Barack Obama photo

Interview with Chris Mathews on MSNBC's "Hardball" at American University

December 05, 2013

Matthews. Well, thank you, Mr. President, and thank you, Dr. Neil Kerwin, who's here, the president of the American University, for having us today.

The President. It's good to see you.

Matthews. So what brought you to Hardball?

The President. American University. [laughter]

Hardball was just an excuse to hang out with these fine young people. You know, I've had just wonderful experiences here. First time I spoke here, actually, was when I was running for the presidency, and Ted Kennedy announced his endorsement here. And obviously, he was an incredible friend and spoken here about immigration. And I just always have a wonderful interaction with the young people here. They're doing a great job.

Matthews. Well, let's play Hardball.

The President. Let's do it! [laughter]

Matthews. You have a great audience here of college-age people and some graduate students and faculty. There's some resistance out there among young people -- I've seen it in the polls -- to enrolling in the exchanges and to get involved in taking responsibility for their healthcare.

What's your argument why they should do that?

The President. Well, first of all, I understand why people would have been resistant to going on a Website that wasn't working right. And fortunately, because of some very hard work, we've now got it to the point where for the vast majority of people, it's working well.

And my message to young people is take a look for yourself. The truth is, is that most college-aged students, because of the law, can stay on their parents' plan, and that may be the best deal for them. And we've already insured about three million people.

And your first job, where you don't have full health insurance benefits, may mean that you stay on your parents' plan a little bit longer. But at some point, let's say when you turn 26, if you're between jobs or you've got a passion, you're wanting to start a business and you're not going to have health insurance, this gives you the opportunity to get high- quality health insurance. And for most people under 30, it's probably going to cost you less than your cell phone bill or your cable bill, less than 100 bucks.

And you know, there was a time when I looked healthy, like these folks, and thought I was never going to get sick. [laughter]

But what you discover is that some tough stuff happens. You have a run of bad luck. You suddenly need hospitalization. You have an accident. You get an illness. And for young people to realize that it is in their financial interest and their health interest to be able to get ongoing preventive care, to be able to get free contraception, and you know, benefits that -- like mammograms that allow them to maintain their health throughout their lives without fear of going bankrupt or making their family bankrupt if they get sick, that's something that's priceless. And I think most young people are going to recognize that. So my advice to everybody is, the website's now working. Go to, take a look for yourself in your state what's available to you. There's no reason why you should not have health insurance.

And by the way, if you don't get health insurance and then you get in an accident, the rest of us end up paying for it because the hospitals -- they end up essentially charging folks with insurance an average of about $1,000 per family in hidden subsidies for the people who don't have health insurance. That's part of what we're trying to eliminate.

Matthews. Well, you saw the front page of "The Washington Post" today with that story about the National Security Agency basically patrolling all of the cell phones in the world, basically. A lot of young people point to their privacy requirements. They don't like being part of anything that's collecting information. Healthcare -- is this going to be one of the detriments to people wanting to sign up, they want to keep their privacy?

The President. Well, no, first of all, health care is entirely different. It's more similar to, you know, seniors who sign up for Medicare or people who file their taxes. You know, there are a whole bunch of things where you're providing information to the government. It's protected. It's governed by a whole series of laws.

The NSA issue is a broader issue. And you're right, young people rightly are sensitive to the needs to preserve their privacy and to maintain Internet freedom. And by the way, so I am. That's part of not just our 1st Amendment rights and expectations in this country, but it's particularly something that young people care about because they spend so much time texting, and you know, Instagraming and you know...

Matthews. Whatever.

The President. ... Pining and -- you know, right? I mean, they're just -- something's coming up every single day. And so all of us spend more and more of our lives in cyberspace.

Now, the challenge is, first of all, we do have people who are trying to hurt us and they communicate through these same systems. And if we're going to do a good job preventing a terrorist attack in this country, a weapon of mass destruction getting onto the New York subway system, et cetera, we do want to keep eyes on some bad actors.

