In a wide-ranging exit interview, NPR's Steve Inskeep asks President Obama about Russian interference in the U.S. election, executive power, the future of the Democratic party and his future role.
Steve Inskeep: Thanks for joining us one more time; I really appreciate it.
President Obama: Great to be with you, Steve.
Over my shoulder here is Theodore Roosevelt. In 1884, Theodore Roosevelt was frustrated about an election and wrote a letter saying the voice of the people might be the voice of God 51 times out of 100, but the other 49, it may be the voice of a devil or of a fool. Which do you think it was this time in 2016?
Well, it's hard to assess because we know for example that Hillary won the popular vote by a sizable margin. We know that there are a substantial number of voters out there who not only voted for me twice but currently support me who also voted for Donald Trump.
So I think we have a scrambled political landscape right now. There are some things that we know are a challenge for Democrats — structural problems. For example, population distribution, oftentimes younger voters, minority voters, Democratic voters, are clustered in urban areas.
And on the coasts, sure.
And on the coasts, and so as a consequence you've got a situation where there're not only entire states but also big chunks of states where, if we're not showing up, if we're not in there making an argument, then we're going to lose. And we can lose badly, and that's what happened in this election.
Is this just a matter of showing up, or is there something wrong with the argument?
Well. No, well, I don't think there's something wrong with the core argument that the Democratic Party has made for years. And the reason we know that is because on the individual issues that Democrats talk about there's strong support. For example, the minimum wage. In every survey across the country, people support a higher minimum wage. There are clearly, though, failures on our part to give people in rural areas or in exurban areas, a sense day-to-day that we're fighting for them or connected to them.
Some of it is the prism through which they're seeing the political debate take place. They may know less about the work that my administration did on trying to promote collective bargaining or overtime rules. But they know a lot about the controversy around transgender bathrooms because it's more controversial, it attracts more attention.
I think that on something like the Affordable Care Act, you have people who are benefiting right now from Obamacare who either don't know it's Obamacare or consider that as a given and then end up voting on Second Amendment rights. So part of the reason it's important to show up, and when I say show up, I don't just mean during election time, but to be in there engaging and listening and being with people, is because it then builds trust and it gives you a better sense of how should you talk about issues in a way that feel salient and feel meaningful to people.
And I've said this before. Part of the reason I got elected twice — and part of the reason why in a lot of these communities I still have pretty strong support. It was the incredible benefit that I had in first running for the United States Senate in a state that has a lot of rural communities and has a downstate that typically is suspicious of Chicagoans in the city. And just sitting down in people's living rooms and VFW halls and at fish fries and listening to people.
And then in Iowa, spending months traveling around the state and hearing people's concerns and them hearing me and getting a sense that I get it. So that even during my low points in the presidency, when, you know, poll numbers were bad and news cycle was critical, people always felt as if I still cared about them — which meant that in 2012, I might still lose the overall vote and some of these counties or some of these voting districts, but I might lose 55-45 or 60-40 rather than 80-20. That's as a consequence of not only them seeing me in these places but it's also a consequence of me actually being there and hearing them.
Were Democrats failing to do that at every level because your party has lost the majority of races at almost every level at this point?
Well, you know, I think that we haven't done it as well as we need to. For example, we know that the Republicans, funded through organizations like the Koch brothers, have been very systematic at...
Building from ground up.
Building from the ground up and communicating to state legislators and financing school board races and public utility commission races, and, you know, I am a proud Democrat, but I do think that we have a bias towards national issues and international issues, and as a consequence I think we've ceded too much territory.
And I take some responsibility for that. You know, when I came into office, um, you know, we were just putting out fires. We were in a huge crisis situation. And so a lot of the organizing work that we did during the campaign, we started to see right away didn't immediately translate to, wasn't immediately transferable to, congressional candidates. And more work would have needed to be done to just build up that structure and, you know, one of the big suggestions that I have for Democrats as I leave, and something that, you know, I have some ideas about is, how do we do more of that ground up building?
Do you intend to be involved or just give advice?
Well, I think it's appropriate for me to give advice because I need some sleep. And I've promised Michelle a nice vacation. My girls are getting old enough now where I'm clinging to those very last moments before they are out of the house.
But there was a political organization that was built around you that still exists.
