WASHINGTON - On the eve of a trip to Moscow, President Barack Obama chided Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday for keeping "one foot in the old ways of doing business." By contrast, he said Putin's handpicked successor as president understands that Cold War behavior is outdated.
In a White House interview, the president said he will meet with Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev on his trip, in hopes they can "move in concert in cooperating with us on some critical issues."
On an important domestic issue, Obama said the Supreme Court was "moving the ball" on affirmative action in this week's decision favoring white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., but he added that the court had not ruled out the use of racial preferences. "I don't think that hiring on the basis of race ... alone is constitutionally plausible," said Obama, a former teacher of constitutional law.
He spoke sympathetically at one point of the white firefighters, who said they had been discriminated against, and he added, "I've always believed that affirmative action was less of an issue or should be less of an issue than it has been made out to be in news reports."
The president said he had made some progress in stabilizing the economy, but he conceded too many jobs still are being lost.
He also expressed concern about his own policy on dealing with the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, saying the idea of retaining at least some of the detainees indefinitely in different locations gives him pause.
Scheduled to depart next week on a trip to Russia, Italy and Ghana, Obama praised Moscow for its cooperation in attempting to persuade North Korea and Iran to abandon their nuclear development programs. The United Nations recently approved "the most robust sanction regime that we've ever seen with respect to North Korea," he said.
The president said his agenda in Russia includes talks on a new treaty to curtail long-range nuclear missiles.
Asked why he intends to meet with Putin, Obama said the former president "still has a lot of sway ... and I think that it's important that even as we move forward with President Medvedev that Putin understand that the old Cold War approach to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated - that it's time to move forward in a different direction."
"I think Medvedev understands that. I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new, and to the extent that we can provide him and the Russian people a clear sense that the U.S. is not seeking an antagonistic relationship but wants cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation, fighting terrorism, energy issues, that we'll end up having a stronger partner overall in this process," he said.
Obama expressed reservations about his recently announced policy that could lead to indefinite detention for some of the detainees currently at the Guantanamo Bay prison. "It gives me huge pause," he said, to the point where he may not see it through.
"We're going to proceed very carefully on this front, and it may turn out that after looking at all the dimensions of this that I don't feel comfortable with (it)," Obama said. The president has pledged to close the prison in Cuba and hopes to send most of those currently held there to other countries.
With joblessness rising, the president said he was "deeply concerned" about unemployment and conceded that too many families are worried about "whether they will be next." Still, he said that since he took office almost six months ago "we have successfully stabilized the financial markets," and "started to see some stabilization on housing."
"But what we are still seeing is too many jobs lost," said Obama, commenting after new government figures showed the unemployment rate had risen to 9.5 percent last month.
Since Obama signed the $780 billion economic stimulus bill in February, the economy has shed more than 2 million jobs.
Asked if he was resigned to Iran's possession of nuclear weapons, he said, "I'm not reconciled with that, and I don't think the international community is reconciled with that."
In his comments on the Supreme Court case, Obama said the 5-4 ruling was written narrowly, and "didn't close the door to affirmative action" to help minorities.
Obama said of affirmative action, "It hasn't been as potent a force for racial progress as advocates will claim and it hasn't been as bad on white students seeking admissions or seeking a job as its critics say."
On other topics:
_ He said Michael Jackson was "one of our greatest entertainers" and "I still have all his stuff on my iPod." But he said Jackson's life had been tragic and in many ways sad.
_ The president spoke enthusiastically of the White House pastry chef. "Whatever kind of pie you want, he will make it," Obama said, adding ruefully that that was a problem for him and wife Michelle in regard to their weight.
_ Asked whether he was a bigger fan of Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, one the MVP of the National Basketball Association finals and the other a retired superstar, the basketball-playing president said without hesitation: "Michael. I haven't seen anybody match up with Jordan yet."