A relaxed and confident Barack Obama sat down for an interview with U.S. News while campaigning in Maryland. During the half-hour session, he sipped bottled water and, at one point—with apologies—checked his E-mail for schedule updates. He was intent on conveying his message of change and conciliation. Excerpts:
"Transformational" presidents don't come along very often. Does that word apply to you?
First of all, I don't presume to think of myself as a "transformational figure." I'm just trying to win an election. So that's point number one. I do think it's a "transformational moment." And whether the individual who ends up in the White House fulfills that possibility, you know, depends on both skill and circumstance.
Your critics say you don't understand the difficulties of changing Washington.
I taught the Constitution for 10 years, so I know that power is diffused by design. But what I know is there are an awful lot of people who are hurting right now, who don't have healthcare, who are sending their kids to substandard schools, who can't afford to get those kids to college, who are worried about losing their homes, who sense that there's a slow but steady deterioration of America's economic position in the world. And they are ready for change.
How would things be different under a President Obama?
I am very clear in saying we're not going to eliminate money from politics in Washington completely. We're not going to suddenly have, you know, Athenian democracy in the House or Senate. But I don't think it's overromanticizing to say that there was a time in our history where Democrats and Republicans could sit down and actually pass a budget on time. That there was a time when you could propose an energy bill that wasn't written by the oil and the gas companies. Nobody, I think, is asserting that we can achieve perfection. There's a huge gap between perfection and where we're at right now. What I'm aiming for is somewhere in between, where we're making some progress.
Hillary Clinton says you have been too vague about the issues. Does she have a point?
This is an area where, I think, a certain myth has been perpetrated. Ironically, in the beginning of this campaign, I was criticized for being too professorial and providing too much detail. And I would say that if you actually take a look at my website and Senator Clinton's website, I've been far more specific on what I would do on Social Security, for example. I've been very explicit that I think we need to raise the cap on the payroll tax. She suggested a commission. I've been very explicit on energy, climate change, healthcare. On foreign policy, I've repeatedly laid out how I would approach problems like Iraq and Pakistan and the fight against terrorism. So I really think the whole issue of lacking specifics is much more of an urban myth than it is borne out by the facts.
Do you think that, in the end, race will be an impediment to your being elected?
Look, I have no doubt that there are some people who won't vote for me because I'm black. There would also be some people who won't vote for me because I'm young, because I've got big ears...or they don't like my political philosophy.
This country made profound changes after 1960—I was born in 1961—essentially in my lifetime. We have made some profound changes in attitude. Now that is not to suggest that my election provides us racial reconciliation on the cheap. There are deep-rooted, institutional barriers to success for minority groups. Not just African-Americans but also Latinos. And those barriers—some of them cultural, some of them institutional—aren't going to go away anytime soon, unless we make some serious investments in improving our schools and opening up job opportunities and enforcing nondiscrimination laws more effectively than we have.