Remarks by President Biden in a CNN Town Hall with Anderson Cooper
(February 16, 2021)
7:59 P.M. CST
MR. COOPER: And welcome. We are live in the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This is a CNN Presidential Town Hall — the first with President Joe Biden. I’m Anderson Cooper. President Biden is just four weeks into his presidency and facing multiple crises: nearly 500,000 of our fellow citizens — Americans — have died from COVID-19, millions out of work right now, and a nation dangerously divided.
Tonight, we’re going to be answering questions from the American people. The President will be answering questions from the American people on his first official trip since taking office. Some of the questioners here voted for him. Some did not.
The President and I will not be wearing masks on this stage. He, of course, has been vaccinated. Over the past several weeks, I have repeatedly tested negative for coronavirus — as recently as yesterday and this morning as well. We will however be keeping our distance from one another, and the audience is very limited, socially distanced, and all wearing masks when they’re seated.
With that, I want to welcome the 46th President of the United States, President Joe Biden. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Hey, Anderson.
MR. COOPER: How are you, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: Good to see you, man. Hey, folks. How are you? (Applause.) Good to be back, man.
MR. COOPER: Yeah, it’s nice to see you, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: And you know you enjoy being home with the baby more. I don’t want to hear this.
MR. COOPER: (Laughs.) I do. Yes. He’s nine and a half months, so I’m very happy.
THE PRESIDENT: I get it. No, no, everybody knows I like kids better than people.
MR. COOPER: I saw a picture of you with your grandson recently.
THE PRESIDENT: That’s right.
MR. COOPER: Yeah. So we got a lot of questions in the audience. We have about 50 or so people here. They’re all socially distanced. We have some folks who voted for you, some folks who did not. And we’re going to get as many questions in as possible.
Before we get to that, I just want to start with a couple of just big-picture questions about the pandemic and where we are right now.
THE PRESIDENT: Sure.
MR. COOPER: New cases of COVID-19 hospitalizations have fallen by half in the last month, so have new cases. That’s the good news. There’s this potential threat — potential surge from the variants coming down the pike potentially. When is every American who wants it going to be able to get a vaccine?
THE PRESIDENT: By the end of July of this year. We have — we came into office, there was only 50 million doses that were available. We have now — by the end of July, we’ll have over 600 million doses — enough to vaccinate every single American.
MR. COOPER: When you say — (applause) — when you say “by the end of July,” do you mean that they will be available or that people will have been able to actually get them? Because Dr. Fauci —
THE PRESIDENT: They’ll be available.
MR. COOPER: They’ll be available.
THE PRESIDENT: They’ll be available.
MR. COOPER: Okay.
THE PRESIDENT: Here, look, we — what we did — we got into office and found out the supply — there was no backlog. I mean, there was nothing in the refrigerator, figuratively and literally speaking, and there were 10 million doses a day that were available.
We’ve upped that, in the first three weeks that we were in office, to significantly more than that. We’ve moved out — went to the Pfizer and Moderna, and said, “Can you produce more vaccine and more rapidly?” They not only agreed to go from 200 to 400 — and they’ve agreed to go to 600 million doses. And that’s — and they’re — and we got them to move up the time because we used the National Defense Act to be able to help the manufacturing piece of it to get more equipment and so on.
MR. COOPER: So if, end of April — excuse me, end of July, they’re available to actually get them in the arms of people who want them, that will take — what? — a couple more months?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, no, a lot will be being vaccinated in the meantime.
MR. COOPER: Okay.
THE PRESIDENT: In other words, it’s not all of a sudden 600 million doses are going to appear. And what’s going to happen is: It’s going to continue to increase as we move along, and we’ll have — we’ll have reached 400 million by the end of May and 600 million by the middle of — by the end of July.
And the biggest thing, though, as you remember when you and I — no, I shouldn’t say it that way, “as you remember” — but when you and I talked last, we talked about — it’s one thing to have the vaccine, which we didn’t have when we came into office, but a vaccinator — how do you get the vaccine into someone’s arm? So you need the paraphernalia. You need the needle, and you need mechanisms to be able to get it in. You have to have people who can inject it into people’s arms.
MR. COOPER: That’s been one of the problems is just getting enough people.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, now we have — we have made significant strides increasing the number of vaccinators. I’ve — I issued an executive order allowing former retired docs and nurses to do it. We have over 1,000 military personnel. The CDC is — I mean, excuse me, the — we have gotten the National Guard engaged.
So we have significant number of vaccinators — people who would actually be there. Plus, we’ve opened up a considerable number of locations where you can get the vaccination.
MR. COOPER: I want to introduce you to Kevin Michel. He’s an independent from Wauwatosa. He’s a mechanical engineer for a vehicle company.
Kevin, welcome. What’s your question?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, welcome to Milwaukee.
THE PRESIDENT: How you doing?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good. My question is regarding education.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: And considering that hybrid and virtual school instruction have been in place for nearly a year now, what is the plan and recommendation to get students back into the brick-and-mortar buildings? As a parent of four children, I find it imperative that they get back to school as safely as possible.
THE PRESIDENT: My mother would say, “God bless you, son.” No purgatory for you — four kids home. I really mean it. And, by the way, the loss of being able to be in school is having significant impact on the children and parents as well.
And so, what we found out is, there are certain things that make it rational and easy to go back to the brick-and-mortar building. One, first of all, making sure everybody is wearing protective gear — it’s available to students, as well as to teachers, the janitors, the people who work in the cafeteria, the bus drivers.
Secondly, organizing in smaller pods, which means that’s why we need more teachers. Instead of a classroom of 30 kids in it, you have three classes and that same — of 10 kids each in those. And I’m — I’m not making the number up; it might be less. It doesn’t have to be literally 10.
In addition to that, we also have indicated that it is much better, it’s much easier to send kids K-through-8 back because they are less likely to communicate the disease to somebody else. But because kids in — sophomores, juniors, and seniors in high school — they socialize a lot more, and they’re older, and they transmit more than young kids do, it’s harder to get those schools open without having everything from the ventilation systems and — and having —
For example, school bus drivers — you know, we — we got to make sure that you don’t have 60 kids, or however many there — depending on the size of school bus — sitting two abreast in every single seat.
And so there’s a lot of things we can do, short of — and I think that we should be vaccinating teachers. We should move them up in the hierarchy as well. (Applause.)
MR. COOPER: Well, let me ask you, you — your administration had set a goal to open the majority of schools in your first 100 days. You’re now saying that means those schools may only be open for at least one day a week.
