Barack Obama photo

Interview with Glenn Thrush of POLITICO

January 22, 2016

The President: What do we got? We got a half-hour?

Thrush: Yeah.

The President: All right.

Thrush: So, one of the things — thanks for doing this by the way, Mr. President.

The President: Of course.

Thrush: I really appreciate it. One of the things — I've been talking to a bunch of people who were around you in '08, because I went to Iowa and I figured it would be a good idea to speak to the Mitch Stewarts and the Paul Tewes of the world.

The President: Right.

Thrush: And they said, you know, he's been in a really nostalgic mood lately about Iowa, that he's kind of watching this from a distance, you know?

The President: Yeah.

Thrush: Maybe he wants to suit back up and get in the game, right?

The President: [Laughs]

Thrush: Tell me about that. How do you feel about watching this and seeing all this take place?

The President: Well, I've said this before: The caucus process in Iowa was, for me, the most satisfying political period of my career, just in terms of campaigning and politics. And the reason was that it vindicated — in my mind, at least — my view of what politics should be.

You know, when I got to Iowa, right after I announced in '07, I was confident that I could run a really strong campaign, but I think, like most presidential candidates, I wasn't necessarily ready for Broadway. I still remember the first big town hall, and we weren't anticipating sort of the size and the scope and attention of the campaign early. And so suddenly I've got 2,000 people at a town hall and, you know, as I think Plouffe and Axelrod pointed out, I was — my answers were too long.

Thrush: Yeah.

The President: Yeah, I was too wonkish. I wasn't crisp in my presentation, and that was true for a while. But the reason that we ultimately were successful in Iowa was because, despite the flaws of the candidate, we had this unbelievable team of young people ? most of them younger than 30, the vast majority of them younger than 30 ? kids who planted themselves in, you know, small towns all across the state, developed relationships with community leaders and got to know people, and created an infrastructure so that I was able to get to know people in a kind of level of detail you just wouldn't see in other places, and it was all around you.

Thrush: And you also appreciated that kind of— You know, a little bit about my career: I started off covering housing organizing in New York City. So, I understand organizers, right?

The President: Right.

Thrush: You understood organizers, too. You were ridiculed by Republicans for understanding organizers, but organizing is essentially — it's the building block of everything that you accomplished, right?

The President: Absolutely. And these kids were better than I ever was at organizing. And—

Thrush: What? You weren't a great organizer?

The President: Well, I — I wasn't as good as them. You mentioned Tewes and Mitch, those were the senior statesmen of the organization.

Thrush: Right.

The President: But there were people like Emily Purcell, a young woman — she couldn't have been more than 25, 26, and was fearless and ran that thing with the sort of precision that you never saw. And so to see all that work by young, idealistic, but really practical and hardworking kids build a genuine movement and for then to deliver a victory was remarkable, and it also, I think, set the stage for our victories elsewhere and provided a buffer for us when things weren't going well, because it created a culture in which we said, "The candidate may make a gaffe or we may be down in the polls, but this is not just about Barack, this is about us and our commitment to each other and our commitment to the leaders we're working with."

Thrush: And you as a candidate, I mean, like, I remember — I don't think I was in the room, I may have been in the room — when you made that big initial mistake with the "wasted lives" comment [about U.S. soldiers in Iraq] which was what, which the Clinton folks jumped on.

The President: Right, right, right.

Thrush: That was a — what was it like, because you'd done an Illinois state race and you obviously were this growing figure in the country — what was it like to kind of get your butt kicked when you went out there and kind of made some of these mistakes?

The President: You know, I'm not the first presidential candidate, I think, to say that there's nothing like it. The level of scrutiny, the fly-specking, the pace, the endurance that's required—

Thrush: Because you did like 80, 78, 80 days in 2007, right?

The President: Absolutely. So, it's just different.

Thrush: Yeah.

The President: And that's why the organization in Iowa was so important, because when I made a mistake, when, you know, some event didn't break our way, having folks who just kept on plugging gave you confidence. But it also made you resist any kind of whining or self-pity because you're saying to yourself, "I don't have time to complain or feel sorry for myself because that kid over there, they're still knocking on doors and they're still organizing events, and I'm — I'd better deliver for them. And it was a constant buoying of your spirit whenever — you know, it wasn't just me. I think Axelrod and Plouffe and others said the same thing.

Thrush: Oh, yeah.

The President: If you were feeling bad, you went to Iowa for a while and you went to the headquarters and you ate some, you know, old pizza and just talked to these guys and you got fired up all over again.