The second thing is that the same cyberspace that gives us all this incredible information and allows us to reach out around the world also makes our bank accounts vulnerable. Cybercrime is a huge problem and a growing problem. And so we've got to be in there in some way to help protect the American people, even as we're also making sure that government doesn't abuse it.

Now, I think -- I can't confirm or get into the details of every aspect of what the NSA does. And the way this has been reported, the Snowden disclosures have identified some areas of legitimate concern. Some of it has also been highly sensationalized, and you know, has been painted in a way that's not accurate.

I've said before and I will say again, the NSA actually does a very good job about not engaging in domestic surveillance, not reading people's e-mails, not listening to the content of their phone calls. Outside of our borders, the NSA is more aggressive. It's not constrained by laws.

And part of what we're trying to do over the next month or so is, having done on independent review and brought a whole bunch folks, civil libertarians and lawyers and others, to examine what's being done, I'll be proposing some self-restraint on the NSA, and you know, to initiate some reforms that can give people more confidence.

But I want everybody to be clear. The people of the NSA generally are looking out for the safety of the American people. They are not interested in reading your e-mails. They're not interested in reading your text messages. And that's not something that's done. And we've got a big system of checks and balances, including the courts and Congress, who have the capacity to prevent that from happening.

Matthews. Mr. President, let's look at that question of confidence and trust in government. Fifty years ago, in June of 1963, President John F. Kennedy spoke here at the American University. Let's listen to something that he said at that moment which I think applies to the situation we're in in this country now politically. Let's watch.

[plays video clip]

Matthews. How do we get back to that confidence that we can solve our manmade problems and other problems?

The President. Well, you know, I have that confidence. But we've gone through a tough time over the last five years, and most of the young people who are here today have come of age during as difficult a period as we've seen in our modern history.

We went through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. We have gone through wars. This is part of the 9/11 generation, who was very young at the time but remembers the trauma of that event. And yet if you look at it, we've now ended the war in Iraq. We're about to end the war in Afghanistan. We've begun a recovery that is not yet complete coming out of the financial crisis, but the job market is getting better. Our economy is improving.We have, you know, doubled our production of clean energy, doubled our production of traditional energy sources. We are on the brink of being as close to energy-independent as any country our size could be in a very long time. We still have the best universities on earth, the best researchers and scientists on earth, the best workers on earth and the most innovative companies on earth. And we're still the envy of the world and the one indispensable nation. So I continue to have great confidence in our capacity to solve our problems. There's a specific challenge that we've got, and that is a Congress and this city, Washington, that is gridlocked and spends too much time worrying about the next election and not enough time worrying about the next generation.

And you know, the solution to that is ultimately what was envisioned by our founders and what Jack Kennedy understood, as well, and that's the American people. You know, we go through these periods where our politics gets all bollixed up. And the truth is, sometimes we're nostalgic about the past...

Matthews. I am.

The President. I know you are. [laughter]

But the -- but the truth of the matter is, is that when you look at our history, there have been a lot of times when Congress gets stuck. But we get through it. And the reason we get through it is, ultimately, the American people have pretty good instincts. And if over and over again, they see that we're not addressing the core problems that we have, eventually, they will put in place folks who are serious about getting the work done.

Matthews. Let's talk about the problem with the legislative branch. The other day, Speaker Boehner said that we can't get anything done because we have a divided country, a divided Congress.

But that's the nature of America. They have an aisle down the middle of the Senate, an aisle down the middle of the House. Those aisles have always been there. We've rarely had one party in power for more than a year or two. The country doesn't want that, generally. So are we stuck with this as long as we have two parties running our government, they can't compromise?

They used to compromise. My argument is, in the old days, they would compromise and then blame the other party for the parts of the compromise they didn't like. Today, they don't compromise and blame the other party. Why not strike a deal, and then you can blame Boehner for the parts of the deal you don't like, and he can blame you for the parts that he doesn't like?

The President. Well, a couple of things. First of all...

Matthews. [inaudible] compromise.

The President. ... I think, Chris, it's fair to say that I have always been prepared to not only negotiate, but to go ahead and push forward on principled compromises. In fact, sometimes on your station, MSNBC, I've been blasted for being too willing to compromise. So the problem is not, generally speaking, on the Democratic side.