THE PRESIDENT: No, that’s not true. That’s what was reported; that’s not true. There was a mistake in the communication. But what I — what I’m talking about is I said opening the majority of schools in K-through-eighth grade because they’re the easiest to open, the most needed to be opened, in terms of the impact on children and families having to stay home.
MR. COOPER: So when do you think that would be — K-through-8, at least five days a week if possible?
THE PRESIDENT: I think we’ll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days. We’ve had a significant percentage of them being able to be opened. My — my guess is they’re going to probably be pushing to open all for — all summer — to continue like it’s a different semester (inaudible).
MR. COOPER: Do you think that would be five days a week or just a couple?
THE PRESIDENT: I think — I think many of them are five days a week. The goal will be five days a week. Now, it’s going to be harder to open up the high schools for the reasons I said — just like, if you notice, the contagion factor in colleges is much higher than it is in high schools or grade schools.
MR. COOPER: I want you to meet — this is Justin Belot. He’s a high school teacher from Milwaukee who’s a Democrat. Justin, thanks for being with us. What’s your question?
THE PRESIDENT: What do you teach?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I teach English. High school English.
THE PRESIDENT: My wife teaches. God love you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Wonderful. Thank you, Mr. President. So along the same lines of schools, so this great debate on when to transition to in-person learning: While there are numerous warnings not to be in large groups or to have dinner parties or small parties, why is it okay to put students and teachers in close proximity to each other for an entire day, day after day? With large class sizes and outdated ventilation systems, how and when do you propose this to occur? And finally, do you believe all staff should be vaccinated before doing so?
THE PRESIDENT: Number one, nobody is suggesting, including the CDC in this recent out report, that you have large classes, congested classes. It’s smaller classes; more ventilation; making sure that everybody has masks and is socially distanced, meaning you have less — fewer students in one room; making sure that everyone from the sanitation workers who work in the — in the lavatories, in the bathrooms, and do the — and do the — all the maintenance, that they are in fact able to be protected as well. Making sure you’re in a situation where you don’t have the congregation of a lot of people — as I said, including the school bus, including getting on a school bus.
So it’s about needing to be able to socially distance, smaller classes, more protection. And I think the teachers and the folks who work in the school — the cafeteria workers and others — should be on the list of preferred to get a vaccination.
MR. COOPER: I want to introduce you to Kerri Engebrecht, an independent from Oak Creek.
Kerri, welcome. Go ahead.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Kerri, how are you?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Very good, thank you. Our 19-year-old son was diagnosed with pediatric COPD at the age of 14. We’re told he has the lungs of a 60-year-old. He does all he can to protect himself. Last month, he even removed himself from the campus of UW-Madison, as he feels it’s safer and he has less exposure here at home.
We’ve tried all we can to get him a vaccine. I hear of others who are less vulnerable getting it based on far less. Do you have a plan to vaccinate those who are most vulnerable sooner, to give them a priority?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, the answer is: Yes, there are.
But here’s how it works: The states make the decision on who is — or in what order. I can make recommendations, and for federal programs, I can do that as President of the United States. But I can’t tell the state, “You must move such and such a group of people up.”
But here’s what I’d like to do: If you’re willing, I’ll stay around after this is over, and maybe we can talk a few minutes and see if I can get you some help. (Applause.)
MR. COOPER: Let — let me just ask you, though: Johnson & Johnson could be authorized — a new vaccine from them could be authorized in a couple of weeks. That would be a big deal —
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, it would.
MR. COOPER: — bringing a lot more vaccines on, millions of more doses to the supply. Once that happens, given the urgency of these variants, and the potential threat from them, should states stop giving priority to certain groups and just open vaccine access for everyone?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, it depends on how much they have available. I think there still should be priority groups in case there are not enough for everyone, every- — available to everybody.
And, look, we don’t know for certain. Let me tell you what my national COVID team has said: that the variants, the — by “variants,” you mean the Brazilian strain, the South African strain, the British strain —
MR. COOPER: London. Yeah.
THE PRESIDENT: — and London, et cetera. There’s thus far — thus far, there is no evidence that the existing vaccinations available for Moderna and Pfizer do not either make sure that they apply — they work as well against the strain in the United States. And there is no evidence that they’re not helpful.
So if you can get a vaccination, get it whenever you can get it, regardless of the other strains that are out there. There are studies going on to determine it is not only more communicable, but are there vaccine — do the vaccines not provide helpful protection by getting the vaccine. There are some speculation. I shouldn’t — I got to be very careful — right? — because millions of people are watching this. It may be that a certain vaccination for a certain strain may reduce from 95 percent to a lower percentage of certainty that it will keep you from getting —
MR. COOPER: It may not be as effective as —
THE PRESIDENT: It may not be as effective.
MR. COOPER: — against a variant, but it still would be effective.
THE PRESIDENT: It’d still be effective. So the clear notion is: If you’re eligible, if it’s available, get the vaccine. Get the vaccine.
MR. COOPER: I want you to meet — this is Dessie Levy, a Democrat from Milwaukee. She’s a registered nurse, former academic dean. She’s also currently director of a faith-based nonprofit.
THE PRESIDENT: By the way — you’ve heard me say this before, Becky [sic] — if there’s any angels in heaven, they’re all nurses, male and female. Doctors let you live, nurses make you want to live. I can tell you as a consumer of healthcare — my family. You’re wonderful. Thank you for what you do.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: God bless you. Mr. President, hello. My name is Dr. Dessie Levy. And my question to you is: Considering COVID-19 and its significant impact on black Americans, especially here in Milwaukee, and thus the exacerbation of our racial disparities in healthcare, we have seen less than 3 percent of blacks and less than 5 percent of Hispanics, given the total number of vaccines that have been administered to this point. Is this a priority for the Biden administration? And how will the disparities be addressed? And that’s both locally and nationally.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, it is a priority, number one.
Number two, there’s two reasons for it being the way it is. Number one, there is some history of blacks being used as guinea pigs and other experiments — I need not tell you, Doctor — over the last 50 to 75 to 100 years in America. So there’s a — there is a concern about getting the vaccine, whether it’s available or not.
But the biggest part of it is access — physical access. That’s why, last week, I opened up — I met with the Black Caucus in the United States Congress and agreed that I would — all — all of the fed- — all of the community health centers now, which take care of the toughest of the toughest neighborhoods in terms of illness, they are going to get a million doses, you know, a week, in how we’re going to move forward, because they’re in the neighborhood.
Secondly, we have opened up — and I’m making sure that there’s doses of vaccine for over 6,700 pharmacies, because almost everyone lives within not always walking distance, but within the distance of being able to go to the pharmacy, like when you got your flu shot. That is also now being opened.