Well, I'm less likely to get involved in all the nuts and bolts of electioneering. In that realm, I'm much more likely to just give advice. What I am interested in is just developing a whole new generation of talent. There are such incredible young people who not only worked on my campaign, but I've seen in advocacy groups. I've seen passionate about issues like climate change or conservation, criminal justice reform, you know, campaigns for a livable wage, or health insurance, and making sure that whatever resources, credibility, spotlight that I can bring to help them rise up.
That's something that I think I can do well, I think Michelle can do well. That's part of what makes me optimistic about our future because I know those young people are out there ready to lead, and when they start moving into more and more positions of authority, then I think the issues that I care most deeply about are going to be well served.
You want to be a talent scout and build the bench that Democrats have admitted they don't have.
Well, not only a talent scout but I think also, you know, a coach, a friend, somebody who can build on the incredible work that has already been done by young people and that to a large degree was responsible for getting me elected.
Did the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee — and other targets — actually affect the results of the election in your view?
There's no doubt that it contributed to an atmosphere in which the only focus for weeks at a time, months at a time, were Hillary's e-mails, the Clinton Foundation, political gossip surrounding the DNC. And that whole swirl that ended up dominating the news meant that number one, issues weren't talked about a lot in the coverage. Huge policy differences were not debated and vetted. It also meant that, what I think would have been a big advantage for Hillary objectively, her experience, her knowledge, her outstanding reputation around the world as secretary of state, all that stuff got lost. And I think in that scrum, in that swirl, you know, Donald Trump and his celebrity and his ability to garner attention and obviously tap into a lot of the anxieties and fears that some voters have, I think, definitely made a difference.
Now know how you would, this ...
Could you say the election could have turned out differently? That's what I want to know.
Well, elections can always turn out differently. You never know which factors are gonna make a difference. But I have no doubt that it had some impact just based on the coverage. And by the way, I'm talking about mainstream news coverage. I'm not talking about a whole separate set of issues around fake news. I'm talking about what was in the New York Times and the Washington Post and on the nightly news and even on NPR. And it meant that the field where I think Hillary shone, the field of substance and talking about how we're actually gonna increase people's wages and how we're gonna provide health care coverage to people and how we're gonna deal with major issues like climate change — that wasn't the field in which the campaign was ultimately decided.
Was that the media's fault for focusing on the wrong things or the candidate's fault for not finding ways to get her message through?
Steve, you know, I'd say that Monday morning quarterbacking is always easy to do. And what I've said already publicly, and I'll repeat: There is something about our current political ecosystem — and we're all part of it, the parties, the candidates, the media, the voters — that leads us to avoid going deep into the issues that are really gonna affect people's day-to-day lives, that put a premium on what here in the White House we call the shiny object: the faux scandals, the trumped up controversies, the, um, you know, insults that are flung back and forth. So that it ends up being covered like a reality show or — at best, a sporting event.
And we lose track of the fact that this has an impact on some family that's trying to send their kids to college, or some veteran who's trying to get their benefits, or whether or not some of our young people get sent to a far away land to fight a war. And if we don't, you know, do some hard reflection — all of us — on how that happens, then we're like a body that is already weakened and then becomes more vulnerable to foreign viruses, becomes more vulnerable to manipulation and demagoguery and that's something that I'm also going to be thinking a lot about in my afterlife, my post-presidency.
You talked about this with the comedian Trevor Noah the other day. And you said a number of things in a row. You observed that there had been contacts between members of Mr. Trump's staff and Russian officials. You noted that Trump benefited from the hacks. Your spokesman, Josh Earnest, has gone on to say this week that it's obvious that Trump knew what was going on. To what extent are you suggesting some kind of cooperation between the president-elect and Russian officials here?
Well, I'm, I'm not suggesting cooperation at all. Keep in mind that those statements were in the context of everyone now acting surprised by the CIA assessment that this was done purposely to improve Trump's chances. And my only point was that shouldn't be treated as a blockbuster because that was the worst kept secret in this town.
Everybody understood that. It was reported on. Steve, if you go back and look at your stories, if you read any mainstream publication, you would see that if you have a hack of the DNC and a hack of Hillary Clinton's most senior advisers' e-mails, and those things are then released in drip-drip-drip fashion over the course of months, and that seem to generate consistently negative coverage despite the fact that there's nothing in there that's particularly controversial, that it's mostly just, as I said, political gossip or routine emails between folks who are working in a campaign environment, then it's a pretty clear inference that people would draw, and did draw, that this was helping the Trump campaign and it was hurting the Hillary campaign.
