Barack Obama photo

Interview With Anthony Mason of CBS News

August 17, 2011

MASON: First, well, first of all, how do you like your new bus?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, the bus is terrific, mainly because it allows me to get into places that otherwise we couldn't go. You know, when you drive on, when you get into Air Force One and you're coming in in a helicopter, it's a lot harder to come into little towns like this.

MASON: It has a slightly Darth Vader quality to it.

THE PRESIDENT: [laughs] I will say that, unless I'm in the front of the bus, people can't see a thing.


THE PRESIDENT: [laughs] Absolutely.

MASON: I'm looking at this football game behind you. Has Washington turned out to be more of a contact sport than you thought it was gonna be?

THE PRESIDENT: No. I think that the truth is that politics in America has always been a contact sport, and it's not like I had a breeze campaigning to get to Washington. So I do think what surprised me, but also what surprised the America people, is that at a time of crisis like we had back in 2008, 2009, we haven't seen people transcend party and short-term political thinking as much as we might've expected.

MASON: Some people within your own party -


MASON: - might accuse you of playing too much defense, not enough offense. Do you think you should've been more aggressive?

THE PRESIDENT: No. Look. If you think about all we got done in the first two years, I think that between pulling us out of a potential depression, fixing the auto industry, passing financial regulatory reform so we don't have the same kinds of financial crisis we've seen, we had an extraordinary agenda, and some, you'll recall, some people were accusing too much, not doing too little. Since the midterms obviously the Republicans took over the House of Representatives. My job is to see where we can find common ground to actually get something done. And if I've got Republican counterparts who are willing to work with me, then I'm looking forward to it.

Now, I will say that after this debt debacle, there are some questions as to whether they want to get anything done. And I'm gonna continue to test it. I'm gonna continue to say to 'em, 'I'm ready to work with you.' But if not, I'm gonna take my case to the American people.

MASON: Do you have any regrets about the way you handled that?

THE PRESIDENT: Y-- no. Because the, two things happened. Number one, we had to do something to lift the debt ceiling. And I know that there are some Democrats who thought that I could just take over through constitutional means without any congressional approval. The potential disruptions that would have had on the world financial markets were just too dangerous. It wasn't an issue of people having a gun to my head. They had a gun at the head of the American people and the economy. And so we had to get something done.

And number two: I thought this was a great opportunity for us to actually do something big in a bipartisan way that required Democrats and Republicans to make tough choices. The fact that they weren't able, the Republicans weren't willing, to go with me on that doesn't leave me to regret having tried. Because I think it, had we gotten something done, the exact opposite of what happened would've occurred all across the country. People woulda felt more optimistic, the markets woulda gone up. Around the world, people woulda said, 'You know what? American politics can work.' And so I'm gonna keep on trying where I can to get the kind of cooperation we need.

MASON: This has been a scary summer for a lotta people.

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely.

MASON: 'Cause the stock market, economy's struggling.


MASON: Should Congress be back in Washington? Should you be going on vacation?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, no, because I think that, you know, if all we're doing is the same posturing that we saw before the debt limit vote that's not gonna encourage anybody. That's gonna discourage people. And the reason I'm out here is to remind people what the expectations of ordinary Americans are.

In small towns like this, and in big cities all across America they are saying to their representatives, 'Stop playing the games and get something done.' And my hope is, is that members of Congress having pulled out of Washington, which can be a toxic atmosphere, for two or three weeks are listening to their constituents. 'Cause if they do, they'll come back and we've got, actually got a chance to get something done. And if not, they'll be on notice that the American people want a different way of operating.

MASON: Are you glad to be outta Washington?

THE PRESIDENT: I'm always glad to be outta Washington. Look, the fact of the matter is the White House is an incredible facility. You know, I'm grateful to the staff there that does everything to look after my family. But it's a bubble. And, you know, between the Washington press corps, Congress, it's an insider game.

And it's very easy, I think, for folks to lose sight of not only how much people are struggling out here, how hard they're working but also how optimistic people are. You know, there are a lotta people out here that I've been meeting over the last several days who may be disgusted with Washington, but they're going about coaching football. They're going about, you know, plating crops and harvesting crops and feeding America, and starting small businesses and hiring people and, you know, going to church and helping out at the food pantry and coaching Little League.

And and so there's an incredible resilience and strength out here that I think folks in Washington need to pay more attention to. When you come out here, you're a lot more optimistic about the country than than you are when you're listening to some of the prattle that we hear in Washington.

MASON: Two last things. One, somebody on the road here in the last two days said they wouldn't want their kid to be president [laughs] after what they've seen. Would you want your daughter to be president?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I will tell you that Michelle and the girls, having seen this up close and personal. are probably not gonna be going into electoral politics any time soon. But I hope that kids all across America still understand that there's no greater privilege than being able to serve the American people, and that public service can still be a noble profession and an important profession.

And if we've learned anything over the last two and a half years, part of what we should've learned is the fact that government can make a difference. You know, when government isn't on the job, as it wasn't, for example, on Wall Street and wasn't looking over the shoulders of what some of these folks were doing, it can have huge consequences. And on the other hand, when government steps in in a smart way, you can help people help themselves, and it can help the free market create jobs and grow the economy.

And so you know, I don't think Malia and Sasha are probably gonna go into politics, but that's probably a temperamental thing. There may be a kid out here on the football field who could end up being an extraordinary leader 30 years from now and and I hope that they're not discouraged.

MASON: Last thing. 9/11 is coming up, the anniversary.


MASON: Do you remember where you were?

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely. Remember it precisely.

MASON: Where were you and what -

THE PRESIDENT: I was driving down Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. I was a state senator at the time, as well as teaching law and practicing law. I was going to a senate hearing. I don't remember what the topic was. And I remember turning the dial on the radio and somebody saying, 'A plane's crashed in the World Trade Center.'

And at the time, we assumed that it must be some small plane that had had some mechanical difficulties. By the time I got to the hearing it became apparent that this was intentional and that a lotta people potentially were gonna die.

We actually evacuated the Thompson Center, the state building in the middle of Chicago's Loop and we were all outside, and a lotta people were looking up at the Sears Tower thinking that it might be coming down. I went to my law office and, together with my fellow attorneys, we watched, you know, that horrific scene of the buildings coming down.

And I remember going home and Sasha had just been born. And I usually had night duty so Michelle could get some sleep. And I remember staying up into, late into the middle of the night burping my child and changing her diapers and wondering, you know, what kinda world is she gonna be inheriting. And I hope that the American people recognize that, as severe of a blow that was to America, as wrenching as it was for the families involved, we came out of that stronger than anybody expected.

And that was a moment where the country unified because they understood this was a threat to our way of life. The crises that we're dealing today with may not be as spectacular, obviously don't have the same tragic dimensions in terms of loss of life, but these are also urgent times. And if we can reclaim that kinda spirit of pulling together then I'm confident we'll be just as strong coming outta this as we were coming outta 9/11.

MASON: Can I just ask you very quickly? Left and right, the terrible things people say about you in print, on television --


MASON: Does it drive you crazy?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I think you've gotta have a pretty thick skin to be a president of the United States. And you know, outta necessity, I read a lotta history these days, and you know, when you see what they said about Jefferson, what they said about Lincoln, what they said about some pretty good presidents, it makes you feel a little bit better.

MASON: Is your skin as thick as you thought it would be?

THE PRESIDENT: Thicker! [laughs]

Barack Obama, Interview With Anthony Mason of CBS News Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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