits that we’re providing middle-class families to help them send their kids to college, that would put billions of dollars back into the hands of banks as middlemen for the student loan program, which would then eliminate or reduce funding for Pell grants for millions of students around the country.
So, across the board, what you’ll hear from my opponent and from some of his allies in Congress is, we care deeply about education, but they don’t put their money where their mouth is. Their budget doesn’t reflect those values.
And I’m a firm believer that money alone can’t solve the problem. Parents, we have to make sure that we’re turning off the TV and providing a quiet space for our kids to do their homework. Teachers have to inspire. Principals have to lead. But ultimately, along with reform efforts, we also have to make sure that we don’t have overcrowded classrooms and textbooks that are outdated.
I was in Las Vegas talking to some wonderful teachers in a predominantly Latino district, and the teachers were telling me, at the start of school we’ve got 42 kids in the classroom. Some kids are sitting on the floor until they eventually get reassigned. They lose two weeks of instruction time just because the classrooms are so overcrowded. There are schools, particular in Latino communities, all across this country where kids are still studying in trailers. They don’t have regular classrooms, textbooks that are decades old.
Now, if we truly believe that education is the key not only for opportunity but also for making sure we can compete in this 21st century economy that is not a tolerable situation. And I put forward specific plans, with the budget behind it, to deal with these issues. And my opponent would actually roll back the process that we’ve already made.
Q: Mr. President, we have time, but we have many more questions. We’re going to take a break and then we’ll be right back with many of those most important questions that Hispanics want to ask of the President, Barack Obama. (Applause.)
* * *
Q: We’ll continue with this special program right here because the debate commission didn’t want to have any Hispanic or African American journalists. So we decided to have our own meeting.
THE PRESIDENT: We’re thrilled to be here. (Applause.)
Q: We have an education question. I think that it’s something that reminded problems our country has was the recent strike of 29,000 teachers who left 350,000 students out of school, and we have a question about that. This is a Facebook question: What is your plan to solve the present education crisis? What happened in Chicago could also happen in California and other states very soon. Are you concerned about that?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, obviously what happened in Chicago was of concern, and we’re glad that it finally got resolved. But you’re going to see school districts all across the country dealing with this issue because part of what has happened over the last four years is a lot of teacher layoffs.
Now, when I first came into office, one of the most important things that we had to do was to help states and local communities not lay off teachers. And that was part of what the Recovery Act was all about — was providing states with help. Because we can’t afford to be laying off teachers when other countries are hiring teachers.
Unfortunately, though, we’ve still seen a lot of school districts lay off teachers. That has an impact on the students themselves because when you have larger classes, it’s harder to provide the individualized attention on those kids, especially at the younger grades.
This is, again, why the difference between the two candidates in this election is so important. If Governor Romney’s and Congressman Ryan’s budgets were introduced, you would see even less — by a magnitude of 20 percent — even less resources from the federal government to the states, and you could see potentially even more teachers being laid off, working conditions for teachers becoming worse, potentially more strikes.
And what we say to school districts all across the country is, we will provide you more help as long as you’re being held accountable. And as far as teachers go, I think they work as hard as anybody, but we also want to make sure that they are having high standards of performance, especially in math and science. So one of the plans that I presented at the convention was I want to hire 100,000 new math and science teachers, because that’s how teachers do better, students do better, the likelihood of strikes become lower.
Q: Mr. President, I had the opportunity to watch our conversation with Mitt Romney yesterday, but previously in a video he has said that he was not concerned about the 47 percent of the population in the United States. But yesterday he said that he wanted to be the President of 100 percent of Americans. For you, which is the two is the true Mitt Romney? (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Well, here’s what I would say. First of all, I’ve been President now for almost four years. But the day I was elected, that night in Grant Park where I spoke to the country, I said, 47 percent of the people didn’t vote for me, but I’ve heard your voices and I’m going to work just as hard for you as I did for those who did vote for me. That’s how you have to operate as a President. I truly believe that. (Applause.)
I think your question, Jorge, about what’s the real Mitt Romney is better directed to Mr. Romney. But I will say this. When you express an attitude that half the country considers itself victims, that somehow they want to be dependent on government, my thinking is maybe you haven’t gotten around a lot, because I travel around the country all the time and the American people are the hardest working there are. (Applause.)
And their problem is not that they’re not working hard enough, or they don’t want to work, or they’re being taxed too little, or they just want to loaf around and gather government checks. We’ve gone through a challenging time. People want a hand up, not a handout.
Are there people who abuse the system? Yes, both at the bottom and at the top — because there are a whole bunch of millionaires who aren’t paying taxes at all either. (Applause.) But when you look — last point I’d make — when you look statistically, it turns out that even if people aren’t paying income taxes, they’re paying payroll taxes. They’re paying gas taxes. They’re paying sales taxes. They’re paying state and local taxes.
So the fact of the matter is that the few people who are not paying — the people who are not paying income taxes are either paying a lot of taxes because they’re working every day but they just don’t make enough money overall to pay income tax; or alternatively, they’re senior citizens; or they’re students who — I know these guys aren’t making a lot of money, even with some work-study program. (Laughter.) Or they’re disabled; or, in some cases, they’re veterans or soldiers who are fighting for us right now overseas — they don’t pay an income tax.
And so I just think it’s very important for us to understand Americans work hard, and if they’re not working right now, I promise you they want to get to work. And that’s what my economic plan is designed to do, to get more people back to work, and to lift up the middle class and people who want to work to get into the middle class. (Applause.)
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