That doesn't mean that the Trump campaign was coordinating. It just means that they understood what everybody else understood, which was that this was not good for Hillary Clinton's campaign. And when you combine that with the fact that the president-elect has been very honest about his admiration for Putin and that he hopes to forge a more cooperative relationship with him and focus on the threat of Islamic terrorism, then my only point was we shouldn't now suddenly act as if this is a huge revelation.
In October, we said, after being very careful about it because we had no interest in appearing as if we were putting our thumbs on the scales, we did what was almost unprecedented which was, every intelligence agency in the federal government arrived at a consensus, that the Russians had hacked the DNC. And the information that was now being released was as a consequence of a decision by Russian intelligence and Russian officials at the highest levels.
So what the CIA is now assessing, which was it was done purposefully to tilt the election in the direction of a particular candidate, shouldn't be a surprise to anybody. And in fact isn't a surprise to anybody.
And as I said before, the issue now is not relitigating the election. The issue now is for us to learn lessons so that we don't have an ongoing situation in every election cycle where you have substantial foreign influence in our campaigns.
There's another issue going forward. Is it necessary for the security of the United States that Russia pay some price for doing this ...?
I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections that we need to take action and we will, at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be. But Mr. Putin is well aware of my feelings about this, because I spoke to him directly about it. And there is, you know, among the big powers, there has been a traditional understanding of that everybody is trying to gather intelligence on everybody else.
It's no secret that Russian intelligence officers, or Chinese, or for that matter Israeli, or British, or other intelligence agencies, that their job is to get insight into the workings of other countries that they they're not reading in the newspapers every day. There's a difference between that and the kind of malicious cyberattacks that steal trade secrets or engage in industrial espionage, something that we've seen the Chinese do.
And there's a difference between that and activating intelligence, in a way that's designed to influence elections. So we have been working hard to make sure that what we do is proportional. That what we do is meaningful. One of the things that we're going to have to do over the next decade is to ultimately arrive at some rules of what is a new game.
And that is the way in which traditional propaganda and traditional covert influence efforts are being turbocharged by the Internet and by the cyber world.
And so the whole issue of cybersecurity and how we play defense, how we think about offense and how we avoid an escalation of a major cyber war, or a cyber arms race, is something that some of our smartest folks in government and in the private sector are spending a lot of time thinking about. Because there is an asymmetry here.
We are more digitalized. Our economy is more advanced. It's much wealthier. And it means that we have certain vulnerabilities that some of our adversaries don't have. And this is actually a good example of where, in addition to whatever actions that we take bilaterally against Russia, we've got to spend some time working at an international level to start instituting some norms, the same way we did with things like nuclear weapons because ultimately we can have a situation where everybody's worse off. That's what we did with China when we were seeing repeated hacking primarily for industrial espionage purposes, commercial purposes. They were stealing, you know, technology and ideas.
And I had a very blunt conversation and President Xi saying "If you don't stop it, here's what we are going to do."
But what we also did was we mobilized the G-20, and the G7, and the United Nations, to start adopting basic rules saying "this is not something you do." And that can make a difference over time.
If whatever response you take is not completed by January 20th, do you have any reason to have confidence that President Trump will continue it?
My view is that this is not a partisan issue. And part of what we should be doing is to try to take it out of election season and move it into governing season.
The irony of all this, of course, is that for most of my presidency there's been a pretty sizable wing of the Republican Party that has consistently criticized me for not being tough enough on Russia.
Some of those folks during the campaign endorsed Donald Trump despite the fact that a central tenant of his foreign policy was we shouldn't be so tough on Russia. And that kind of inconsistency, I think, makes it appear at least, that their particular position on Russia on any given day depends on what's politically expedient.
There was a poll that came out a couple of days ago that said that 37 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Vladimir Putin. Think about that. Over a third of Republican voters think Putin is a good guy. This is somebody who — the former head of the KGB, who is responsible for crushing democracy in Russia, muzzling the press, throwing political dissidents in jail, countering American efforts to expand freedom at every turn — is currently making decisions that's leading to a slaughter in Syria. And a big chunk of the Republican Party, which prided itself during the Reagan era and for decades that followed as being the bulwark against Russian influence, now suddenly is embracing him.