And obviously, I'm partisan here, but objectively, I think you can look at it and you can say that the big challenge we've got is you've got a faction of the Republican Party that sees compromise as a dirty word, that has moved so far to the right that it would be difficult for a Ronald Reagan to win the nomination for the Republican Party at this point. And as a consequence, it is more challenging. But a couple of things I just want to point out...

Matthews. But you've got three-and-a-half more years to deal with this situation.

The President. Yes, well, a couple things I'd point out. First of all, in our history, usually, when we've made big progress on issues, it actually has been when one party controlled the government for a period of time. I mean, the big strides we made in the New Deal, the big strides we made with the Great Society, you know, those were times where you had a big majority. And when Ronald Reagan made changes in the direction of a more Republican agenda, it was when he had a majority.

What you're right about, though, is that when we have divided government, most of the time, there's about 70 percent, 80 percent overlap between the parties. We're not like some countries that -- where you actually have a socialist party on one hand and an ultra- conservative party on the other hand. Most of the time, we're playing between the 40- yard lines here.

So my argument to Boehner and McConnell and everybody else up there is, Let's go ahead and have big arguments on the things we disagree about. But why don't we go ahead and work on the things we do agree about? And a classic example of this is immigration reform. We know that the majority of the American people think the system's broken. We now have a vote out of the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans voting for a common sense bill that would strengthen our borders, that would fix the legal immigration system, make it easier for talent to come here and work hard and become part of America, and that would hold companies accountable when they're hiring undocumented workers and taking advantage of them, oh, and by the way, would deal with the 11 million people who are in the shadows right now.

Now, we've got a majority of the American people who think it's a good idea and we've got a majority of the Senate, including Republicans, who think it's a good idea. The only thing that's stopping it at this point is what I mentioned earlier, a faction in the Republican House party that is resistant. I continue to be optimistic we'll get it done, and I think John Boehner is sincere about getting it done, but...

Matthews. Didn't he just say, We won't do it in '14, today?

The President. Well, you know, the -- I think that there's so much focus on the politics of the base and Republicans being worried about getting challenged during their primary season that that inhibits a lot of cooperation that is there.

And I actually think there are a bunch of Republicans who want to get stuff done. They've got to be embarrassed because the truth of the matter is, is that they've now been in charge of the House of Representatives, one branch of -- or one chamber in one branch of government for a couple of years now, and they just don't have a lot to show for it.

Matthews. Let's talk about the executive branch, which you control. The -- back in 1964, we looked it up, a Pew study, 76 percent of the American people believed that most of the time, almost always, the federal government did the right thing. Now it's down to less than 20 percent.

The trust question, the commitments you made before the rollout with health care -- what is it? What is it that's just -- it's a serial decline, Mr. President. It keeps going down. I know we had Watergate. We had the Vietnam war, of course, all that together.

But what's going to stop and arrest that decline of faith in you doing the right thing, you being honest, anybody who's president, this skepticism that's out there?

The President. Well, look, the cynicism and the skepticism is deep. And I distinguish between, you know, just management of government and the basic blocking and tackling of getting stuff done to help the American people and then the ability to move big policy changes that are going to help more Americans.

When it comes to the management of government, part of the reason people are so skeptical is that when we do things right, they don't get a lot of attention. If we do something that is perceived at least initially as a screwup, it will be on the nightly news for a week. So let's take the example of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. We've got a guy who's been in charge, Craig Fugate, who has managed as many natural disasters over the last five years as just about anybody and has done a flawless job.

Matthews. So he's really doing a good job.

The President. He is doing...

Matthews. Unlike his predecessor.

The President. He is doing -- he is doing a heck of a job. [laughter]

This guy -- and that's not just my opinion. That's the opinion of every governor and mayor that works with him, including Republicans.

