FILE - President Barack Obama speaks during an interview at the White House.
FILE - President Barack Obama speaks during an interview at the White House.

As the United States has woken up to problems in race relations so it seems has President Barack Obama’s ability to speak about the issue.

The nation’s first black president told National Public Radio on Sunday that an “awakening around the country” to problems in race relations and police-community relations has opened the door for him to speak out.

While the problems are not new, the president said social media has brought them to the attention of the public.

“I think people have become more aware of them, both black and white. And that gives me an opportunity, I think, then, to try to help to constructively shape the debate,” Obama told NPR.

Americans – and the media – have long speculated about what has sometimes seemed like reluctance on the president’s part to talk more openly about race.

But Obama insists he has been “pretty consistent” throughout his presidency; what has made a difference recently is events.

“I think it's fair to say that if, in my first term, Ferguson had flared up, as president of the United States, I would have been commenting on what was happening in Ferguson," he said.

Events Shape the Debate

The president made the comments on the one-year anniversary of the shooting death in Ferguson of Michael Brown – an unarmed black man – by a white police officer after a street confrontation. The incident sparked weeks of often violent protests in the city and led to a national debate over police tactics and race.

The president also conceded that after six-and-a-half years in the presidency, he is probably a little more relaxed about sharing his feelings with the public.

“It may be that my passions show a little bit more, just because I've been around this track now for a while,” he said.

An issue close to the heart

Obama said that at the beginning of his presidency he asked former attorney general Eric Holder – the nation’s top law enforcement official – if something could be done about mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses that have filled up U.S. jail cells, disproportionately with black offenders.

His administration then did a lot of quiet work around the country to change incentives so that prosecutors did not equate job success with long sentences.

As a result, the president said, for the first time in 40 years, last year there was a drop in both the number of people incarcerated and the crime rate.

Now, he says, after working on the issue for a long time “in obscurity” there is opportunity for a broader bipartisan conversation.

“There are some sincere efforts on the part of some Republicans in Congress to deal with the problems of mandatory minimums in sentencing and rehabilitation and — and — and I think that, wherever I see an opportunity these days, with only 18 months to go, I intend to seize it,” Obama said.

It is that 18 months the president seems to be obsessed with now. His time as president is running out and he says he has to keep moving.

“What'd Satchel Paige say? ‘Don't look — don't look behind you; you don't know what might be catching up.’ Yeah, you know, you just wanna keep on — keep on running," Obama said.

The interview will air in two parts on NPR Tuesday and Wednesday.