And my point here is that it's very important that we do not let the inner family argument between Americans, the domestic political differences between Democrats and Republicans, obscure the need for us to stand together, figure out what it is that the Russians are interested in doing in terms of influencing our democratic process and inoculating ourselves from it. And that requires us having a clear-eyed view about it.
It requires us not to relitigate the election. It requires us not to point fingers. It requires us to just say "Here's what happened, let's be honest about it and let's not use it as a political football, but let's figure out how we prevent this from happening in the future." Because it's not just going to be Russia.
It sounds like you hope any response would continue after January 20. But do you have any reason to know that it would?
Well, you know, I can't ...
It's up to him.
... look into my crystal ball and, that's probably a question better directed at the president-elect. I can say that I've had a conversation with the president-elect about our foreign policy generally, and the importance of us making sure that, in how we approach intelligence gathering, in how we think about fighting terrorism and keeping the country secure, in how we think about, you know, our relationship to multilateral organizations, that, you know, we recognize America's exceptionalism, our indispensability in the world, in part draws from our values and our ideals and the fact that even our adversaries generally respect our adherence to rule of law, our transparency, our openness. And if we start losing that, if other countries start seeing that "Oh, America doesn't care about these issues" or it's just a "might makes right" environment, and we're not speaking out on behalf of our values and demonstrating our values, then America is going to be significantly weakened.
Should President-elect Trump, once he's inaugurated, use his executive powers in the same way that you have?
I think that he is entirely within his lawful power to do so. Keep in mind though that my strong preference has always been to legislate when I can get legislation done. In my first two years, I wasn't relying on executive powers, because I had big majorities in the Congress and we were able to get bills done, get bills passed. And even after we lost the majorities in Congress, I bent over backwards consistently to try to find compromise and a legislative solution to some of the big problems that we've got — a classic example being immigration reform, where I held off for years in taking some of the executive actions that I ultimately took in pursuit of a bipartisan solution — one that, by the way, did pass through the Senate on a bipartisan basis with our help.
I was very proud of that. I went out of my way to make sure our help was behind the scenes so that Republicans didn't feel as if it was going to hurt them politically. At the end of the day, John Boehner and the House Republicans couldn't pull the trigger on getting it done. And it was only then, after we had exhausted efforts for bipartisan reform that we took some additional steps on immigration executive actions. So my suggestion to the president-elect is, you know, going through the legislative process is always better, in part because it's harder to undo.
And that doesn't mean, though, that he is not going to come in and look at the various agencies and see the rules we've passed and if he wants to reverse some of those rules, that's part of the democratic process. That's, you know, why I tell people to vote because it turns out elections mean something.
And this election means even more because the presidency, as has been widely noted, is so powerful. It's grown more powerful over generations. You used your power in certain ways, and even in ways that you'd suggested in the past might be beyond your authority.
Well, no, I don't think I've done that.
If I'm thinking of immigration, for example.
Well, what I said with immigration reform was that I couldn't simply sign a document that legalized 11 million people who had come here illegally and were currently undocumented. What I could do is find categories of people where we could not prioritize as significant risks. But what I always said was we couldn't solve the basic problem of these folks being in the shadows without legislation.
Let's stipulate that you feel that what you did was clearly within the law. The question for me is has the presidency become too powerful in your view?
I distinguish between domestic policy and foreign policy. I think on foreign policy, the concern I have right now is because we're in a nontraditional war. It's what we call the war on terrorism, although terrorism to some degree is a tactic. We're in a war against a non-state, a set of non-state actors that are operating in the shadows, are in nooks and crannies and crevices around the world.
And what that means is that you're never going to have a scene of surrender like we had with the Emperor [Hirohito] and Gen. MacArthur, where you don't have a clear start and finish to the use of force. The danger is that over time, Congress starts feeling pretty comfortable with just having the president do all this stuff and not really having to weigh in.
So for example, we're still operating in our fight against ISIL without a new congressional authorization. It's the authorization that dates back to 9/11. And I think that is an area that we have to worry about. The president and the executive branch are always going to have greater latitude and greater authority when it comes to protecting America, because sometimes you just have to respond quickly and not everything that is a danger can be publicized and be subject to open debate.