Nobody knows who this guy is. And if, in fact, we go in after Sandy or after the tornadoes in Oklahoma or Missouri and we're helping a lot of people effectively and quickly and they're getting what they need, nobody hears about that. That's not something that's reported about. If on the other hand, you've got an office in Cincinnati in the IRS office that I think for bureaucratic reasons is trying to streamline what is a difficult law to interpret about whether a non-profit is actually a political organization that deserves a tax-exempt agency (sic) and they've got a list, suddenly, everybody's outraged...

Matthews. 501(c)(4) is tricking to begin with.

The President. To begin with.

Matthews. How do you define it?

The President. And by the way, Chris, I'll point out that there's some so- called progressives and -- you know, perceived to be liberal commentators who during that week just were outraged at the possibility that these folks, you know, had been, you know, at the direction of the Democratic Party in some way discriminated against Tea Party folks.

And you know, that is what gets news. That's what gets attention. Now, here's what I will say. You know, there are a couple million people working for the federal government. And I remember Bob Gates, my former secretary of defense -- wonderful public servant, had served under seven presidents -- when I first came in, I asked him, So Bob, you got any advice for me? He says, Mr. President, just understand you've got a lot of people working for you. Somebody, somewhere, at this very moment is screwing something up.[laughter]

And that's true. And so -- so I ... have to consistently push on every cabinet secretary, on every single agency, How can we do things better? And we can do things better. Part of what we need to do is reorganize the government, which was designed primarily in 1935 -- '45. We could consolidate agencies. We've got to do a much better job, as everybody has learned, buying information technologies. [laughter]

Matthews. Yes.

The President. You know, how we make ourselves more customer-friendly, those are all things that we can improve.

But the upshot is, the government still does a lot of good. And the last point I will make on this is, you know, we have had a politics, frankly -- the entire Republican Party brand over -- since Ronald Reagan has been, government's the problem.

And, if you, day after day, week after week, election after election, are running on that platform, and that permeates our culture, and it's picked up by ordinary citizens who grow skeptical, then it's not surprising that, over time, trust in government declines.

But, as I said in a speech yesterday, the biggest issue that I see out on the horizon is, how do we make sure an economy works for everybody and...

Matthews. Yes.

The President. ... and that every one of these young people can get a good job, pursue a career, support a family, not be loaded up by $100,000 worth of debt, actually buy a home?

How do we do those things that reduce inequality in our society and broaden opportunity? And government can't solve all of that. And we live in an economy that is global and technological and is changing faster than ever before in history.

But government can't stand on the sidelines when we're doing that. And without some faith in our capacity for collective action, those trends are going to get worse. So, we have got to -- and young people in particular have to understand, government is us. Government's not somebody else. Government's us. We have the capacity to change it. And voters have the capacity to change it. Members of Congress do, as well as a president.

Matthews. Let's talk about the chief executive, you.

The President. Right.

Matthews. And let's talk about a lot of these young people came here to study government and how it can be run. There's all kinds of theories of how to be president of the United States. There's the spokes-of-the-wheel method, which Kennedy used, where he had direct contact with his Cabinet secretaries, his speechwriters, everybody all the time.

Then there was the strong chief of staff, sort of the military command system of General Eisenhower as president. And, of course, Ronald Reagan did it superbly with a great chief of staff, a strong one, Jim Baker. What concerned -- Zeke Emanuel, who worked with you on healthcare, said the other day is there should have been a CEO assigned by you personally with unique personal responsibility to oversee the rollout of healthcare, and there wasn't. When Secretary Sebelius appeared in that hearing and she was asked by Marsha Blackburn...

The President. Right.

Matthews. ... who's in charge, it took her awhile to answer. And she final got to the chief operating of CMS, the Center for Medicaid and Medicare. And it didn't seem like there was a strong top-down authority system from you. Did you have -- or do you have now -- let's look forward here. Do you have a relationship with your Cabinet that you have a system of cracking the whip, that they follow through, they execute as you envision they should, or do you work through a COO like McDonough? What is your system for management?

The President. Well, yes. Well, first of all, I think it's important to distinguish between this particular project...

Matthews. Yes.

