MTV News sat down with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Saturday in Nevada, but we weren't alone. We were armed with your questions, and we took them directly to the senator himself. (MTV News extended a similar offer to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, but he declined.)
It was your last chance to bring your issues directly to the candidate before the polls open Tuesday. Obama took on a wide range of topics, including gay rights, gun violence, civil liberties and even sagging-pants ordinances.
But now we're giving you the last word — the senator's conversation with Sway is below, but to see what the people behind the questions thought of Obama's answers, tune in when "Ask Obama" airs Monday (November 3) on MTV at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. ET, and on MTV Tr3s at 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. ET.
Sway: Senator Obama, thank you first of all for engaging young Americans today, as well as throughout the year. You have always been here for the MTV audience, and I want to say that we appreciate your time.
Barack Obama: Thank you so much, Sway. I appreciate it.
Sway: Well, we have a lot of great questions from our audience, so I'm going to get straight to it.
Obama: Let's do it.
Sway: The first question is from joi0924, and she's from San Antonio: "The young people today cannot afford to go to college because of the cost of tuition. What are your plans as our next president when it comes to making it easier for young people to attend college?"
Obama: Look, this I can relate to. I went to college having to take out student loans, went to law school having to take out student loans. Michelle took out student loans. When we got married, I think together our total loan payments every month was more than our mortgage when we bought a house, and that lasted for about 10 years. And I meet students — I think the average student is taking out $25,000 to $30,000. That's a huge burden, especially in a time when wages and income are not going up. So here is what we want to do: increase the Pell Grant program, eliminate banks as middlemen from the direct loan program — they're taking out billions of dollars in profits — take that money, apply that to increasing the number of loans that are out there and reducing the rates, and then what I want to do is provide a $4,000 tuition credit for every student, every year, in exchange for national service. If they participate in Peace Corps, working in their community in some fashion, obviously joining the military. We are going to make sure that they can afford their college tuition. And in certain areas, like teaching, where we really need teachers, especially in math and science, and nursing, where we really need nurses, we will potentially provide them with even more than that in order to get the high-quality teachers and nurses that we really need.
Sway: OK, and that sounds great for those that want to attend college. What about those who are already in college, say for example we have Sev88. He is from Buffalo. His question is: "I am in my junior year of college. I am very worried about paying back my student loans. I have heard your plans for making college more affordable, but what are you going to do for the graduates that are already tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt?"
Obama: We may try to see if we can set up some programs to see if we can consolidate some of these loans. There is only so much we will be able to do going backwards. What we can focus on is going forward. I think there are a lot of students out there who have already paid off their loans and they may not be happy with it. They might not mind getting some of their money back too. What we want to do is just make sure that each student who is currently in school — and by the way, this isn't just four-year colleges and universities. My attitude is, if young people are going back, going for two years at the community-college level for technical training of some sort, they are returning to school after having worked for a while, all of that is part of creating a knowledge-based work force that is going to be the key to our competitiveness long-term. This is not just good for young people, it's good for the economy as a whole.
Sway: What are some of the programs you said for people that have already incurred the debt?
Obama: As I said, what we are looking at potentially is being able to consolidate some of the loans, and if they are part of a broader pool, we may be able to lower interest rates on the debt that they already owe. But the key is going to be going forward, making sure that young people in the future are able to afford to go to college.
Sway: Our next question is from Matt from Iowa: "If your desire is to spread the wealth around, what incentive is there for me to try to work hard? If I am only going to get more taken away from me, the more money I make, why wouldn't I just slide into a life of relaxation and let rich people take care of me? And a lot of people are asking similar questions, and I wanted you to specify. What does this mean exactly?"
Obama: What is amazing to me is this whole notion that somehow everybody is just looking out for themselves. I mean, the fact is, we just talked about student loans. When young people who have the drive and the skill to go to college can't afford to go to college, how do you think we pay for scholarships or loan programs? That money doesn't grow on trees. It's got to come from somewhere, and the attitude that I have is that, if we want to grow our economy, the way it grows is from the bottom up. You don't just give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires. What you do is make sure the tax code is fair. I want to give a tax cut to 95 percent of working Americans, but in order to pay for that, I'm going to take the tax rates back to what they were in the 1990s for people who are making more than a quarter of a million dollars a year. Now for people who are making more than a quarter of a million dollars a year, if they are paying 2 or 3 percent higher in taxes, the notion that they're somehow going to stop working, or that this young man is going to not want to be successful, that just doesn't make any sense. Back in the 1990s, we created more millionaires, more billionaires, because the economy was growing, everything was strong, at every income bracket, people were doing well. So this idea, that somehow everybody is just on their own and shouldn't be concerned about other people who are coming up behind them, that's the kind of attitude that I want to end when I am president.
Sway: Just out of curiosity, for those that are being taxed that are making more than $250,000 a year, how much difference would it be from how they are being taxed today?