Thrush: Well, I was there — just there for six days, and I'll tell you, it's a little bit — particularly on the Republican side, I mean, the tenor is just way, way different.

The President: Right.

Thrush: You ever wake up and, you know — you know, your whole campaign was about bringing rationality and comity to the entire process.

The President: Right.

Thrush: You ever wake up and say, "What the hell happened?"

The President: [Laughs] I do. And obviously, I spoke about this at the State of the Union. I am very proud of what we've gotten done over these last seven years, and I am excited about what we can do this last year. A singular regret for me is the fact that our body politic has become more polarized, the language, the spirit has become meaner than when I came in. And, you know, some of it just has to do with some long-term trends that have accelerated in terms of how the media has balkanized, gerrymandering, you know, super PACS. But my bet — and I may end up being wrong about this ? my bet is that the candidate who can project hope still is the candidate who the American people, over the long term, will gravitate towards. And early on in these — in a campaign season, defining yourself by what you're not is the fastest way to consolidate a base.

Thrush: Right.

The President: But when you start getting later into the process, people want somebody who can give them an optimistic vision about where the country is going to be.

Thrush: The events I was at in Iowa, the candidate who seems to be delivering that now is Bernie Sanders.

The President: Yeah.

Thrush: I mean, when you watch this, what do you — do you see any elements of what you were able to accomplish in what Sanders is doing?

The President: Well, there's no doubt that Bernie has tapped into a running thread in Democratic politics that says: Why are we still constrained by the terms of the debate that were set by Ronald Reagan 30 years ago? You know, why is it that we should be scared to challenge conventional wisdom and talk bluntly about inequality and, you know, be full-throated in our progressivism? And, you know, that has an appeal and I understand that.

I think that what Hillary presents is a recognition that translating values into governance and delivering the goods is ultimately the job of politics, making a real-life difference to people in their day-to-day lives. I don't want to exaggerate those differences, though, because Hillary is really idealistic and progressive. You'd have to be to be in, you know, the position she's in now, having fought all the battles she's fought and, you know, taken so many, you know, slings and arrows from the other side. And Bernie, you know, is somebody who was a senator and served on the Veterans' Committee and got bills done. And so the—

Thrush: But it sounds like you're not buying the — you're not buying the sort of, the easy popular dichotomy people are talking about, where he's an analog for you and she is herself?

The President: No. No.

Thrush: You don't buy that, right?

The President: No, I don't think — I don't think that's true. I think that what is — you know, if you look at both of them, I think they're both passionate about giving everybody a shot. I think they're both passionate about kids having a great education. I think they want to make sure everybody has health care. I think that they both believe in a tax system that is fair and not tilted towards, you know, the folks at the very top. But, you know, they — I think Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete longshot and just letting loose.

I think Hillary came in with the — both privilege and burden of being perceived as the frontrunner. And, as a consequence, you know, where they stood at the beginning probably helps to explain why the language sometimes is different.

Thrush: I'm sorry. Do you feel like it's a little bit unfair to her, to some extent, the way this has been stacked?

The President: Yeah ? well, yes. But I think that Hillary is tough and she has been through this before and she could anticipate it. If you are a frontrunner, then you are under more scrutiny and everybody is going to pick you apart. And if you're--

Thrush: And by "everybody" in '08, you meant you.

The President: Well —well, but I —but if you think about it, after I won Iowa then suddenly things are flipped.

Thrush: That's right.

The President: And I go to New Hampshire and, "Oh, Obama is looking kind of cocky. We need to knock him down to"— and the voters themselves start doing that because they're saying to themselves—

Thrush: That's [former Obama adviser David] Axelrod's theory of the case there.

The President: Absolutely.

Thrush: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

The President: You know, the — I still remember that day we lost Iowa — well, the one time that our data was completely wrong is the only time in the entire campaign where we were just way off. Polls had us up 10.

Thrush: Right.

The President: Internal polls had us up 10, and we got beat soundly.

Thrush: Right.

The President: And I remember saying to those guys, "You know what? This is probably a good thing. This is how our democracy should work, because some untested kid should not be able to just win one caucus and suddenly he's the nominee." And the voters, in their wisdom, said, "You know what? We've got to run this guy through the paces a little bit." And the press did the same thing. And so you end up having that kind of process.

Thrush: And that's where Ber — you know, and Bernie, of course, is an untested 74-year-old kid, right?

The President: Yeah, yeah.

Thrush: So, to what extent do you think it's appropriate for that process to be aimed at him right now?

The President: Well, he hasn't won anything yet.

Thrush: Right.