The President. ... this health care project, where it is obvious that we needed additional controls in place, because it didn't deliver on time the way we wanted, and how we have managed incredibly complex problems for the last five years, everything from wars, to pandemics to, you know, natural disasters, to expanding student loans for young peoples.

Matthews. Right.

The President. Generally speaking, my theory has been, number one, that, yes, I have got a strong chief of staff, but I'm holding every Cabinet member accountable, and I want to have strong interactions with them directly. Number two is, I have an open door policy where I want people to be bringing me bad news on time so that we can fix things.

Matthews. Yes.

The President. And the -- the challenge, I think, that we have going forward is not so much my personal management style or particular issues around White House organization.

It actually has to do with what I referred to earlier, which is we have these big agencies, some of which are outdated, some of which are not designed properly. We have got, for example, 16 different agencies that have some responsibility to help businesses, large and small, in all kinds of ways, whether it's helping to finance them, helping them to export. And so, if you're a small business person getting started, you may think you need to go to the Small Business Administration on one thing, you have got to go to Commerce on another. So, we have proposed, let's consolidate a bunch of that stuff.

The challenge we have got is that that requires a law to pass. And, frankly, there are a lot of members of Congress who are chairmen of a particular committee. And they don't want necessarily consolidations where they would lose jurisdiction over certain aspects of certain policies. But this is going to be a major area of focus and has been over the last five years, but going forward over the next three years. How do we have a 21st century federal government?

Matthews. OK.

The President. And this is part of the reason why people are skeptical. There -- there are just some things that people have an interaction with the federal government where we could be doing a much better job.

Matthews. OK.

The President. Some of them, by the way, aren't federal. Everybody has the experience of going to try to get their driver's license and—[laughter]—Right?

Matthews. Yes.

The President. And it takes a long time. [laughter]

You know, why do you have to do a written driving test if you already have your license? I mean, there are just a whole bunch of things we could be using with the Internet and new communication systems. And the more we can just reorganize the guts of how these agencies work, the easier it's going to be, because the White House is just a tiny part of what is a huge, widespread organization with increasingly complex tasks in a complex world.

Matthews. Let me ask you about something else. This is a Twitter question we got from C. Wilhelms is his name. He said: "What can we do to stop the GOP" -- the Republicans -- "from rigging the states" -- or "rigging the votes state by state to disenfranchise voters and destroy our democracy?"

Thirty-six states right now led by Republican legislatures have been trying to make it difficult for minority people to vote, especially in big cities, and older people.

The President. Yes.

Matthews. Everybody knows the game. Republicans often admit the game: to deny people the vote.

The President. Right.

Matthews. How can -- well, what's your reaction?

The President. Well, a couple of things. You saw the lines that we had not only in '08, but then in '12. Some of these folks might have stood in line. And I said on election night, that's not acceptable in a democracy that has been around as long as ours and that the world looks to. So we actually immediately assigned my chief election lawyer and Mitt Romney's chief election lawyer to sit down with a group of experts and come up with a whole series of vote -- voter reforms.

They're supposed to report back to me by the end of this year, so that, early next year, we're going to put forward what we know will be a bipartisan effort -- or a bipartisan proposal to encourage people to vote. You can't say you take pride in American democracy, in American constitutionalism, American exceptionalism and then you're doing everything you can to make it harder for people to vote, as opposed to easier for people to vote.

So, I think there's some commonsense things that we can do. And I won't preview the proposals, because I haven't gotten them yet. Keep in mind, though, for all the efforts that have been made -- and some of them, by the way, may be illegal, may violate the Voting Rights Act, even after the Supreme Court's recent ruling -- and our Justice

Department is going to be staying on them. If we have evidence that you have mechanisms that are specifically designed to discriminate against certain groups of voters, then the Justice Department will come down on them and file suit.

The one point I want to make, though, is, is that, even with all the efforts that were made, let's say, in the last election, folks still voted. And if -- if people feel engaged enough and have a sense of a stake in our democracy, you know, you will be able to vote.

And, you know, our -- our biggest problem right now is not the misguided efforts of some of these state legislators. Our bigger problem is the one that you alluded to earlier, which is people's skepticism that government, in fact, can make a difference.

