Over the weekend, The New Yorker posted a huge profile of President Obama written by editor David Remnick. At roughly 17,000 words, the piece is sprawling, but it does, at points, offer from-the-source insight into the president’s thinking on states’ rights and the limits of federal government—two issues at the core of virtually every policy debate.
In late August, the administration made clear its approach to dealing with the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Washington and Colorado. The so-called “Cole memo” — instructions sent from Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole to all U.S. attorneys — outlined the government’s priorities when it came to marijuana enforcement. Its focus on serious pot-related violations—those involving violence, drug trafficking or children using drugs — was widely interpreted as a green light for those states to proceed, carefully, in legalizing pot.
In conversations with Remnick, Obama revealed his thinking on the issue in his own words. It’s “important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished,” Obama told Remnick. But it’s not cut and dry, he added.
As is his habit, he nimbly argued the other side. “Having said all that, those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case. There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge.” He noted the slippery-slope arguments that might arise.
On Medicaid and state’s rights
As Remnick writes, Obama’s “biggest early disappointment as President was being forced to recognize that his romantic vision of a post-partisan era, in which there are no red states or blue states, only the United States, was, in practical terms, a fantasy.”
Indeed, it’s historically untrue. There are only 13 states in which a single party does not control the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the legislature. That level of singular control among states hasn’t been achieved since the 1940s, according to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
Party strength at the local level and federal paralysis has encouraged those who argue for less federal control over states. Let us do what you can’t, local officials say. And Obama acknowledged that there are “very legitimate reasons” behind that, though he added that proponents of expanded state’s rights must also acknowledge the movement’s complicated history.
“There is a historic connection between some of the arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country, and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle those issues,” he went on. “You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government—that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable—and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans. The flip side is I think it’s important for conservatives to recognize and answer some of the problems that are posed by that history, so that they understand if I am concerned about leaving it up to states to expand Medicaid that it may not simply be because I am this power-hungry guy in Washington who wants to crush states’ rights but, rather, because we are one country and I think it is going to be important for the entire country to make sure that poor folks in Mississippi and not just Massachusetts are healthy.”