The Obama interview: U.S. must invest in itself

President Obama, in exclusive Marketplace interview, defended U.S. investment in alternative energy and called for more investment in the nation's infrastructure. Above, host Kai Ryssdal checks his notes during interview at the Copper Mountain solar plant in Nevada desert.

U.S. President Barack Obama walks across the tarmac to greet well-wishers on March 21, 2012 upon arrival at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) tours the Copper Mountain Solar Project, the largest photovoltaic plant operating in the country, March 21, 2012 in Boulder City, Nev.

On a two-day trip to promote his energy policy, President Obama told Marketplace in an exclusive interview that the U.S. must invest in alternative energy or cede leadership to China. He called on Congress to help create jobs by providing more aid to struggling homeowners and investing more in infrastructure.

Under attack by Republican critics for rising gas prices, the president is speaking to audiences in four states to argue for what he calls his "all of the above" energy policy: making the United States energy independent by developing all kinds of energy, drilling for oil and gas but also investing in alternative energies such as solar.

He came to Nevada to visit Boulder City, a city built by the government to house construction workers building the Hoover Dam. Today it's the site of the Copper Mountain solar plant, the largest operating solar generator in the country, powering 17,000 homes with the use of nearly one million solar panels. 

As Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal put it, the president was "kicking into economic campaign mode."

Tess Vigeland: Today President Obama launched a two-day, four-state "energy tour." He started in Boulder City, Nev., at the Copper Mountain Solar Facility -- the largest in the country. The president's trip comes amid increasing concern from his campaign that rising gas prices could unravel his bid for re-election.

My colleague and the host of this program -- Kai Ryssdal -- met with the president today in Nevada. Kai joins me from there now. Hi there.

Kai Ryssdal: Hey Tess, how are you.

Vigeland: Good. You're baking there among the solar panels, I assume?

Ryssdal: Can I tell you? I'm a little worried, actually, about what the UV exposure out here is. We are in the Nevada desert. It is, there's a breeze so it's not that hot, but man, this is why they had the solar plant out here. It gets 320 days of sun a year, and we're having one of them now.

Vigeland: And that's why we call for sunscreen. Well, energy is certainly is a topic around the water cooler with gas prices putting a real crimp in consumers' wallets. What was the president's main message today?

Ryssdal: It is exactly as you said up at the top -- he didn't say it explicitly, we got to his campaign and the politics of this whole thing a little bit which you're hear, but this is definitely now the Obama administration kicking into economic campaign mode. The president has, as you'll hear a bit later on, a strategy that he likes to call "all of the above." He's out here at a solar plant today, he's going to oil pipelines tomorrow and renewable energy plants. And he wants this country to be energy independent by means of every available source -- can't just be oil, can't just be gas. And that's the president's message as he takes this trip.

Vigeland: Well I know you had many more questions for the president, so I'll let you take it from there.

Ryssdal: Mr. President, thanks for joining us.

Barack Obama: Great to be here, thank you.

Ryssdal: We're talking about your "all of the above" energy strategy. But I wonder whether Americans aren't more interested in a "one of the above" energy strategy -- and that is gas not at $4 a gallon.

Obama: Look, ultimately what Americans care about is the huge burden that it's placing on families right now. If you have to drive 50 miles to work -- I hear from a lot of folks who do -- then this is a real strain on budgets. So their most immediate concern is gas prices. But it's interesting, when you talk to Americans across the country, what they also realize is that there's no silver bullet; they want to make sure that we've got strong oil and gas production; and they're glad to hear that we're starting to make progress on natural gas, on additional oil production here in the United States. They also understand that if we've only got 2 percent of the world's oil reserves and we're using 20 percent of the world's oil, then the math is not going to add up unless we also develop the kinds of new technologies that are represented by this solar panel field out here.

Ryssdal: Acknowledging there's no silver bullet, you get criticized by Republicans on their campaign trail. Your response has been: We're drilling as much as we can, more oil than any time in the past eight years. Is there more you can do so that it doesn't cost $55 to fill up your tank?

Obama: The main reason that you're seeing the kind of gas spike that we're seeing right now has to do with uncertainty in the Middle East. So a lot of this has to do with the risk premium that's being tacked on -- people aren't certain about what's going to happen with Iran. There's also been some tightening in the market because some unlikely places like Sudan and Yemen -- they may only produce 100,000 barrels or 200,000 barrels -- but when you add it all up, you've seen about a million barrels taken off the market. And what that means is is that even if we're producing as fast as we can, we're still not going to see gas prices where we'd like them to be unless we're also focused on being more efficient with the oil and gas that we have.

So as you said, we're producing more than any time in the last eight years. We've actually reduced oil imports to under 50 percent, and they're as low as they've been in a long time over the last couple of years. What we now need to do is open up additional sites for drilling -- and we're doing that actually, even on public lands we've increased permitting by about 13 percent -- but what we've also got to do is double fuel efficiency standards on cars. We're slated right now by the next decade to see fuel efficiency standards go up to 55 miles a gallon -- that can save families about $8,000 during a lifetime of a car. We're going to have to make sure that we're using oil in our businesses a lot more efficiently. So if we add improved production with increased efficiency, then over time, we can regain control over our energy supplies.

Ryssdal: With all respect, it was kind of a gutsy move I think to come to a solar facility. Your administration has staked a lot on clean technology, green jobs. The biggest item most people know about that strategy is, of course, a company named Solyndra, which your administration gave loan guarantees to, that then went bankrupt and has been the subject of many investigations. Are you doing your "all of the above" strategy right if that's what we have to show for it -- Solyndra?