Matthews. Yes.

The President. And even in the best of years these days, we still have about 40 percent of the population who is eligible to vote that chooses to opt out. And they're -- they're not being turned away at the polls.

Matthews. OK.

The President. They're turning themselves away from the polls. And -- and that's something that we have got to -- we have got to get at. And young people in particular have a tendency to vote during presidential years, and then just are not excited at all during midterms. These midterm elections, in many ways, are more important, because that's what's going to determine who's in charge of Congress. And you may agree with me or disagree with me, but don't think that it all ends with me. It's also important who's the speaker of the House and who's in charge of the Senate. And I hope young people increasingly understand that.

Matthews. Right. Government dysfunction is now the number one concern, even more than the economy.

The President. Yes.

Matthews. Thank you, Mr. President.We will be right back with a bit more with President Obama here at American University.

You're watching "The HARDBALL College Tour" from American University.

The President. Thank you.

[commercial break]

Matthews. We're back with "The HARDBALL College Tour" at American University. You know, Mr. President, your -- your remarks the other day on economic justice to me, as a Roman Catholic, was so resonant with what the Holy Father, Francis, has been saying.

The President. Right.

Matthews. Talk about that common Judeo-Christian or, even further, Muslim background to the belief we have a social responsibility, a moral responsibility to look out for people who haven't made it in this country.

The President. Yes. Yes. There's no great religion that doesn't speak to this. At root, every great religion has some equivalent of the golden rule, some equivalent of the idea that I am my brother's keeper and my sister's keeper, some notion that, even as we each take individual responsibility for acting in a responsible and righteous way, part of our obligation is to the larger world and to future generations. And, you know, I -- I think Pope Francis is showing himself to be just an extraordinarily thoughtful and soulful messenger of peace and justice. I haven't had a chance to meet him yet, but everything that I have read, everything that I have seen from him indicates the degree to which he is trying to remind us of those core obligations.

And, you know, as I said in my speech yesterday, we live in a market economy that is the greatest generator of wealth in history. We're risk- takers. We're entrepreneurs. And we're rugged individualists. And that's part of what makes us great. That's why we continue to be a magnet for strivers from all around the world, because they think, you know what? I'm not going to be held back by conventions and traditions. And I'm going to go out there and I'm going to make it. And we want to maintain that sense of character. But what I always remind people is that what also built this country was a sense of community and a sense of common endeavor. So, whether it was building the Transcontinental Railroad, or sending a man to the moon, or helping to create the Internet, or curing diseases, we always understood that there are some things we do better together, and that we should take pride as a nation in our ability to work in concert.

And if, in fact, we are helping to assure that that kid over there who's not my kid has a chance at a good education or that guy over there who I'm not related to has a chance at a decent job and a decent retirement, I'm going to be better off. I'm going to be living in a society that is more cohesive and is going to create the kind of future for our kids that we all want.

And that, more than anything, is at the core of the debate that I have been having with the Republican Party over the last several years. It's not just the details of the Affordable Care Act or, you know, the minimum wage, because, as I said yesterday in the speech, look, if you have got better ideas for achieving the same goal, put them out there. I'm not wedded to one particular way of doing things. But the central argument I have is, we do have an obligation to each other. And there's some things we can do together. And, in fact, the big challenges that we have, whether it's immigration, climate change, an economy that works for everybody, improving our education system, making college more affordable, competing in the world economy...

Matthews. Right.

The President. ... dealing with questions of war and peace, those are not things that Chris Matthews or Barack Obama can solve by ourselves.We -- by necessity, we're going to have to do those together. And if we can at least agree on that, and agree that our system of self-government allows us to come together to take on those big problems, then, you know, we can figure out the specific policies and we -- that's where we can compromise and negotiate.

But what I will not compromise on is the idea, for example, we shouldn't have 41 million people in this country without health insurance. That, I won't compromise on. That's where it gets to who are we as a country and my own sense of what my responsibilities are as president of the United States.

Matthews. Well, we're almost done. I have to ask you a little question you may not like to answer.