Thirdly, I also am providing for mobile — mobile vans, mobile units to go into neighborhoods that are hard to get to because people are on — for example, even though everyone is within, you know, basically five miles of a Walgreens, let’s say, the fact is, if you’re 70 years old, you don’t have a vehicle, and you live in a tough neighborhood — meaning you’re — it’s a high concentration of COVID — you’re not likely to be able to walk five miles to go get a vaccine.
The other thing we found is — and I’m sorry to go on, but this is really important to me. The other part — portion is, a lot of people don’t know how to register. Not everybody in the community — in the Hispanic and the African American community, particularly in rural areas that are distant and/or inner-city districts — know how to use — know how to get online to determine how to get in line for that COVID vaccination at the Walgreens or at the particular store.
So we’re also — I’ve committed to spend a billion dollars on public education to help people figure out how they can get in there. That’s why we’re also trying to set up mass vaccination centers, like places in stadiums and the like.
MR. COOPER: Are you concerned about the rollout of this online? Because it has been incredibly confusing for a lot of people, not just —
THE PRESIDENT: Sure.
MR. COOPER: — you know, older people. It’s younger people just trying to find a place to get a vaccine.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. And I have. Because look — look what we inherited: We inherited a circumstance here, where — and now for the first — we did a lot in the first two weeks — a circumstance where, number one, there weren’t many vaccinators. You didn’t know where you could go get a vaccine administered to you because there was no one to put it in your arm — number one.
Number two, there was very little federal guidance; it’s to say, what to look for, how to find out where, in fact, you could go. You can go online, and every single state now has a slightly different mechanism by which they say who’s qualified, where you can get the vaccines, and so on.
So it’s all about trying to more rationalize in detail so ordinary people, like me, can understand. I mean that sincerely. I mean, I’m not — my — you know, my grandchildren can use that online — you know, make me look like I’m in, you know, the seventh century.
But all kidding aside, so this is a process, and it’s going to take time. It took us a — think of what we didn’t do. And you and I talked about this during the campaign. We didn’t do from the time it hit the — it hit the United States. “You’re going to inject something in your arm, it’s going to go away.” “You’re going to be in a — it’ll all be done by Easter.”
We wasted so much time. So much time.
MR. COOPER: Another question about vaccines. This is Jessica Salas. She’s an independent from the Milwaukee, a graphic designer.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, thank you. As we’ve been talking about, the coronavirus is very real and very scary. And it’s especially scary for children who may or may not understand. My children, Layla — eight, here — and my son Matteo — seven, at home — often ask if they will catch COVID, and if they do, will they die. They are watching as others get the vaccine, and they would like to know when will kids be able to get the vaccine.
THE PRESIDENT: Well first of all, honey — what’s your first name?
LAYLA SALAS: Layla.
THE PRESIDENT: Layla. Beautiful name. First of all, kids don’t get the vacci- — get COVID very often. It’s unusual for that to happen. They don’t — they — and there — the evidence so far is, children aren’t the people most likely to get COVID — number one.
Number two, we haven’t even done tests yet on children as to whether or not the certain vaccines would work or not work, or what is needed. So that’s — so you — you’re the safest group of people in the whole world — number one.
Number two, you’re not likely to be able to be exposed to something and spread it to mommy or daddy. And it’s not likely mommy and daddy are able to spread it to you either. So I wouldn’t worry about it, baby. I promise you. But I know it’s, kind of, worrisome. Are you in first grade, second grade?
LAYLA SALAS: Second.
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, you’re getting old. (Laughter.) Second grade. Well, has your school — have you been in school, honey?
LAYLA SALAS: No.
THE PRESIDENT: No. See, that’s — that’s, kind of, a scary thing too: You don’t get to go to school; you don’t get to see your friends.
And so what a lot of kids — and I mean — and big people too, older people — they just — their whole lives have, sort of, changed, like when it used to be. It used to be, let’s go outside and play with your friends and get in the school bus and go to school, and everything was normal. And now, when things change, people get really worried and scared. But don’t be scared, honey. Don’t be scared. You’re going to be fine. And we’re going to make sure mommy is fine too.
MR. COOPER: You know, let me ask you — (applause) — let me ask you, just for folks who are watching out there — there are a lot of people who are scared, and there’s a lot of people —
THE PRESIDENT: Sure.
MR. COOPER: — who are hurting. When do you think this pandemic is — I mean, when are we — when is it going to be done? When are we going to get back to normal?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, all the experts, all the committee that I put together of the leading researchers in the world and in the United States who are on this committee of mine, headed by Dr. Fauci and others, they tell me: Be careful not to predict things that you don’t know for certain what’s going to happen because then you’ll be held accountable. I get that.
But let me tell you what I think based on all that I’ve learned and all that I’ve studied and all that I think that I know. It’s fairly — it’s a high probability that the vaccinations that are available today — and the new one, Johnson & Johnson, God willing — will prove to be useful; that with those vaccinations, the ability to continue to spread the disease is going to diminish considerably because of what they call “herd immunity.” And now they’re saying somewhere around 70 percent of the people have to constitute; some people said 50, 60. But a significant number have to be in a position where they are — they have been vaccinated and/or they’ve been through it and —
MR. COOPER: Have antibodies.
THE PRESIDENT: And have antibodies.
And so, if that works that way — as my mother would say, with the grace of God and the goodwill of the neighbors — that by next Christmas, I think we’ll be in a very different circumstance, God willing, than we are today. I think a year from now, when it’s 22 below zero here — (laughter) — no, a year from now, I think that there’ll be significantly fewer people having to be socially distanced, have to wear masks, et cetera. But we don’t know.
So I don’t want to over-promise anything here. I told you when I ran and when I got elected: I will always level with you. To use Franklin Roosevelt’s example, I’ll shoot to give it “straight from the shoulder” — straight from the shoulder what I know and what I don’t know.
We don’t know for certain, but it is highly unlikely that by the beginning of next year’s school — traditional school year in September, we are not significantly better off than we are today, but it matters. It matters whether you continue to wear that mask. It matters whether you continue to socially distance. It matters whether you wash your hands with hot water. It — those things matter. They matter. And that can save a lot of lives while we’re getting to this point, we get to herd immunity.
MR. COOPER: You’ve made — (applause) — you’ve made passing a COVID relief bill the focus of your first 100 days. Those on the right say the proposal is too big; some on the left say it’s not big enough. Are you committed to passing a $1.9 trillion bill, or is that final number still up for negotiation?