Obama: We are doing the "all of the above" strategy right. Obviously, we wish Solyndra hadn't gone bankrupt. Part of the reason they did was because the Chinese were subsidizing their solar industry and flooding the market in ways that Solyndra couldn't compete. But understand: This was not our program, per se. Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- put together a loan guarantee program because they understood historically that when you get new industries, it's easy to raise money for startups, but if you want to take them to scale, oftentimes there's a lot of risk involved, and what the loan guarantee program was designed to do was to help start up companies get to scale. And the understanding is is that some companies are not going to succeed, some companies will do very well -- but the portfolio as a whole ends up supporting the kind of innovation that helps make America successful in this innovative 21st century economy.

Do I wish that Solyndra had gone bankrupt? Absolutely not. And obviously it's heartbreaking what happened to the workers who were there. When you look at the overall portfolio, is it right for us to make sure that we're not just cashing in our chips and letting the Chinese or the Germans develop the technologies that we know are going to be critical in the future? I'm proud to say that we're going to continue to support it.

Ryssdal: You said when you campaigning in 2008 that you were going to spend $150 billion on green tech and clean energy and create five million clean energy jobs. You didn't get there.

Obama: Well we haven't gotten there partly because this thing interceded called the Great Recession; we had the worst financial crisis and the biggest drop in employment, and the housing market, obviously the bottom fell out of it. And so we've spent a lot of time digging our way out of that hole. Part of it has been a clean energy strategy, and investments that we made because of the Recovery Act. The investments that are being made as we speak help to account for the kind of solar facility that we're seeing right here that is creating jobs right here in Boulder City.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you about the labor market: Unemployment is down from its high during this administration -- it's now 8.3 percent. There's still millions of people, though, unemployed. Long-term unemployment is becoming a structural problem in this economy, as people lose the skills. What more can you do, and what more should the government do to create jobs in this economy?

Obama: Well there's a bunch of things we should be doing. You're right, we've made progress. The fact is is that over the past 24 months, we've created almost four million jobs; we've seen more growth in the manufacturing sector that any time since the 1990s -- about 400,000 jobs created over the last couple of years. And so the trend lines are good, and one of the most important things that we needed to do was to make sure that the economy was growing. But you're right that we still have way too many people unemployed, there's still some headwinds that we've got to deal with. I'll give you a couple of examples.

No. 1: The housing market's still probably the biggest drag on the economy. Now what we've done administratively is allow people to start refinancing their homes to take advantage of historically low rates if their mortgages are held by one of the FHA programs -- Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac. The problem is is that only captures a portion of people who could be refinancing, saving $3,000, putting more money into the economy and creating more jobs and getting the construction industry back up and running. So we called on Congress to make a change that would allow everybody to refinance right now -- that's something that would create jobs.

Second example: Infrastructure. We've got a couple trillion dollars worth of improvements that need to be made right now all across the country. Interest rates have never been lower; contractors have never been more desperate for work; construction workers are idle at home when they want to be working. For us to engage and embark on a major infrastructure development program right now not only would put people to work as we speak, but it would also pay huge dividends in terms of economic growth over the long-term.

So the issue here is not that there aren't things we can do to put people back to work, re-train them for the jobs that currently exist -- the challenge is that Congress is going to have to think a little more boldly than they have been and get past some of the partisan name-calling that has become a habit in Washington. If we do, then there a bunch of things that we can do to put people back to work.

Ryssdal: Let me use that as a pivot then and ask you about the Republicans who are currently campaigning for your job. I don't know if you watched the TV last night after the Illinois primary, I'm sure you got a briefing this morning -- both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum made the case that their platforms of economic freedom are the way to go. They say you're not doing enough, they say you haven't been doing enough. You shrug, but that's -- you know, you know what they're saying. So the question is: Make this close to sale, right? Because you keeping your job in November is going to be depending on how people feel about whether you did it or you didn't do it as you promised three and a half years ago.

Obama: You know, I think at a time when people are still out there struggling, where unemployment is still too high and a lot of folks are still worried about their mortgage, their home being underwater -- nobody I think can claim that we are where we want to. But I think when the American people think back to the last three years and where we've been, and where we're moving towards now, when you ask them what has more likelihood of succeeding -- a policy in which we're providing additional tax cuts to the very wealthiest Americans who are the only folks who have benefitted from any significant income growth over the past decade; stripping away regulations that help keep our air and water clean; defunding things like education that we know are going to help us to be competitive -- when you ask them is that a recipe for long-term economic growth, their answer is going to be no. And when you turn to them and say: Should we be investing school reform that puts more money in but also demands greater accountability and makes sure that we're investing in teachers; should we be rebuilding our infrastructure; should we be investing in clean energy technology; should we be investing in basic research in science; and should we pay for that and get our deficit under control with a balanced approach that gets rid of programs that don't work but is also making sure that folks like me are paying our fair share of taxes -- then that's the recipe that they have a lot more confidence will allow us to be competitive in the 21st century.

So the debate is going to be joined, I think it's going to be a healthy one. But the fact is, we've tried what they're peddling. We tried it in the decade before the financial crisis; shoot, we tried it the decade before the Great Depression. And historically, that recipe -- that sort of on-your-own economics that is now being warmed over in this campaign -- has not been a recipe for American greatness and American economic success.

Ryssdal: Mr. President, thanks very much for your time, sir.

Obama: I enjoyed it, thank you very much.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, the most widely heard program on business and the economy in the country.

U.S. President Barack Obama walks across the tarmac to greet well-wishers on March 21, 2012 upon arrival at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) tours the Copper Mountain Solar Project, the largest photovoltaic plant operating in the country, March 21, 2012 in Boulder City, Nev.


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