Obama: Well, right now, they are getting taxed at 36 percent. Under Bill Clinton in the 1990s, they were being taxed at 39.6 percent. You are talking about a 3.6 percent difference, and for the average person who is making half a million, a million dollars, now people like you Sway, that's chump change, that's nothing. But it could make a big difference for that young person who is trying to figure out whether they can go to college or not, if we could give them more of a break or more scholarships or grants to go to college.
Sway: For the record, I don't make that kind of money, so I am going to go ahead and say that. All right, my next question is from Joseph from Brooklyn, New York. Joseph says: "Mr. Obama, my name is Joseph Stort, and I come from Red Hook, Brooklyn. I know at least 40 people who were murdered because they grew up in a climate of hopelessness. How can we begin to inject hope into the inner cities, to those society has deemed unreachable?'
Obama: It's a big problem and we are not going to be able to turn it around overnight. I don't want people thinking, "I'm president, and suddenly you don't have any gangs on the streets, and you don't have any drugs being peddled on the corners." But I think that over the course of eight, 10 years, we can start moving in another direction, and it involves starting when they are young, investing in early childhood education, making sure that our kids are getting a healthy start, having a comprehensive health care program, so that every young person is getting the checkups they need, if they need eyeglasses, if they have a hearing impairment, if they're getting their vaccinations, whatever it is, making sure they are healthy and happy when they start school. That is point number one. Point number two is improving K-12 education, improving our teachers, giving them higher salaries. Also giving them more support, having after-school programs and summer-school programs so that the kids have some place to go and having a criminal-justice system that is focused more on prevention and not just apprehending criminals. You look at, for example, the way we deal with nonviolent, low-level drug offenders, first-time drug offenders, it turns out drug courts that force them to go to rehabilitation, where they are carefully monitored, is actually much more successful in preventing them in going back into a life of crime than just throwing them in a jail somewhere, and if we have a smart approach and not just a tough approach, but also a smart and tough approach to how we deal with the criminal-justice program, that can have an impact as well. There is a great example, the Harlem Children's Zone, a guy name Geoffrey Canada started this. It has a comprehensive approach to young people in that area, and you are starting to see graduation rates go up, college-attendance rates go up, reductions in terms of delinquency, so we can make progress on this stuff, but it takes sustained effort, and over the long term in the inner city, we obviously have to create jobs, so people have a path where they can see, "If I do the right thing, that's where I am going to end up," and right now, I think too many young people see that they don't have choices. So economic development in these communities, making small-business loans to communities, making sure we are building infrastructure and hiring young people to work, for example, in making buildings in the inner city more energy-efficient, that's good for the homeowner or the apartment-dweller. It is also an opportunity to train young people to insulate homes and do other stuff that might lead to a career in construction someday.
Sway: What about the relationship between the citizens and law enforcement, what can we do to improve that?
Obama: Law enforcement is generally a local issue, city, state, but one thing I think a president can do is to have a Justice Department that is thinking about working with local law enforcement to create best practices. So instead of waiting until there has been some question about whether there has been a civil-rights violation, have the Justice Department work with these law-enforcement agencies ahead of times, saying if you want a fair, just, law enforcement that has a good relationship with the community, here is what we found has worked over the course of time. So for example, when I was in Illinois, we set up one of the first-in-the-nation laws prohibiting racial profiling, but we didn't just say, "Don't racial profile." We went in and we, the state, gathered statistics in terms of local law enforcement, helped them to train their folks in terms of what is an appropriate traffic stop, how should you treat people. It's not perfect, but what it does is it creates a different kind of culture, that is going to be thinking about, "How do you deal with a community?"
Sway: The next question is from Gonzalez F. from Washington, D.C.: "I have been here in the U.S. since I was 3 years old. I didn't have a choice to come here. I have gotten accustomed to the American lifestyle. I can't even remember what Mexico looks like. My question is, will you help young immigrants, like us, become citizens of the United States?"
Obama: I have been consistent about this. What we need is a comprehensive approach. We are serious about the borders. We make sure folks aren't breaking the law. We crack down on employers who are unlawfully hiring undocumented workers, but we also provide a pathway to citizenship that has to be earned. People have to register, pay taxes, they have to pay a fine if they have come here illegally, they have to make sure they are learning English, if they don't already know English, they go to the back of the line so they don't get a legal residency before people who have applied legally, but I think we have to have a practical approach to this thing, so we make sure we have a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. That has been our history. We've got to do it in a way that isn't about left or right, ideological battles, we've just got to solve the problem.
Sway: The next question comes from GangstaGigz, out of San Leandro, California, which is near my home town of Oakland: "I was wondering, what is your reaction to Proposition 8, and would you vote yes or no on it?" And for our audience, Proposition 8 is the California state ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage.