But there have to be some guardrails. And what we've had to do on things like drones, or the NSA, or a number of the tools that we use to penetrate terrorist networks, what we've had to do is to build the guard rails internally. Essentially set up a whole series of processes to guard against government overreach, to reform some practices that I thought over time would threaten civil liberties.
You know, there are some critics on the left who would argue we haven't gone far enough on that. I would argue that we've gotten it about right, although I'm the first one to admit that we didn't get it all right on day one. There were times where, for example, with respect to drones, that I had to kind of stop the system for a second, and say "You know what? We're getting too comfortable with our ability to take kinetic strikes around the world without having enough process to avoid consistently the kinds of civilian casualties that can end up actually hurting us in the war against radicalization."
On the domestic side, the truth is that, you know, there hasn't been a radical change between what I did and what George Bush did and what Bill Clinton did and what the first George Bush did. It's, you know, the issue of big agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Labor, having to take laws that have been passed, like the Clean Air Act, which is hugely complicated and very technical, and fill in the gaps and figure out our "What does this mean and how do we apply this to new circumstances?" That's not new. Having federal bureaucracies and federal regulations, that's not new. I think that what's happened that I do worry about is that Congress has become so dysfunctional, that more and more of a burden is placed on the agencies to fill in the gaps, and the gaps get bigger and bigger because they're not constantly refreshed and tweaked.
Let's go back to something like the Affordable Care Act. I could not be prouder of the fact that the uninsured rate has never been lower. That 20 million people have health insurance that we didn't have before. But I said when the bill passed that it wasn't perfect. Over the course of six years of implementing a very complicated piece of legislation that affects one-sixth of the economy, that there were going to be things we learned that would allow us to improve it. And I don't know how many times I've said to Republicans, both publicly and privately, in State of the Union speeches, in town halls around the country, that if they're willing to engage and work with me, then we can identify ways to tweak and improve this system so that more people have health insurance and it works even better and it's more stable, and build on the things that seemed to have worked. For example, the fact that we've actually slowed the growth of health care costs since the bill passed. And each time I've said this, the basic Republican response has been "No, all we want to do is repeal it. And we'll replace it with something later."
And they're still saying that now post-election, although as we've seen, the best independent estimates are if you just repeal and you don't replace you're going to have 30 million people without health insurance, not to mention people who already have health insurance suddenly losing a lot of the benefits that individually are very popular though people don't know that they're part of Obamacare, like making sure that you don't get barred from getting insurance if you have a pre-existing condition, or keeping your kid on your health care until they're 26 years old. So the fierce partisanship, the unwillingness to engage in amending laws, fixing laws. That then leads to agencies having to scramble to do more work.
And the bottom line is, if you want to right-size executive power relative to the other branches of government, the best way to do that is to have a healthy Congress in which the two parties are debating, disagreeing but also occasionally working together to pass legislation.
Couple of other things Mr. President: Is President-elect Trump right that political correctness in this country has gone too far? We've discussed campus debates here...
Yeah, we have. We have, and this is a tricky issue and here's why: Because the definition of political correctness is all over the map. And I suspect the president-elect's definition of political correctness would be different than mine. If what's meant by political correctness is that there is some broad disapproval that's expressed when somebody uses a racial epithet, or somebody makes a derogatory comment about women, or about the LGBT community, and people say, "Hey, you shouldn't do that. That's wrong, that's cruel, that's hurtful. Here's the history of that word." And when you use words like that, you're reinforcing people feeling like they're outsiders, and less than other Americans.
I don't consider that political correctness. I consider that good manners, sound values and hard-fought gains in the nature of American society and American community. I think it's a good thing that we don't think that using the "n" word is socially acceptable. I think it's a good thing that we don't refer to women in derogatory ways — because I have a couple of daughters, and I don't want them to feel that way.
Now, if you're narrowly defining political correctness as a hypersensitivity that ends up resulting in people not being able to express their opinions at all without somebody suggesting they're a victim, you know, if sort of, our social discourse and our political discourse becomes like walking on eggshells so that if somebody says "You know what, I'm not sure affirmative action is the right way to solve racial problems in this country," and somebody's immediately accused of being racist, well, then I think you have a point.