The President: I think that there's always just a rhythm to this thing. I think that if Bernie won Iowa or won New Hampshire, then you guys are going to do your jobs and, you know, you're going to dig into his proposals and how much they cost and what does it mean, and, you know, how does his tax policy work and he's subjected, then, to a rigor that hasn't happened yet, but that Hillary is very well familiar with. And—

Thrush: The rigor of absorbing that or the rigor of imposing that upon an opposing candidate? Because she was very — because one of the things that's striking — and so, one of the things that was really striking being out there in Iowa...

The President: Right.

Thrush: ...was — and I was with her for 18 months in 2007 and 2008.

The President: Right, right.

Thrush: It was the Bataan Death March.

The President: Right.

Thrush: So, being with her, the same pointed tone in terms of the criticism is emerging on Sanders — it's practically the same language. It's really interesting.

The President: Right, right.

Thrush: Did that work? Do you think it will work, in terms of drawing contrasts?

The President: Well, here's my view: that whoever the nominee is is going to need the other person's supporters. And I think it is entirely legitimate to draw sharp contrasts where there are contrasts and it is important, however, to maintain a tone in which people feel as if you're playing fair. And I think Hillary has done that so far, and I think that the truth is in 2007 and 2008, sometimes my supporters and my staff, I think, got too huffy about what were legitimate questions she was raising. And, you know, there were times where I think the media probably was a little unfair to her and tilted a little my way in the — in calling her out when she was tough and not calling some of our folks out as much when we were tough in ads. So—

Thrush: So that famous thing — like, on the Saturday Night Live thing, where she was — you know, that great skit that she — that her — remember that thing, where she pushed that around?

The President: Yeah. Yeah. I think — look, I've gotten to know Hillary really well, and she is a good, smart, tough person who cares deeply about this country, and she has been in the public eye for a long time and in a culture in which new is always better. And, you know, you're always looking at the bright, shiny object that people don't, haven't seen before. That's a disadvantage to her. Bernie is somebody who —although I don't know as well because he wasn't, obviously, in my administration, has the virtue of saying exactly what he believes, and great authenticity, great passion, and is fearless. His attitude is, "I got nothing to lose."

Thrush: Right.

The President: "I"— you know, "I'm here to help move the country forward." And so I think it's a healthy dynamic. So, to me, the relevant contrast is not between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, but relevant contrast is between Bernie and Hillary and Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and the vision that they're portraying for the country and where they want to take us and how they think about everything from tax policy to immigration to foreign policy, and that gap is as wide as I've ever seen. You know, you think about it.

Thrush: Right.

The President: When I ran against John McCain, John McCain and I had real differences, sharp differences, but John McCain didn't deny climate science. John McCain didn't call for banning Muslims from the United States. You know, John McCain was a conservative, but he was well within, you know, the mainstream of not just the Republican Party but within our political dialogue. And that's where, ultimately, any voter is going to have to pay attention is the degree to which the Republican rhetoric and Republican vision has moved not just to the right but has moved to a place that is unrecognizable.

Thrush: Where does it end? I mean, the thing — you know, you were about civility in, you know, your first inaugural [address], I recall. This — where does it — what do you think this Trump thing really means, and where do you think it ends, and how do you think it stops?

The President: Well, my hope — not just for me or the Democratic Party but for the Republican Party and for America ? is that this is an expression of frustration, anger that folks like Trump and, to some degree, Cruz are exploiting. It's real within the Republican Party and the Republican base, but that after this venting, Republican voters will settle down and say, "Who do we want actually sitting behind the desk, making decisions that are critical to our future?"

And I've always said I want a healthy, two-party system where there's vigorous debate but both parties are contributing to a constructive vision of the country and help us make progress. And it will be interesting to watch, during the course of this campaign, whether or not Republican voters steer back towards the center.

Thrush: Do you watch these debates, these Republican debates, at all?

The President: I don't. And — but look, you know, I, as you know, didn't like participating in many of these debates.

Thrush: I know, yes.

The President: And so, if I didn't enjoy watching my own, I certainly am not going to watch the Republican debates, only because the format, for me, has always felt so...

Thrush: You hate them.

The President: ...artificial.

Thrush: Yeah, yeah.

The President: They're just — they're performance art as opposed to talking about stuff. They're useful in the sense of seeing how somebody performs. And you know what? Some of the presidency is performance. And I've been criticized, probably in some cases fairly, for not effectively, you know, promoting my ideas.

Thrush: Have you thought about that, about sort of using the — because, you know, in the last quarter you've changed your — not changed your view, but you've intensified use of executive power.

The President: Yeah.

Thrush: [Former White House adviser John] Podesta came in here and talked with you about that a bit.