Obama: I have stated my opposition to that. I think it is unnecessary. I believe that marriage is between a man and woman and I am not in favor of gay marriage, but when you're playing around with constitutions, just to prohibit somebody who cares about another person, it just seems to me that that is not what America is about. Usually constitutions expand liberties, they don't contract them. What I believe is that if we have strong civil unions out there that provide legal rights to same-sex couples that they can visit each other in the hospital if they get sick, that they can transfer property to each other. If they've got benefits, they can make sure those benefits apply to their partners. I think that is the direction we need to go. I think young people are ahead of the curve on this, for the most part. I think their attitude generally is, "We should be respectful of all people," and that is the kind of politics I want to practice.
Sway: So you would vote ...
Obama: I would vote no on the proposition.
Sway: Our next question comes from Eric out of Huntington Beach, California: "There are numerous cultures and subcultures in the United States today. Powers-that-be set statutes with monetary penalty on how people wear their clothes. Do you find it intrusive on civil liberties to create such ordinances?" And you know I got 'locks.
Obama: I wasn't going to pass a law, man. You look tight.
Sway: I know people have piercings, tattoos. Eric, in particular, is talking about a ban on sagging pants. Do feel like people should be penalized?
Obama: Here is my attitude: I think people passing a law against people wearing sagging pants is a waste of time. We should be focused on creating jobs, improving our schools, health care, dealing with the war in Iraq, and anybody, any public official, that is worrying about sagging pants probably needs to spend some time focusing on real problems out there. Having said that, brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What's wrong with that? Come on. There are some issues that we face, that you don't have to pass a law, but that doesn't mean folks can't have some sense and some respect for other people and, you know, some people might not want to see your underwear — I'm one of them.
Sway: In regards to piercings, tattoos, I had a friend who worked for UPS and he had 'locks. He almost lost his job, but he fought for it. In regards to those things, how do you feel?
Obama: It's one thing if an employer discriminates on the basis of gender or sexual orientation or, obviously, race or ethnicity. I think employers can set standards. Now you got 'locks, but it looks clean, man, it's tight, and my little girl has twists, Malia, and to me, it looks great. Obviously I would be upset if she were discriminated against on that basis. On the other hand, if you are working at a fancy store and you show up to work in jeans and a shirt and you have a tatoo across your neck like Mike Tyson, for them to say, you know, "That is not the kind of image we are trying to project," obviously, that is in their rights as well. I think any business has the right to say, "This is the kind of tone we want to set," as long as they aren't discriminating on the basis of things people can't control.
Sway: I want to ask you about online rumors. You've been impacted by them as much as any other candidate, and I want to know, what do you do about this? Because a lot of people are going into the polls, and they consider these things they heard online true.
Obama: It's a huge problem, but it is one you've just got to battle through. You can't control the Internet, and I am a big believer in freedom of speech and, obviously, hard-core obscenity or child pornography, there are areas where it is legitimate to intervene. But generally, my attitude is the Internet is something that should be free to access whatever information they want. It is amazing to me that people believe what they read on the Internet all the time, unfiltered. I mean some e-mail pops up, whether it is selling them something that doesn't make sense or some letter from Nigeria saying you can make money if you just send me your bank-account number, or in our politics, we have been subject to a number of people falsely saying I am Muslim — I'm Christian — suggesting I wasn't born in this country, even though I just walked by the hospital where I was born. There have been all kinds of crazy rumors out there taking place, and the best thing we can do is just battle bad information with good information. We try to make sure we get our story out. We use the Internet as well as any campaign ever has, and I want to continue to use the Internet as a way, not just for us to get our information out, but for people to give us back suggestions and recommendations and ideas and input. That's part of what democracy is about, that is part of what has been exciting about out campaign.
Sway: You are in the final hours right now, and you have a gigantic audience that is watching you right now. What can you tell them about the importance of getting out to vote?
Obama: You've got a younger viewership on MTV, so let me be specific to the young people. Every decision that is going to be made in this election, or by the next president, is going to have an enormous impact on your lives. We've talked about some of them: your ability of whether you are going to afford to go to college, whether we have got an economy that's creating jobs for the future, whether we've got a tax code that is fair and gives everybody a chance at a better life, whether or not we are dealing with things like climate change, that could affect the well-being of the planet, are we continuing with two wars and how does that impact young people who are typically the ones who are fighting wars, what are we doing in terms of the criminal-justice system and making sure that's fair. All those issues are going to be decided right now. And you've got a big difference between myself and Senator McCain on almost every issue. And if you are satisfied with how the country is going right now, then I'm probably not your best option, but if you think we need fundamental change to make this country work the way it should and to give you a better future, then I hope you go to the polls. And if you don't know where to go, you can get on our Web site, www.voteforchange.com. You can go and vote. In many states there is early voting, in which case you can vote even before Election Day, but on Tuesday, even if there are long lines, just make sure that you are exercising your voice, because it can make all the difference in the world.
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