Although I happen to approve of affirmative action, but I think that I can have a polite dialogue with somebody who differs from me on that issue. And so, on the one hand, my advice to progressives like myself, and this is advice I give my own daughters who are about to head off to college, is don't go around just looking for insults. You're tough. If somebody says something you don't agree with, just engage them on their ideas. But you don't have to feel that somehow because you're a black woman that you're being assaulted. But speak up for yourself, and if you hear somebody saying something that's insulting, feel free to say to that guy, "You know what? You're rude" or "you're ignorant" and take them on.
But the thing that I want to emphasize here though is, the irony in this debate is often-times you'll hear somebody like a Rush Limbaugh, or other conservative commentators, or you know, radio shock jocks, or some conservative politicians, who are very quick to jump on any evidence of progressives being "politically correct," but who are constantly aggrieved and hypersensitive about the things they care about, and are continually feeding this sense of victimization, and that they are being subject to reverse discrimination.
Look, I had to live through controversies like the notion that I was trying to kill Christmas. Right? Well, where'd that come from? Well, you know, "He said 'Happy Holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas,' so that must be evidence of him either not being a Christian or not caring about Christmas." It sounds funny now, but you'll have entire debates in conservative circles around that. So it cuts both ways. And my advice to young people, and my advice to all of us as citizens, is to be able to distinguish between being courteous and being thoughtful and thinking about how words affect other people and not demonizing others versus having legitimate political debates and disagreements.
This raises one other question though, Mr. President. We've talked with a lot of voters, and it's clear that for many people this has been an agonizing year, an agonizing political year, even for people whose side won. Is it possible, though, that that agony has been good for the country because we are confronting issues of race and identity and the way the economy is structured, issues that have been with us for a long time?
I think that's a really interesting point. I've been accused by friends, enemies, my wife, of sometimes being overly optimistic. But what can I tell you, this is this is my temperament generally. And we are going through some growing pains right now, because the world is changing really fast, and it has throughout my presidency.
I started my presidency inheriting a massive crisis of proportions that we haven't seen since the 1930s. It laid bare some long-term and troubling trends about globalization, and technology, and rising inequality, and the fragility of our financial systems, and the way in which middle-class folks felt they were getting squeezed. And the fact that the ladders of opportunity seem to be farther and fewer between for people who are trying to get out of poverty.
And throughout that process, we also then started seeing — because when the economy's not doing well some other tensions get laid bare — changing attitudes about sexual orientation, and about race, and about the nature of families. And all of this has been amped up by the revolution in information, throwing through social media and the Internet. And so it's a big dose. It's been a lot of stuff that's been coming at people really quickly, and it's made folks anxious.
But I do think that part of the reason for these tensions is because we've been starting to wrestle with some things that ultimately are solvable if we make some good decisions. The economy right now is stable. And so we have some time to say to ourselves, even though it's stable right now, the trend lines are such where more and more jobs are going to be digitalized, more and more jobs are going to be robotized. What are we going to do to make sure that as more workers are moving out of manufacturing into the service sector, that they are getting a decent wage? How are we going to create more jobs once self-driving cars eliminate a bunch of well-paying jobs of just driving and moving stuff around? How do we rebuild our infrastructure and rebuild our education system?
We can solve these things, but it's going to be challenging. And we've got to have an honest debate about it.
With respect to how we deal with each other, the demographics of the country are going to change. It's inevitable.
The Latino community in America is going to grow. If you stopped all immigration today, just by virtue of birth rates, this is going to be a browner country. And if we're not thinking right now about how we make sure that next generation is getting a good education and are instilled with a common creed and the values that make America so special and are cared for and nurtured and loved the way every American child is treated, then we're not going to be as successful.
But the good news is we've got time to do it. With respect to race and the relationship between the African-American community and police, all these smartphones suddenly taking pictures are not documenting a suddenly worsening relationship between the African-American community and the police. They are recording what has been a long-standing tension and the sense on the part of police that they're put in a very difficult situation of trying to manage law enforcement in poor communities where guns are easily accessible, the African-American community being rightly convinced that there is a long history of racial bias in our criminal justice system.
And as painful as it is, that conversation is long overdue. So, my feeling is that if everybody takes a breath, and if we can structure a conversation that is less about "how somebody else is trying to take advantage of me," and structure the conversation around "how can we work together to solve problems that makes everybody better off?" that America can emerge stronger.