THE PRESIDENT: I’m committed to pass- — look, here’s — some of you are probably economists or college professors or you’re teaching in school. This is the first time in my career — and as you can tell, I’m over 30 — the first time in my career that there is a consensus among economists left, right, and center that is over- — and including the IMF and in Europe — that the overwhelming consensus is: In order to grow the economy a year or two, three, and four down the line, we can’t spend too much. Now is the time we should be spending. Now is the time to go big.
You may recall I managed the last experiment we had with stimulus, and it was 800 — (applause) — no, I don’t mean it that way, but it was $800 billion. We thought we needed more than that. And we think we did. We got — we were — it ended up working, but it slowed things up by about — and it, depending who you talked to — between six months and a year and a half.
We can come back — we can come roaring back. It’s estimated that if we — by most economists, including Wall Street firms, as well as — as — as, you know, think tanks — political think tanks — left, right, and center — it is estimated that if we pass this bill alone, we’ll create 7 million jobs this year. Seven million jobs this year. (Applause.)
And so the thing we haven’t talked about — and I’m not going to go on because I want to hear your question, and I apologize — we haven’t talked about — I remember you and I talking during the campaign, and you had the former guy saying that, “Well, you know, we’re just going to open things up, and that’s all we need to do.” We said, “No, you got to deal with the disease before you deal with the — with getting the economy going.”
Well, the fact is that the economy now has to be dealt with. And what is — look at all the people. You have over 10 million people unemployed. We need unemployment insurance. We need to make sure that, you know, you have — 40 percent of the children in America are — talk about food shortage — 60 percent of — did you ever think you’d see a day, Milwaukee — you’d see in the last six months, people lining up in their automobiles for an hour, for as far as you can see, to get a bag of food? What — I mean, this is the United States of America, for God’s sake. We can’t deal with that?
We promised — look at all the people who are on the verge of being kicked out of their apartments because they cannot afford — they cannot afford the rent. What happens when that happens? Everything (inaudible). Look at all the mom-and-pop landlords that are in real trouble if we don’t subsidize this in the meantime. Look at all the people who are on the verge of missing — and how many people have missed their last two mortgage payments and are able to be foreclosed on. That’s why I took executive action to say they cannot be foreclosed on in the meantime. Because look at what the impact on the economy would be. You think it’s bad now, let all that happen.
Look at all the people who’ve lost their insurance. How many — I’m not asking for a show of hands. How many of you had jobs with corporations or companies that provided healthcare? The COBRA healthcare. Well, guess what? The company goes under, and guess what? You lose your health insurance. Well, we should be making sure you’re able to pay for that so that we keep people moving.
So there’s a lot — so I think bigger. And the vast majority of serious people say bigger is better now, not spending less.
MR. COOPER: This is — this is Randy Lange, an independent who supported Donald Trump in 2020. Randy is the co-owner of a woodworking company here in Milwaukee.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good evening. You’re proposing a $15 minimum wage. Given the lower cost of living, specifically in the Midwest, many business owners are concerned that this will put them out of business, forcing them to downsize or cut benefits. How can you instill confidence in small businesses that this will benefit the Midwest business growth?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, the South is not much different than the Midwest in that regard as well. But here’s the thing: If you look back over the last 40 years, as minimum wages increased, people haven’t — the end — the end result of net employment hasn’t changed. The vast majority of economists — and there are studies that show that by increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, it could have an impact on — on a number of businesses, but it would be de minimis, et cetera.
Here’s the deal: It’s about doing it gradually. We’re at $7.25 an hour. No one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty. No one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty. (Applause.) But it’s totally legitimate for small-business owners to be concerned about how that changes. For example, if it went — if we gradually increased it — when we indexed it at $7.20, if we kept it indexed by — to inflation, people would be making 20 bucks an hour right now. That’s what it would be.
MR. COOPER: The Congressional Budget Office says that a $15 minimum wage would lift 900,000 people out of poverty but would also cause 1.4 million people their jobs. Is that —
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, but there’s also — if you read that whole thing about Pinocchios and all the rest — there are also an equal number of studies that say that’s not — that wouldn’t have that effect, and particularly as you do it in terms of how gradually you do it. So let’s say — you said you’re going to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, between now and the year 2025, to $12 an hour, to $13 — you double someone’s pay — and the impact on business would be absolutely diminished, and it would grow the GDP, and it would grow and it would generate economic growth.
But it’s not illegitimate as a small-business person to worry about whether or not increasing it at one fell swoop would have that impact. I do support a $15 minimum wage. I think there is equally as much, if not more, evidence to dictate that it would grow the economy and, long run and medium run, benefit small businesses as well as large businesses, and it would not have such a dilatory effect. But that’s a debatable issue.
MR. COOPER: I want you to meet another small-business owner. This is Tim Eichinger, a Democrat from Milwaukee, co- owner of Black Husky Brewing.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you. My partner and I own a small brewery in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee, and we have nine amazing employees. We rely primarily on selling our beer out of our tap room. And with the pandemic, our business has gone down about 50 percent. Now, we’ve relied primarily on loans, grants, as well as our own reserves to survive. However, the new assistance has been too slow, and recently it’s gotten more restrictive on how we can apply it. What will you do so that small mom-and-pop businesses like ours will survive over large corporate entities?
THE PRESIDENT: Change it drastically, first of all, by making sure we have inspectors general. You may remember when the first bill passed, you may remember there was a guy running, saying, “What’s going to happen is the banks aren’t going to lend you the money. They’re going to ask you a question, ‘Do you have your credit with us? How many loans do you have with us? What is your — what credit cards do you have with us? How…” Because even though they were being underwritten, and we bailed their rear ends out — last time out, they weren’t — it was too much trouble to lend to you.
What did the President do? And I don’t want to pick on the Pres- — I shouldn’t — I don’t — I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump. I don’t want to talk about him anymore. But the last administration spent time — a lot of time talking about how there was no need for inspector generals. We find out that 40 percent of the money — the PPE loans to go to — PP — PPP loans that go to small businesses went to — went to corporations that were multimillion-dollar corporations. And you’re going to see an investigation showing that a lot of this was fraudulent where it went.
So what I’m doing is I’m providing $60 billion for you to be able to make capital investments in order to be able to open safely and make sure you’re in a position that you can do the things that are recommended. If you’ve noticed, there’s been very little federal direction for you all as to how to safely open your businesses. Yet, you know, if you’re able to test your employees, if you’re able to be in a situation if you — if you serve people, you have Plexiglas dividers; if you — a whole range. If you’re able to have everybody with a — with a mask and the like, you can do so much to safely open, but you don’t get that direction.
