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

One of the other things that I’ve heard is being discussed when you think about a second term is the idea of criminal justice reform. What would your goals be in that area? What is the problem you think can be solved in the next few years?

Well, I don’t think it’s any secret that we have one of the two or three highest incarceration rates in the world, per capita. I tend to be pretty conservative, pretty law and order, when it comes to violent crime. My attitude is, is that when you rape, murder, assault somebody, that you’ve made a choice; the society has every right to not only make sure you pay for that crime, but in some cases to disable you from continuing to engage in violent behavior.

But there’s a big chunk of that prison population, a great huge chunk of our criminal justice system that is involved in nonviolent crimes. And it is having a disabling effect on communities. Obviously, inner city communities are most obvious, but when you go into rural communities, you see a similar impact. You have entire populations that are rendered incapable of getting a legitimate job because of a prison record. And it gobbles up a huge amount of resources. If you look at state budgets, part of the reason that tuition has been rising in public universities across the country is because more and more resources were going into paying for prisons, and that left less money to provide to colleges and universities.

But this is a complicated problem. One of the incredible transformations in this society that precedes me, but has continued through my presidency, even continued through the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, is this decline in violent crime. And that’s something that we want to continue. And so I think we have to figure out what are we doing right to make sure that that downward trend in violence continues, but also are there millions of lives out there that are being destroyed or distorted because we haven’t fully thought through our process.

That means alternative sentencing?

Potentially. I mean, I think there was an article today in the New York Times about a lot of social scientists taking a look and seeing when it comes to nonviolent crime are there smarter, better ways — and cheaper ways — of doing this. And you can’t put a price on public safety; on the other hand, we’re going to be in an era of fiscal constraint at the state, federal, and local levels. It makes sense for us to just ask some tough questions.

And I think this is one of those things where I don’t think you should anticipate that I’m leading with an issue like this. My primary focus is going to continue to be on the economy, on immigration, on climate change and energy. But I could see using the next year to convene some folks, ask some tough questions, report back to me and to the American people, and give us some recommendations, and then engage Congress, law enforcement, local and state officials to see if there’s some things we can do smarter.

You told us about listening to Malia on the topic of gay marriage and taking her outlook into account. I was wondering, as your daughters are growing older, in what other ways are they changing the way you think about policy?

Well, it’s a cliché, but it’s obviously true that for any parent, as you watch your kids age, you are reminded that everything you do has to have their futures in mind. You fervently hope they’re going to outlive you; that the world will be better for them when you’re not around. You start thinking about their kids.

And so, on an issue like climate change, for example, I think for this country and the world to ask some very tough questions about what are we leaving behind, that weighs on you. And not to mention the fact I think that generation is much more environmentally aware than previous generations.

There is that sense of we’ve got to get this right, and at least give them a fighting chance. In the same waythat as a parent you recognize that no matter what you do, your kids are going to have challenges — because that’s the human condition — but you don’t want them dealing with stuff that’s the result of you making bad choices. They’ll have enough bad choices that they make on their own that you don’t want them inheriting the consequences of bad choices that you make. We have to think about that as a society as a whole.

And so when we think about getting our fiscal house in order, when we think about climate change, when we think about the kind of economy that they’ll be inheriting and what opportunities they have, again, taking the long view is something that I’m constantly pushing for. And that’s particularly challenging in this job where your inbox of immediate crises are always coming at you. And that’s been even more true over the last four years than it has I think for most Presidents. I mean, obviously, we’ve had a lot incoming, and so there’s a temptation to just deal with the next immediate thing as opposed to thinking about what kind of impact are we going to have 20 years from now.

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