But that requires leadership. It requires citizenship. It requires all of us doing self-reflection at the same time as we're fighting on behalf of the things that we care deeply about. And I speak as a progressive Democrat who is really, really proud of the work we've done. I can say, and I can demonstrate, I can document that the country is a lot better off now than it was when I took office in almost every dimension. But what I can also say is that we could be doing even better. There are times where I reflect and ask myself if, "Is there's something else I could have done, something that I could have said slightly differently that would have led to additional progress and less polarization?"
And I'll probably, you know, as I reflect on my presidency, once I'm out of just the day-to-day scrum of this thing, I'm sure I'll come up with a whole bunch of things to add to my list. But I think all of us have to do that.
You know, I've said this before: This is advanced democracy, what the founders set up. And, you know, if we either celebrate or despair just around presidential elections, without spending enough time focusing on how, in our day-to-day lives, in our local civic lives, in our media, in our culture, if we're not spending enough time reflecting on, "What am I doing to be part of the solution as opposed to being part of the problem?" Then we'll get better presidents and worse presidents, but we're not going to get to where we need to go.
If you'll forgive a final question: I know you get letters and that your staff gives you a few letters to read each day. What have the letters been like since the election?
Well, there's, for not just Democrats, but also for a number of young people, I think that there's been concern, fear, in some cases. The letters that worry me most are letters from either teachers or students themselves, where they say, "I'm in a majority Latino school, and I'm teaching third graders, and a child will go up to a teacher and say, 'Why don't people like me?' " Or a Muslim college student who starts thinking that there's no place for her in this country that she loves. Those are the most worrisome and those are ones where I respond and say that you have to have faith in the basic goodness of this country and that it outweighs the bad.
You've been writing back?
Yeah, I generally write back as many of the 10 letters I get a night. Now to be fair, because, you know, I try to make sure that I'm not just getting letters from supporters. There's been some letters that say, "I am so glad you're getting out of here. Good riddance. You've been a horrible president." And uh, ...
You write them back, too?
And "America's great again." Sometimes I do. The most interesting letters I get, because they're unexpected, and I'm talking about since the election, have been people who've written and said, "I didn't vote for you, but I want you to know that I appreciate the manner in which you've conducted yourself in office. And I think that you've been a good dad."
In some cases they said, "In retrospect I think you did a pretty good job." Those letters, in some ways, mean the most to me because you're persuading skeptics. But even if you haven't persuaded them on the issues, at least maybe they've recognized that I've tried to be true to the meaning of this office, that I've held it in reverence.
But it's worth mentioning that pre-election, a lot of letters I get, a lot of the letters I get that are most meaningful are really simple. It might be a senior citizen who is complaining about not having gotten a cost of living adjustment on Social Security and will just list out their budget for the month, and giving you sort of a vivid picture of how hard it is to get by.
It might be a kid after a shooting like Newtown saying "I'm scared." And sometimes it's just a family that's writing to say, "You know what? We have concerns, and things are tough, but, you know what, we're resilient and we love each other and we think we're going to make it, and we hope you stay at it, and we hope you're hearing us."
Mr. President, thanks for these conversations. I've appreciated them very much and I know many of our listeners have as well.
I appreciate it very much.
After the conversation, Obama returned to the room to say one more thing about the CIA.
You had something you wanted to add.
When we're discussing the issue of the Russia hack, I think it is worth noting that when it comes to the motivations of the Russians, that there are still a whole range of assessments taking place among the agencies. And so when I receive a final report, you know, we'll be able to I think give us a comprehensive and best guess as to those motivations. But that does not in any way I think detract from the basic point that everyone during the election perceived accurately that in fact what the Russian hack had done was create more problems for the Clinton administra — the Clinton campaign than it had for the Trump campaign.
I think you're stopping short of endorsing the CIA conclusion that the hack was designed to help Donald Trump as opposed to some other objective.
Well I think the point I'm making is that right now what you've had are CIA leaks, not of an official document. And I think it's important for the process of various agencies comparing notes and thinking about these assessments. Because it's not as if in any of these circumstances, you know you just have a signed letter regarding Russian intentions that's floating around. These are all assessments made based on a wide range of evidence and different agencies are still looking at all that stuff gathering it together and hopefully putting into a single package.
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