President Obama spoke up for the first time publicly Thursday on the anti-government protests in Egypt, warning that freedom of expression is essential and that violence is not the answer, either for the Egyptian government or the protesters.
Answering questions during an online “town hall” with YouTube viewers, Mr. Obama spoke of Egypt’s longtime president, Hosni Mubarak. “I’ve always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform – political reform, economic reform – is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt,” Obama said. “And you can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets.”
Obama prefaced his remarks by noting Egypt’s role as a US ally, and its peace with Israel, but then used the YouTube forum to offer some encouragement to the youth-driven uprising that began this week against Mubarak’s nearly 30 years of rule. He stressed the importance of free speech, including access to social networking tools.
“That, I think, is no less true in the Arab world than it is here in the United States,” Obama said. By speaking up, the president added weight to the comments of other administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose statements have grown increasingly sympathetic to the protesters with each day.
The YouTube "town hall," the third of his presidency, allowed Obama to reinforce messages from his State of the Union address and branch out into topics that he did not address Tuesday. Nearly 200,000 people submitted questions, and 1.4 million people voted on which questions they wanted asked by moderator Steve Grove, the head of news and politics for the site.
Of the top 200 most popular questions, nearly all dealt with drug policy – particularly the legalization of marijuana. Drug policy also dominated the suggested questions in Obama’s previous two YouTube appearances since taking office, but he had yet to offer a detailed reaction. In 2009, advocates for marijuana legalization said, he laughed off the question, and in 2010, he didn’t respond at all.
This time, Obama answered a question in full.
“Sir, do you think there will or should come a time for us to discuss the possibility of legalization, regulation, and control of all drugs, thereby doing away with the violent criminal market as well as a major source of funding for international terrorism?” asked MacKenzie Allen, a retired police officer from Medford, Mass., and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
“Well, I think this an entirely legitimate topic for debate,” Obama said. “I am not in favor of legalization. I am a strong believer that we have to think more about drugs as a public health problem. When you think about other damaging activities in our society – smoking, drunk driving, making sure you're wearing seatbelts – you know, typically we've made huge strides over the last 20, 30 years by changing people's attitudes."
“And on drugs,” he continued, “I think that a lot of times we have been so focused on arrests, incarceration, interdiction that we don't spend as much time thinking about how do we shrink demand.”
He said the White House is looking “very carefully” at that.
Other topics Obama addressed:
• Military veterans unable to find work: “We're trying to gather up companies who are willing to hire folks who have come out of the military. And we are making a big push with employers to say: These folks have shown leadership, they have been trained. They have performed at high levels, in very difficult situations.”
• The ballooning federal debt and which programs to cut: “They're going to be programs like community action grants, for example, that really help cities and local communities to spur economic development, but you know, frankly, we're just going to have to trim some of these programs.”
• The Dream Act, which provides a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants: “I am hopeful that we should be able to get this thing passed, in part because in previous years we've had Republican and Democratic support for it. And this is one more problem that we can solve if we're not trying to score political points off each other...”