So, the money, I guarantee you, is going to go to small businesses with people. And I’m shooting — and, by the way, the original definition of a small businesses is 500 or fewer employees. Well, that’s not what I mean by small businesses. What we meant by small business is the mom-and-pop businesses that hold communities together and keep people together, and particularly in neighborhoods where if you don’t have a beauty shop, a barber shop, a hardware store, a grocery store, et cetera, the center of the community begins to disintegrate some.
So what I’d like to do is, if you are willing to give me an address, lay out for you precisely — without taking more time, I’m going to get in trouble; I’m supposed only took two minutes in an answer — is to let you know exactly how that $60 billion in part of the recovery package will go to small businesses. (Applause.)
MR. COOPER: Right. We’re going to take a quick break. When we get back, we’ll have more questions for the President of the United States, Joe Biden. We’ll be right back.
(Commercial break begins.)
(Commercial break concludes.)
MR. COOPER: And welcome back. We’re live at a CNN Town Hall Event at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with President Joe Biden. We are back.
Thanks so much for — for being here. We — before we get back into — to the audience, I want to ask just a question about what we just witnessed.
Before the Senate voted to acquit the former President in the impeachment trial, you said you were anxious to see if Republican senators would stand up. Only seven did. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the rest “cowards.” Do you agree with her?
THE PRESIDENT: I’m not going to call names out. I — look, I — for four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump. The next four years, I want to make sure all in the news is the American people. I’m tired of talking about Trump. (Applause.) It’s done.
MR. COOPER: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the former President is, quote, “still liable for everything he did while he was in office.” If your Department of Justice wanted to investigate him, would you allow them to proceed?
THE PRESIDENT: I made it clear: One of the things about — one of the most serious pieces of damage done by the last administration was the politic- — the politicizing of the Justice Department. Any of you who are lawyers know — whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, conservative, or liberal — it has been more politicized than any Justice Department in American history. I made a commitment: I will not ever tell my Justice Department — and it’s not mine; it’s the people’s Justice Department — who they should and should not prosecute. Their prosecutorial decisions will be left to the Justice Department, not me. (Applause.)
MR. COOPER: I want you to meet Joel Berkowitz from Shorewood. He is a Democrat, a professor of Foreign Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Joel, thanks for being here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you, Anderson.
THE PRESIDENT: I’m not bad at the literature part, but after five years of French, I still can’t speak a word. So I apologize. (Laughter.)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’ll teach you some Yiddish sometime. How’s that?
THE PRESIDENT: I — hey, by the way, I understand a little bit of Yiddish. (Laughter.)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m sure you do.
MR. COOPER: It would be a shonda if you didn’t. But — (Laughter.)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: More seriously, Mr. President, like millions of my fellow citizens, I was shaken by the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, and on our democracy more broadly, by your predecessor and his followers. While I appreciate efforts being made to bring them to justice, I worry about ongoing threats to our country from Americans who embrace white supremacy and conspiracies that align with it. What can your administration do to address this complex and wide-ranging problem?
THE PRESIDENT: It is complex, it’s wide ranging, and it’s real. You may — I got involved in politics to begin with because of civil rights and opposition to white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan. And the most dangerous people in America continue to exist. That is the greatest threat to terror in America: domestic terror.
And so I would make sure that my Justice Department and the Civil Rights Division is focused heavily on those very folks. And I would make sure that we, in fact, focus on how to deal with the rise of white supremacy. And you see what’s happening — and the studies that are beginning to be done, maybe at your university as well — about the impact of former military, former police officers, on the growth of white supremacy in some of these groups.
You may remember in one of my debates with the former President, I asked him to condemn the Proud Boys. He wouldn’t do it. He said, “Stand by. Stand ready.” Or whatever the phrasing exactly was. It is a bane on our existence. It has always been. As Lincoln said, “We have to appeal to our better angels.” And these guys are not — and women — are, in fact, demented. They are dangerous people.
MR. COOPER: I want you to meet James Lewis, an independent from Milwaukee. He’s a labor attorney.
THE PRESIDENT: James, if I say anything you don’t like, let me know right away, will you?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: All right. You’re all right.
THE PRESIDENT: About as big as a mountain.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good evening, President Biden. I was a public defender in Kenosha County when the police shot Jacob Blake. I witnessed the city I worked in burned and devastated. And recently, District Attorney Michael Graveley denied to prosecute the police officers responsible.
So my question to you is: What will your administration do to correct these wrongs that we witnessed not just in Kenosha, but across this country? And what will we do to bridge the gap between communities and their police?
THE PRESIDENT: Three things. First of all, I was a public defender as well, and I think it’s high time that we had public defenders being paid the same as prosecutors. My son, by the way, was a great prosecutor; he was the attorney general of the state of Delaware, and he was a federal prosecutor before that. And so I’m not condemning all prosecutors, but I am saying that it matters that you have adequate defense and you are able to attract people who, in fact, can live on being able to be that public defender — number one.
Number two — we are pushing very hard, and I think we’ll get it done — is the legislation relating to what is appropriate police behavior and studying police behavior, and coming down with recommendations that are consistent with the legislation that was put in place as a consequence of all the world seeing one man shoved up against the curb and murdered after 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
And so there’s a number of things relating to everything from no-knock warrants and — and a whole range of things you know. But there’s legislation that’s being introduced separately. I hope it will pass.
But thirdly, I think we have to deal with systemic racism that exists throughout society. And one of the things I’m going to recommend there is that we look at an entire panoply of things that affect whether or not people of color, primarily, are — are treated differently. And that goes through everything from prosecutorial discretion — you know, as a public defender what, by that, I mean. What happens is — it’ll take too long to go through the whole explanation, but let me do it — try to go quickly.
What happens now is, if you in fact are going to — you arrest someone because they had — and you want to charge them, you can charge them with robbery or armed robbery. If you charge them with armed robbery, you get a lot more time than if you don’t charge with robbery. But if you want to make sure that someone who doesn’t know much about their representation is able to (inaudible), you engage in prosecutorial misconduct by offering them to plead to, essentially — it’s not the same — burglary, which gets them two years in probation and — so you don’t even get a trial. You plead because you don’t have adequate representation. You feel like everything is against you, and you’re in trouble. When I did the sentencing act, that was designed to keep — make sure we had the same time for the same crime.
As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I looked at all 10 federal districts — and we took six months to do it — and found out if you’re black, and you — or your first-time offense of being accused of burglary — and maybe you committed it and you were white and you did the same exact crime — in all 10 districts throughout the United States of America, a person — and don’t hold me to the exact numbers, but the percentages are right — if you’re a first-time white guy, you’d get two years; you’d get seven years if you were black.
