WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama said Thursday 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 in the future.

In a White House interview with The Associated Press, the president also said, “I don’t think that hiring on the basis of race … alone is constitutionally possible.” Obama, a former teacher of constitutional law, said, “I’ve always believe 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.”

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 Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the former president, Obama said he “still has a lot of sway.” Putin now is nominally the second-in-command in the Kremlin.

Chiding the former president, he said Putin “has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new.”

Obama also is to meet with the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, and said it is important that both Medvedev and Putin hear the same message from the United States, the U.S. president said.

Obama expressed reservations about his recently announced policy that could leave some detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison indefinitely. “It gives me huge pause,” he said, to the point where he may not see it through. He also ruled out establishing a system on his own by executive order if Congress refuses to pass legislation.

“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, a former teacher of constitutional law, 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 reigning MVP of the National Basketball Association and the other a retired superstar, the basketball-playing president said without hesitation: “Michael. I haven’t seen anybody match up with Jordan yet.”

Photo: President Barack Obama