On Tuesday, President Barack Obama sat down for an interview with BuzzFeed News, a website that is best known for its listicles ("21 Super Cute Dogs Who Are Embracing This Never-Ending Winter") but has become, under Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, equally adept at breaking news, deep reporting, and the kind of longer-form journalism found in traditional and new-media outlets. In a wide-ranging, 22-minute discussion, Obama talked with Smith about Russia, Ukraine, the fight against IS, marijuana legalization, transgender rights, 2016 and more. Below, five highlights from the interview.
Hillary Clinton is a "highly qualified" candidate for president — and so is Jeb Bush.
"They’re both obviously highly qualified candidates," Obama said. "Hillary Clinton I know much better than I know Jeb Bush, and I think she’d be an outstanding president. My understanding is that everybody else is younger than me, which I guess matches up with my gray hair. But, you know, ultimately what people are going to be looking for in the next president is what they always look for in a president, and that is somebody who is attuned to the hopes and dreams of the American people at a particular moment in time."
"I don’t think any president inherits a coalition."
BuzzFeed News: You were elected with this new coalition of young people, people of color, women, and I wonder, is that a coalition that the next Democratic nominee — Hillary Clinton or not — inherits?
Obama: I don’t think any president inherits a coalition. I think any candidate has to win over people based on what they stand for, what their message is, what their vision is for the future. I think what’s true is that I’ve done very well among younger Americans, and that’s always been something I’ve been very proud of: our ability to reach out to get people involved who traditionally have not always gotten involved or have been skeptical about politics. I think the fact that we got a lot of support from African-Americans or Latinos or Asian-Americans is just reflective of the shifts in the country. I think it’s also important to remember that I won Iowa, which doesn’t have one of the most diverse populations in the country. I think there’s been, you know, talk that there’s a need to reach out more to older Americans or middle America or white working-class families that Democrats haven’t done as well on, but that hasn’t been unique to me, that’s been going on for a while.
President Obama doesn't want to "psychoanalyze" Russian President Vladimir Putin.
BuzzFeed News: Moving on to Russia. You started this presidency with a very productive relationship with President Medvedev and the relations are now probably at their worst since the Cold War. How much of that do you ascribe to Vladimir Putin’s character?
Obama: You know, I don’t want to psychoanalyze Mr. Putin. I will say that he has a foot very much in the Soviet past. That’s how he came of age. He ran the KGB. Those were his formative experiences. So I think he looks at problems through this Cold War lens, and, as a consequence, I think he’s missed some opportunities for Russia to diversify its economy, to strengthen its relationship with its neighbors, to represent something different than the old Soviet-style aggression. You know, I continue to hold out the prospect of Russia taking a diplomatic offering from what they’ve done in Ukraine. I think, to their credit, they’ve been able to compartmentalize and continue to work with us on issues like Iran’s nuclear program. But, if you look at what’s happened to the Russian economy, even before oil prices collapsed, it is not an economy that’s built for the 21st century. Unfortunately, those forces for modernization inside of Russia, I think, have been sidelined. That’s bad for Russia and, over time, it’s bad for the United States, because if Russia is doing badly, the concern is that they revert to old expansionist ideas that really shouldn’t have any application in the 21st century.
Transgender people deserve equal rights.
"My general view is that transgender persons, just like gays and lesbians, are deserving of equal treatment under the law. And that’s a basic principle," the president said. "My sense is that the Supreme Court is about to make a shift, one that I welcome, which is to recognize that — having hit a critical mass of states that have recognized same-sex marriage — it doesn’t make sense for us to now have this patchwork system and that it’s time to recognize that, under the equal protection clause of the United States, same-sex couples should have the same rights as anybody else."
Obama has no plans to change the U.S. policy of not paying ransoms for hostages like Kayla Mueller, who was confirmed dead on Tuesday.
"The one thing that we have held to is a policy of not paying ransoms with an organization like ISIL," Obama said. "And the reason is that once we start doing that, not only are we financing their slaughter of innocent people and strengthening their organization, but we’re actually making Americans even greater targets for future kidnappings."