Setting the Stage for a Second Term

Obama speaks on Dec. 12 with TIME’s Rick Stengel, Radhika Jones and Michael Scherer about Lincoln, marijuana, the Middle East and Hawaii moments

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Callie Shell / Aurora for TIME

Time interviews President Obama in the Oval Office on Dec. 12, 2012. From left: Rick Stengel, White House press secretary Jay Carney, White House spokesman Bobby Whithorne, Radhika Jones and Michael Scherer

I would love to pick up on this direction idea. Basically, in your reelection, you created a new kind of governing coalition that — the seeds of which were planted a long time ago. How long will that last? I mean, if you’re looking ahead — there was a Reagan era that lasted a long time; will this be an Obama-era realignment that lasts a long time?

Well, look, there are a couple of forces at work here. There is the much-noted demographic shift in this society, and that obviously was reflected in this election. I think some people thought that 2008 was an anomaly; that everybody was excited about the idea of the first African American President, but once that excitement ebbed that somehow we would revert back to the old voting models. And that didn’t prove to be the case, and we didn’t think it was going to be the case.

It’s more than just demographics, though; it’s also generational. One of the things that I’m very proud of during my first four years is I think I’ve helped to solidify this incredibly rapid transformation in people’s attitudes around LGBT issues — how we think about gays and lesbians and transgender persons. A lot of that just has to do with the fact that if you talk to Malia, the idea of making an anti-gay remark at her school is just unimaginable. They just don’t get that.

And so, there are those attitudinal shifts that make up this new coalition as well. For all the divisions that you read about in our politics — and many of them are real and powerful — the truth is, is that we have steadily become a more diverse and tolerant country that embraces people’s differences, and respects people who are not like us. And that’s a profoundly good thing. That’s one of the strengths of America. It was hard-fought. And there’s been the occasional backlash, and this is not to argue that somehow racism or sexism or homophobia are going to be eliminated or ever will be eliminated. It is to argue that our norms have changed in a way that prizes inclusion more than exclusion.

And I do think that my eight years as President, reflecting those values and giving voice to those values, helps to validate or solidify that transformation, and I think that’s a good thing for the country. And, by the way, it’s part of what will make America a continued leader of the 21st century — because the world is shrinking, and one of our greatest assets is the fact that we have people from everywhere who want to come here because they know this is an open society, and they know that they will be judged more on their talents and their skills and their commitment to an ideal and a creed, as opposed to what tribe they come from or what God they worship. And that’s something that we should be grateful for.

I have a couple of policy questions growing out of that shift. Do you expect your administration will join the gay marriage cases at the Supreme Court?

We are looking at the cases right now. I’ve already been very clear about DOMA, so there is no doubt that we would continue the position we’re on, that DOMA is unconstitutional and should be struck down. And I think the Prop-8 case, because the briefs are still being written, I should probably be careful about making any specific comments on it.

One of the other big things that happened in the election was in Washington State and Colorado, marijuana for recreational use was legalized. And, again, the same base — the younger people, more progressive people are in favor of that. Is a recreational marijuana user who is following state law someone who should be a federal law enforcement priority?

No. And I think what the Justice Department has consistently asserted is that it’s got finite resources. Our focus has to be on threats to safety, threats to property. When it comes to drug enforcement, big-time drug dealers, folks who are preying on our kids, those who are engaging in violence — that has to be our focus.

Now, obviously, you’ve got a challenge, which is federal laws that are still on the books making marijuana a Class I drug that is subject to significant penalties, and you’ve got state laws now that say it’s legal. We’re going to have to have a conversation about how to reconcile that, because it puts the Department of Justice and the U.S. attorneys in a pretty tough position; they don’t want to look like they’re nullifying laws that are on the books; their job is to carry out the laws of the federal government. On the other hand, I think not only have these states indicated that they’ve got a different view, but what’s also true isthat the public as a whole — even those who don’t necessarily agree with decriminalization of marijuana — don’t think that this should be a top priority for law enforcement.

So this will be something that we navigate over the next several months and next several years. I think that the broader lesson to draw here is that substance abuse is a big problem in oursociety, and we should be doing everything we can to prevent our kids from being trapped by substance abuse. I think a law enforcement model alone, or an emphasis on a law enforcement strategy and not enough emphasis on the public health approach and treatment has not yielded the kind of results that I think we would like. And we’re going to have to have a serious discussion about that.

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