Missoula resident Hank Green sat down for a face-to-face interview with President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House on Thursday, and the whole thing was live-streamed on YouTube.
Green, a YouTube star who has created numerous video shows and blogs with millions of subscribers, was selected along with two other social media gurus, Bethany Mota and GloZell Green, for a program called “YouTube Asks Obama,” part of the president’s strategy to reach a broad Internet audience in the wake of his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Green was the first of the three to interview Obama. He set up a replica version of his studio, and the two sat down and talked for about 20 minutes.
“I feel like I’m in your house,” Green told the president.
“Well, my lease runs out in two years, and I hope I get my security deposit back,” Obama deadpanned in response.
Green had a series of questions sourced from social media that the president did not see beforehand. He first asked about legislation to raise the minimum wage across the country, which the president said he supports, then asked about industry leaders getting government positions when they leave the private sector.
“Many people say government protects industry,” Green said. “Is taking former leaders of industry and putting them into a position where they are regulating those industries a good idea?”
“I understand people’s skepticism and cynicism,” Obama responded. “Too often lobbyists and special interests are able to block efforts to make the system fair and make it work better. But when people get a vote, change happens. It doesn’t always happen immediately."
Obama said that government does a lot of good things. He said that since he's been in office, he's helped take funds that were being siphoned off by banks and directed them to students.
Green also asked about the use of drone strikes in warfare.
“I feel like whenever a new weapons technology is developed it takes five to seven years to fully understand it, and when we look back we feel like we misused it,” Green said. “Are you concerned we will look back at drone technology and feel like it’s been misused?”
Obama said that drone technology "came into its own" basically when he took office.
“We have tried to put restraints on its use,” he explained. “Our goal is, how do we target very specific terrorists who are proven to be trying to kill us, or more frequently trying to kill Muslims in their home countries, and do we do that with as little damage to surrounding communities as possible? Part of what’s troubling to me, as commander in chief, is any kind of war results in casualties, but the damage caused by a drone strike is very less significant than if I had ordered a raid into a village where a high-value target was.
"You take the bin Laden strike, which was probably as successful as we could have imagined, but there were some people killed in that operation. It’s entirely legitimate to say as new technologies develop, we have to step back and say, ‘Do we have the legal framework,’ and set controls on it. I think the part of the problem is it’s a little more antiseptic than when we send in troops. It seems like there is less cost to it. There have been mistakes, and nobody grieves over mistakes more than I do, but we take it very seriously, and today’s technology can enable us to cause less damage to communities than in the past.”
Green asked Obama about how the U.S. should deal with the atrocities committed by North Korea on its own citizens.
“I can’t believe there are any sanctions left (to impose),” Green said. "I feel as the strongest nation on Earth, it feels wrong that such injustice could exist in the world."
Obama said that there are many reasons why the U.S. has to be careful with North Korea.
“There aren’t many sanctions left and we’ve tried to ratchet it up a little higher,” Obama said. “Our capacity to effect change in North Korea is somewhat limited because they have a million-plus army and nuclear technologies and missiles. That’s all they spend their money on, essentially, is their war machine, and we have an ally next door in South Korea that would be severely affected if there were a war.
"It’s hard to sustain that brutal authoritarian regime in this modern world and we are constantly looking to accelerate (the effect of the Internet on democracy). Information ends up seeping in over time and that will bring about change.”
Green told the president that people often mistakenly believe he smokes marijuana because he is a proponent of legalization.
“Some people think I smoke pot, but I don’t,” he said. “It's not for me. I think it’s bad for my brain. ”
Green said he believes that pot should be legalized because minorities have been jailed in disproportionate numbers because of outdated marijuana laws, and that there haven’t been significant problems in places where it has been legalized. He also said it's strange that it's legal in some places but not others.
"How do we move forward out of this legal gray area weirdness," he asked.
Obama said he suspects that more and more states will look into legalization.
“What I am doing at the federal level is asking the Department of Justice to look at how we are treating nonviolent drug offenders,” Obama said. “Unlike tobacco, where we treated it as a public health problem, we’ve treated this exclusively as a criminal problem, and it's been counterproductive and devastating to minority communities and it leads to unequal application of the law.”
Obama said the crime rate and the incarceration rate went down last year for the first time in 40 years and there is bipartisan support to reform the criminal justice system.
Finally, Green had Obama sign a picture of him holding a pharmacy receipt.
“I have to take medication for a chronic condition, and before I had insurance I could not take this medication,” Green explained. “It was $1,100 a month, and now it is $5 a month. 'Obamacare' has worked for me. So thanks for that.”
“Your story is like a lot of stories around the country, you've been managing a chronic disease so you are more attuned to the dangers of not having insurance, but a lot of your viewers don’t think they need it until something happens,” Obama said. “I hope people become aware that the overwhelming majority of people are satisfied when they get Obamacare. It typically costs less than your cellphone bill or cable bill and brings peace of mind. We had some hiccups with the website initially, but now the website healthcare.gov works really well.”
Obama said he's proud of what Green is doing and thanked him for all the "great stuff" he's putting on the web.