The President. Oh.

Matthews. This could be tough.

The President. All right.

Matthews. It's an essay question.

The President. OK.

Matthews. The qualities required of a president.

The President. Yes.

Matthews. Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary

Clinton...[laughter] ... compare and contrast.

The President. Not a chance am I going there. [laughter]

Here's what I will say. Both Hillary and Joe would make outstanding presidents and possess the qualities that are needed to be outstanding presidents.They -- and I think Joe Biden will go down in history as one of the best vice presidents ever. And he has been with me at my side in every tough decision that I have made, from going after bin Laden, to dealing with the health care issues, to -- you name it, he's been there.

Hillary, I think, will go down in history as one of the finest secretaries of state we have ever had, and helped to transition us away from a deep hole that we were in when I first came into office, around the world, and to rebuild confidence and trust in the United States.And they've got -- they've got different strengths, but both of them would be outstanding.

I'd say the most important qualities of any president -- I'm not necessarily saying I have these qualities because I'm speaking historically -- I think has to do with more than anything a sense of connection with the American people. That's what allows you then to have that second quality which is persistence. If you know who you're working on behalf of, if you remember as Lincoln did or an FDR did or Truman did or a Kennedy did. If you remember that person that you met who was down on their luck but was a good character and was trying to figure out how they are going to support a family. If you remember that young child who has big dreams but, you know, doesn't yet know how they're going to get to college -- if you feel those folks in your gut every single day, that will get you through the setbacks--

Matthews. Right.

The President. -- and the difficulties and the frustrations and the criticisms that are inherent in the office.

And I think, you know, the interesting thing about now having been president for five years is it makes me humbler as opposed to cockier about what you as an individual can do. You recognize that you're just part of a sweep of history. And your job really is to push the boulder up the hill a little bit before somebody else pushes it up a little further and the task never stops at perfecting our union.

But what makes me more confident than ever is the interactions I have with young people like this all over the country -- who still believe in this country, still are optimistic fundamentally about their futures, are problem-solvers, are practical. The American people are good and they are decent. And yes, sometimes we get very divided partly because our politics, and our media specifically tries to divide them and splinter them. But, you know, we've got so much stuff going for us that as long as any president stays close to the people, I think they're going to do all right.

Matthews. You know, what I always thought was great about what you did in your early political career -- this just my personal observation because I love studying politicians.

The President. Yes.

Matthews. You lost that race in the south side to Bobby Rush.

The President. Yes.

Matthews. And you got in your car and drove out into the burbs with a map next to you in the passenger seat.

The President. Yes.

Matthews. And you said, "I'm going to do this thing."

The President. Yes.

Matthews. How many kids here want to go into politics?

The President. That's a pretty good number.

Matthews. Are they right?

The President. It continues to be a way to serve that I think can be noble. It's hard. It can be frustrating. You got to have a thick skin. And I know it's tempting to say, "You know what? Why would I want to get in the mud like that and get slapped around and subjected to all kinds of scrutiny?"

And so for those people who say, I'd rather serve in other ways through nonprofits or through starting a great business and work with people who are completely on my side all the time instead of trying to undermine what I'm trying to get done, I understand that. And God bless you. That's part of what makes this country great.

You know, we're not completely government-centered. We've got all kinds of folks who are doing great stuff all around the country. But I tell you, the satisfaction you get when you've passed a law or you've taken an executive action and somebody comes up to you and says, "You know what? My kid's alive because you passed that health care bill, because he was uninsured, he got insurance, got a checkup, and we caught a tumor in time." Or you see somebody and they say, "You know, you helped me save my house. And I can't tell you what that means." It's pretty hard to get greater satisfaction than that. And -- so, for those young people who don't mind a little gray hair, it's something that I not only recommend but I'd welcome.

Matthews. On behalf of the people who watch me every night and are loyalists, many of them to you -- thank you for coming on the show.

The President. Great to see you, Chris. Thank you. Thank you.

Barack Obama, Interview with Chris Mathews on MSNBC's "Hardball" at American University Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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