So in order to make sure that you could not send people to jail for the same crime, I came up with this pr- — this Sentencing Commission, which said that you — everybody who commits the crime has to receive between — instead of zero to 20 years, you drastically cut down the number of years you could go to jail. But say you have to — if you — if it’s a one — first-time offense, you have to get sentenced between one and a half and three years. Okay?
Well, what happens is prosecutors use that as a mechanism to send people to jail. It makes it look like they’re — we’re dealing with mandatory sentencing, which it wasn’t designed to do at all. It was designed to make sure that people were treated fairly.
There’s much — I’m sorry to go on. There’s much more to talk about, but —
MR. COOPER: Yeah. We actually have a related question over here. This is Dannie Evans, a pastor in Janesville, who works as a supervisor for the juvenile justice diversion program in Rock County. He’s an independent, voted for Donald Trump in 2020. He’s also a member the state’s 32-member Racial Disparity Task Force, created in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting last summer.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good afternoon, Mr. President. “Defund the Police” is discussed as an option for reforming policing; however, there are communities where people live in fear not of the police, but in fear of the violent gangs who commit crimes —
THE PRESIDENT: Exactly.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: — in those neighborhoods. How can we be sure that we don’t over-legislate police officers so that they can’t do their job to protect the law-abiding citizens who live in these high-crime neighborhoods, and yet train officers to police with compassion?
THE PRESIDENT: By, number one, not defunding the police. We have to put more money in police work so we have legitimate community policing and we’re in a situation where we change the legislation. No one should go to jail for a drug offense. No one should go to jail for the use of a drug. They should go to drug rehabilitation. (Applause.) Drug rehabilitation. Number one.
We should be in a position where we change the system — of sentencing system — to one that relates to a notion of — they start telling you to — as related to making sure that what you do is you focus on making sure that there’s rehabilitation.
The idea that we don’t have people in prison systems learning how to be — spending the money — learning how to be mechanics, learning how to be cooks, learning how to have a profession when you get out; the idea that we deny someone, who served their time, access to Pell Grants, access to housing, access to — right now, as you well know, most places you get out of prison, you get 25 bucks and a bus ticket. You end up back under the bridge exactly where you were before.
And the fact is that — the concern in many minority communities is black-on-black, Hispanic-on-Hispanic, not just —
But here’s the deal: There has to be much more serious –how can I say it? — much more serious determination as to what the background and the attitudes of the recruit is, where — what their views are. There should be much more psychological testing, like you would if you’re going to the intelligence community. What is it? What are the things that make you respond the way you do? Because there is — there is inherent prejudice built into the system as well.
And we also need to provide for — and it’s happening — more African American and more Hispanic police officers. And, by the way, they don’t get it all right either, by a long shot. But every cop, when they get up in the morning and put on that shield, has a right to expect to be able to go home to their family that night. Conversely, every kid walking across the street wearing a hoodie is not a member of a gang and is about to knock somebody off. (Applause.)
So it’s about education. I’d love to talk to you more about it because it’s — it is the answer, in my view — that and education — actually, access to education.
And one of the things that I talk a lot about — and I’m sorry to go on about this, but it’s important: I don’t think we can look at opportunity in the Af- — let’s stick with African American community for a minute — in terms of the criminal justice system. That is only one small piece of why people are the way they are. You realize — I don’t know what home you live in, but if you go ahead and you want to get insurance, and you’re in a black neighborhood, you’re going to pay more for the same insurance that I’m going to pay for the exact same home. Your car — you never had an accident in your car. If you live in a black neighborhood, you’re going to pay a higher premium on your car. You’re going to —
So, there’s so many things that are built in institutionally that disadvantage African Americans and Latinos that we — in fact, I think — and one of the great advantages — I’m sorry, but one of the great advantages — as bad as things are — I keep reading from presidential historians how I’ve inherited the worst situation since Lincoln, worse than Roosevelt, because — economic crisis, political crisis, racial crisis, et cetera.
But the fact is that everyone has gotten a close-up look now and seen what’s happened. That kid — that kid holding that camera for 8 minutes and 46 seconds awakened the whole world. When I met with his little daughter, after he was dead, she said, “My Daddy has changed the world.” Guess what? Not only here in the United States. Around the world, people said, “Whoa, I didn’t know that happened.”
Dr. King — when my generation — when I got involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a high school student in the early ’60s — and you had Bull Connor and his dogs in the late ’50s sicking on those ladies going to — in their black dresses going to church — and little kids and fire hoses ripping their skin off. He said, “What happened there was — it was a second emancipation.” Because people in places where there weren’t black communities said, “That really happens? I didn’t believe it.” They saw it happen. And so it generated the — the Voting Rights Act. It generated the Civil Rights Act. And he called it the “Second Emancipation.” We have a chance now — a chance now to make significant change in racial disparities.
And I’m going to say something that’s going to get me in trouble, which — I couldn’t go through the whole show without doing that. And that is that — think about it: If you want to know where the American public is, look at the money being spent in advertising. Did you ever, five years ago, think every second or third ad out of five or six you’d turn on would be biracial couples? (Applause.)
No, no, I’m not — I’m not being fac- — the reason I’m so hopeful is this new generation — they’re not like us. They’re thinking differently. They’re more open. And we got to take advantage of it. (Applause.)
MR. COOPER: I want you to — (applause) —
THE PRESIDENT: I’m sorry.
MR. COOPER: I want you to meet LuVerda Martin, a Democrat from Mequon or Mequan [sic].
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Mequon.
MR. COOPER: Mequon, sorry. LuVerda is a certified nurse, midwife.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good evening, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Good evening.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Our nation’s experiences with and through COVID-19 and other recent tragedies have strengthened the foundation of division among Americans. What are your immediate and tangible plans to address how deeply divided we are as a nation?
THE PRESIDENT: I take issue with what everybody says about the division. For example, my plan on COVID: 69 percent of the American people support it — 69. In this state — recent poll — 60 percent. Sixty percent. Forty-five percent of Trump voters and fifty-five percent of Republican voters. The nation is not divided. You go out there and take a look and talk to people. You have fringes on both ends, but it’s not nearly as divided as we make it out to be. And we have to bring it together.
You may remember how — trouble I get in. I said there were three reasons I was running: One, to restore the soul of the country — decency, honor, integrity; talk about the things that matter to people, treat people with dignity. Secondly, I said, to rebuild the backbone of the country, the middle class, and this time bring everybody along and have a chance. And the third reason was unite the country. On my own primary, I got la- — “Unite the country? What are you talking about?”
You cannot function in our system without consensus, other than abusing power at the executive level.
