Black Enterprise Exclusive: Interview with President Barack Obama

The nation’s 44th president discusses how he plans to fix the economy and strengthen minority business.

well as facilitate more than $1 trillion in lending to consumers and businesses; Obama established a $275 billion housing initiative that would, among other goals, help millions of struggling homeowners modify their mortgage loans and stabilize home prices; and he created a White House task force to review the restructuring plans of domestic automakers that received federal bailout assistance. “All of those are going to be one piece in this bigger puzzle of how to get the economy moving again,” the president told BE.

It’s Monday, Feb. 9. Equipped with two digital recorders, I arrive 40 minutes early for my scheduled 1:00 p.m. interview. After securing credentials, I walk down the hallway of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House, to the media relations office. As I wait for the interview—which started about 20 minutes late—I watch the president’s latest offensive play in the battle for public support for the stimulus package. Assuming the role of communicator–in-chief, he takes his message to the residents of Elkhart, Indiana, a town with an unemployment rate that jumped from 4.7% to a staggering 15.3% in a year. For a little more than an hour, he addressed a packed gymnasium at Concord High School, outlining his economic agenda, answering unscreened questions, and comforting some of the displaced. It’s an approach he would repeat over the next week in such economically battered cities as Fort Myers, Florida, and East Peoria, Illinois—headquarters of equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Inc., which announced layoffs of more than 20,000 workers in late January.

As the president’s motorcade leaves Concord High and heads to Air Force One, I receive his call on a speakerphone in one of the office cubicles. “Good afternoon, Mr. President, this is Derek Dingle from Black Enterprise magazine.”
“Good to talk to you again, Derek.”
“It’s great to talk to you as well.”
Mindful of the tight 15 minutes allotted, I asked him several direct questions that ranged from his characterization of his first month in the Oval Office to his administration’s commitment to minority business. He answered each question in Obamaesque style—crisp, clear, and thoughtful. The tenor of his answers conveyed a man focused on the enormous challenges that are a part of his presidential inheritance and an iron will to correct course. And while he believes an activist government can be a powerful tool for helping solve the problems of citizens in need, he maintains that Americans must fully participate in their own economic salvation. “People have to continue to innovate, look for new customers, try to find creative ways to turn crisis into opportunity, retool for the future. But I want them to know that help is on the way.”

The following are edited excerpts of this BE exclusive:

On meeting his challenges as president: Obviously, we have some enormous challenges but I’m very confident about the team that I’ve put in place. I think the economic recovery and reinvestment package is one critical component of an overall recovery package. We’re also going to have to strengthen the

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