So I really think there’s so many things that we agree on that we don’t focus enough on. And that’s, in large part, I think, because we don’t just condemn the things that are so obviously wrong — obviously wrong — that everybody agrees on. The way they were raised. The way we were raised. As my mother would say, if half the things that occurred in the last campaign came out of my mouth, as she’d say as a kid, we’d wash my mouth out with soap. (Laughter.)
I mean, we have to be more decent and treat people with respect, and just decency.
MR. COOPER: But let me —
THE PRESIDENT: And —
MR. COOPER: Let me ask about — a question which does often divide many people in this country: immigration.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
MR. COOPER: Your administration, along with congressional Democrats, expected to unveil an immigration reform bill just this week. You want a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants. Would you sign any immigration bill if it did not include that: a pathway for the roughly 11 million undocumented —
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah, there’s a whole range of things that relate to immigration, including the whole idea how you deal with — you know, what confuses people, is you talk about refugees, you talk about undocumented, you talk about people who are seeking asylum, and you talk about people who are coming from the — that are coming from camps or being held around the world.
And there are four different criteria for being able to come to the United States. The vast majority of the people, those 11 million undocumented, they’re not Hispanics; they’re people who came on a visa — who was able to buy a ticket to get in a plane, and didn’t go home. They didn’t come across the Rio Grande swimming — excuse me. (Laughter.) And — and — sorry, that’s the Irish in me. (Laughter.)
But all kidding aside. So there are a lot of things that relate — but I think that we can no long- — look, you’ve he- — I’m — even if you’re not involved in politics at all, you’ve probably heard me say this a thousand times, and matter of — that everyone is entitled to be treated with decency, with dignity. Everyone is entitled to that.
And we don’t do that enough. For the first time in American history, if you’re seeking asylum — meaning you’re being persecuted, you’re seeking asylum — you can’t do it from the United States. You used to come, have an asylum officer determine whether or not you met the criteria, and send you back if you in fact — but you can’t even do that. You’ve got to seek asylum from abroad.
MR. COOPER: But just to be clear, though — and I know you’re going to be announcing stuff later this week, or that’s what I’ve heard — you do want a pathway to citizenship —
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
MR. COOPER: — for ele- — roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
MR. COOPER: And that would be essential in any bill for you?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, yes. (Applause.) But, by the way, if you came along and said to me, “In the meantime, we can work out a system whereby we’re going to…” For example, we used to allow refugees — 125,000 refugees in the United States in a yearly basis. It was as high as 250,000. Trump cut it to 5,000.
Come with me into Sierra Leone. Come with me into parts of Lebanon. Come with me around the world and see people piled up in camps, kids dying, no way out, refugees fleeing from persecution. We, the United States, used to do our part. We were part of that. We were — and, you know, that’s — you know, “send me your huddled masses.” Come on.
And so I would, if you had a refugee bill by itself — I’m not suggesting that — but I would — there’s things that I would deal by itself, but not at the expense of saying, “I’m never going to do the other.” There is a reasonable path to citizenship.
And it shows up — one of the reasons why we have been able to compete with the rest of the world so well is most of our major competitors are xenophobic. You remember quite — I remember you questioned me when I came back from China. And I said, “I predict, within less than a year, they’re going to end their One China policy.” And I got clobbered by — saying — because they said Biden didn’t talk about the fact that — how immoral it was. And it was when we were running against a Republican ticket, led by Mitt Romney — a fine guy.
MR. COOPER: You just talked to China’s President, I believe.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, for two hours.
MR. COOPER: What about the Uyghurs? What about the human rights abuses in China?
THE PRESIDENT: We must speak up for human rights. It’s who we are. We can’t — my comment to him was — and I know him well, and he knows me well. We’re — a two-hour conversation.
MR. COOPER: You talked about this to him?
THE PRESIDENT: I talked about this, too. And that’s not so much refugee, but I talked about — I said — look, you know, Chinese leaders — if you know anything about Chinese history, it has always been — the time when China has been victimized by the outer world is when they haven’t been unified at home. So the central — to vastly overstate it — the central principle of Xi Jinping is that there must be a united, tightly controlled China. And he uses his rationale for the things he does based on that.
I point out to him: No American President can be sustained as a President if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States. And so the idea I’m not going to speak out against what he’s doing in Hong Kong, what he’s doing with the Uyghurs in western mountains of China and Taiwan, trying to end the One China policy by making it forceful — I said — and by the — he said he — he gets it. Culturally, there are different norms that each country and they — their leaders — are expected to follow.
But my point was that when I came back from meeting with him and traveling 17,000 miles with him when I was vice president and he was the vice president — that’s how I got to know him so well, at the request of President Hu — not a joke — his predecessor, President Hu — and President Obama wanted us to get to know one another because he was going to be the president.
And I came back and said they’re going to end their One China — their one child policy, because they’re so xenophobic, they won’t let anybody else in, and more people are retired than working. How can they sustain economic growth when more people are retired?
MR. COOPER: When you talk to him, though, about human rights abuses, is that just — is that as far as it goes in terms of the U.S.? Or is there any actual repercussions for China?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, there will be repercussions for China, and he knows that. What I’m doing is making clear that we, in fact, are going to continue to reassert our role as spokespersons for human rights at the U.N. and other — other agencies that have an impact on their attitude.
China is trying very hard to become the world leader and to get that moniker. And to be able to do that, they have to gain the confidence of other countries. And as long as they’re engaged in activity that is contrary to basic human rights, it’s going to be hard for them to do that.
But it’s much more complicated than that. I’m — I shouldn’t have tried to talk China policy in 10 minutes on television here.
MR. COOPER: Well, let me — let me bring it back to the United States. I want you to meet Joycelyn Fish, a Democrat from Racine. Joycelyn is the director of marketing for a community theater.
Joycelyn, welcome. Your question?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello. Good evening, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Good evening.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Student loans are crushing my family, friends, and fellow Americans.
THE PRESIDENT: Me too.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Laughs.) The American Dream —
THE PRESIDENT: You think I’m kidding.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: — is to succeed. But how can we fulfill that dream when debt is many people’s only option for a degree? We need student loan forgiveness beyond the potential $10,000 your administration has proposed. We need at least a $50,000 minimum. What will you do to make that happen?
THE PRESIDENT: I will not make that happen. It depends on whether or not you go to a private university or public university. It depends on the idea that I say to a community, “I’m going to forgive the debt…” — the billions of dollars in debt for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn and schools my children — I went to a great school. I went to a state school. But is that going to be forgiven, rather than use that money to provide for early education for young children who are — come from disadvantaged circumstances?
But here’s what I think: I think everyone — and I’ve been proposing this for four years — everyone should be able to go to community college for free. For free. (Applause.) That’s — that costs $9 billion, and we should pay for it. And the tax policies we have now — we should be able to pay for you. We spend almost that money as a break for people who own race horses.
And I think any family making under $125,000 whose kids go to a state university they get into, that should be free as well.
And the thing I do in terms of student debt that’s accumulated is provide for changing the existing system now for debt forgiveness if you engage in volunteer activity. For example, if you were — if you’re teaching school, after five years, you — you would have $50,000 of your debt forgiven. If you worked in a battered women’s shelter, if you worked — and so on. So you’ll be able to forgive debt.
Thirdly, I’m going to change the position that we have now to allow for debt forgiveness — because it’s so hard to calculate — whereby you can now, depending on how much you make and what program you sought, you can work off that debt by the activity you have, and you cannot be charged more than X percent of your take-home pay so that it doesn’t affect your ability to buy a car, own a home, et cetera.
Each of my children graduated from school. I mortgaged the house. I was listed as the poorest man in Congress for — not a joke — for over 30 years. And — but I was able to bo- — I bought a home I spent a lot of time working on, and I was able to sell it for some profit.
But my — my oldest son graduated, after undergraduate and graduate school, with $136,000 in debt after working 40 — I mean, excuse me, 30 hours a week during school. My other son, who went to Georgetown and Yale Law School, graduated $142,000 in debt, and he worked for a parking service in — down in Washington. My daughter went to Tulane University and then got a masters at Penn. She graduated $103,000 in debt.
So I don’t think anybody should have to pay for that, but I do think you should be able to work it off. My daughter is a social worker. My other son became a — ran the World Food Program USA, and so on. They — they didn’t qualify.
But my point is: I understand the impact of the debt, and it can be debilitating. And I think there is a whole question about what universities are doing. They don’t need more skyboxes. What they need is more money invested in — in making — so that’s why I provide, for example, $80 billion — $70 billion over 10 years for HBCUs and other minority-serving universities, because they don’t have the laboratories to be able to bring in those government contracts that can train people in cybersecurity or other future endeavors that pay well.
But I do think that, in this moment of economic pain and strain, that we should be eliminating interest on the debts that are accumulated, number one. And number two, I’m prepared to write off a $10,000 debt, but not 50.
MR. COOPER: Mr. President, let me ask you —
THE PRESIDENT: Because I don’t think I have the authority to do it by signing the pen.
MR. COOPER: You have, over the years — over your career, you’ve obviously spent a great deal of time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, except now you’re living there and you’re President. It’s been four weeks. What’s it like? How’s it different?
THE PRESIDENT: I get up in the morning, look at Jill, and say, “Where the hell are we?” (Laughter.)
No, it’s — look, it’s — you know, I’ve only been President four weeks. And sometimes — because things are moving so fast, not because of burden — it feels like four years. It’s not because of the burden; it’s because there’s so much happening that you focus on. You’re constantly focusing on one problem or opportunity, one right — ad seriatum.
But what happens is that it’s — what I didn’t realize: I had been in the Oval Office a hundred times, as Vice President — or more than that, every morning, for the initial meetings — but I had never been up in the Residence. And one of the things that — I don’t know about you all, but I was raised in the way that you didn’t look for anybody to wait on you. And it’s — we’re — I find myself extremely self-conscious. There are wonderful people who work at the White House. But someone, you know, standing there and, you know, making sure — hands me my suitcoat or —
MR. COOPER: You’d never been in the Residence of the White House?
THE PRESIDENT: I’d only been upstairs in the — in the Yellow Room. You know, the — the Oval upstairs.
MR. COOPER: I don’t know, I’ve never been there either. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: No. And — but it’s — but, look, the people down there are wonderful. And I find that, you know — like, my dad — you’ve heard me say this before — my dad used to say, “Everybody…” — “Everybody is entitled to be treated with respect.” And it’s interesting how decent and incredible these folks are.
MR. COOPER: Is it different than you expected it to be, in some ways?
THE PRESIDENT: You know, I don’t know what I ever expected it to be. I — it is different in that — I’ll get in trouble in here. I said when I was running, I wanted to be President not to live in the White House but to be able to make the decisions about the future of the country. And so living in the White House, as you’ve heard other presidents who have been extremely flattered to live there, has — it’s a little like a gilded cage in terms of being able to walk outside and do things.
The Vice President’s residence was totally different. You’re on 80 acres, overlooking the rest of the city. And you can walk out, and there’s a swimming pool. You can walk off a porch in the summer and jump in a pool, and — and, you know, go into work. You can ride a bicycle around and never leave the property and work out. And you can — but the White House is very different.
And I feel a sense of — I must tell you, a sense of history about it. Jon Meacham, who you know, and several other presidential historians, helped me with my — I asked my brother, who’s good at this, to set up the Oval Office for me, because it all happens within two hours, you know? Literally. They move everything out and move something.
And it was interesting to hear these historians talk about what — what other presidents have gone through in the moments, and who were the people who stepped up to the ball, and who’s the people who didn’t. And what you realize is the most consequential thing for me is — although I’ve known this watching seven presidents who I got to know fairly well — is I always, in the past, looked at the presidency in the terms of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and George Washington and how can — (inaudible). They’re super human.
But I had to remind myself, they’re really fine men that I knew well — the last seven presidents — and at least there are people who I knew well enough to know that I play on the same team with.
So it took away the sense of, “This is — my God, you know, I’m not Abraham Lincoln. I’m not Franklin Roosevelt. How do I deal with these problems?”
MR. COOPER: Have you picked up the phone and called any former president yet?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I have.
MR. COOPER: Do you want to say who?
THE PRESIDENT: No, I don’t. They’re private conversations. (Laughter.) But — and, by the way, all of them have, with one exception, picked up the phone and called me as well. (Laughter.)
MR. COOPER: I know you don’t want to talk about him, but — (laughter).
THE PRESIDENT: No, but, look, it’s a — it’s the greatest honor I think an American can be given, from my perspective. And I literally pray that I have the capacity to do for the country what you all deserve need be done.
But one thing I learned after eight years with Barack is, no matter how consequential the decision — I got to be the last person in the room with him, literally, on every decision — I can make a recommendation, but I walked out of the room, and it was all him, man. Nobody else. The buck stops there.
And that’s where you pray for making sure that you’re looking at the impact on the country and a little bit of good luck at the judgment you’re making.
MR. COOPER: Mr. President, thank you so much for joining us —
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
MR. COOPER: — in this town hall. (Applause.)
END 9:13 P.M. CST