The President: Right.

Thrush: Do you feel some regret about not, kind of, using the full bully pulpit of the presidency? Because you were skeptical of it. You didn't like the pageantry, right?

The President: Well, those are two different things, though.

Thrush: Yeah.

The President: I mean, the executive actions have always, in my view, been important to use once the legislative process has exhausted itself. You know, even if the Supreme Court upholds my authority on the immigration changes that we've made, they're reversible by a future president in a way that a legislative fix is not. And so I've always held out for trying to solve things through Congress, and, you know, we have used executive actions because Congress has been dysfunctional.

In terms of using the bully pulpit, I cut myself some slack in the first couple of years because people tend to forget we were really busy.

Thrush: It was scary.

The President: There was a lot of work.

Thrush: Right.

The President: And I didn't oftentimes have the luxury of a six-month run-up and then a two-month or three-month victory lap because, you know, "You saved the auto industry? All right. What's the next thing?" You know, "We're doing OK with bin Laden, well, we've still got to come up with a plan for how we're stabilizing Afghanistan." So, it was just — the pace of it was remarkable. What is true is that I've gained a greater appreciation for the need to tailor a communications strategy to a new era in which people are not just watching three network news shows. And I think we've gotten much better at it than we were, and I wish that I had adapted the White House communications operation and my own ways of presenting things to reach people more effectively sooner.

Thrush: Which is interesting, because in 2008, you seemed to be really on the vanguard of that stuff. Things moved really fast, yeah.

The President: Going back to Iowa, there's no doubt that we were early adapters of everything and part of that was I had a bunch of twenty-somethings who were already using stuff that I had never heard of.

Thrush: But you — do you miss, I mean, do you miss sort of the vitality of that period of time? Clearly, you're in a much different place. Is that part of this, the fact that this was a time where you were just closer to the ground and there was more vitality?

The President: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, look — now, it's ? everything in retrospect always looks great if, you know, if you were successful. And remembering endless van rides through cornfields, hungry, tired, going to my sixth event and making phone calls to either raise money or to talk to some caucus-goer who, you know, was — didn't really want to talk to me, but, you know, my team said I had to call.

Thrush: Like the girl on the ? like the girl you called who was like—

The President: The classic story where the girl who's a high-school junior and says, "I can't talk to you right now because I'm in a yearbook meeting." You know, there was a lot of ? there was a lot of pain and frustration there.

Thrush: I was — look, I was on the other bus, and we had candidate envy, right?

The President: Yeah.

Thrush: Because we'd ride around and we'd see the lines wrapping around your venue...

The President: Yeah.

Thrush: ...and we'd be like, 'This was not all that great.'

The President: [Laughs]

Thrush: When you were looking across — well, first of all, have you ever talked to Hillary about Iowa? Have you ever compared notes or given her a little sense of what you might want to do?

The President: Yeah, we've had a conversation broadly about the importance of a Democrat winning. And I've had conversations with Bernie about, you know, issues that he's interested in or concerned about. I have not been trying to, you know, kibitz and, you know, stick my nose into every aspect of their strategy.

Thrush: But you were pretty good. I don't think anybody knows it better than you.

The President: No. And look, if anybody asks me for my opinion on something, I'm happy to offer it. But I think they'll ? I think they'll be fine. There's an organic process that takes place. Iowa is quirky. Because it's a caucus, it is unlike any other election process during the primary. It's the first. People take great pride in it. Folks in Iowa are more educated and involved on the issues than the average. And so, my suspicion is, is that you could coach anybody on the outlines of it, but you've got to be there, and the map is not going to be the territory.

But just going back to what I said earlier, because I want to make sure I finish this thought: For all the pain and frustration of, you know, that kind of grassroots politics, and acknowledging that there's a certain amount of nostalgia and looking back at it through rose-colored glasses, when I reflect on Iowa, what is absolutely true is that I had the great privilege of talking directly to my fellow citizens about where this country needs to go, and they took it seriously, and the young people who were working for me believed in it passionately. And [on] caucus night, when I saw all those people streaming into our local high school ? some of them Edwards supporters, Biden supporters, Hillary supporters — even before I knew the results, it felt to me like the best example of what democracy should be. And that spirit was true, and the fact that we were a part of that, I continue to be really proud of.

Thrush: Last question, and it's more prosaic, unfortunately: When you were watching her across the line — when you were competing against her, because you guys had an incredibly unique set of interactions, did you — did she get better in Iowa? What did you sort of see about her as a candidate that really stuck, both in terms of her — and I'll ask it in two ways ? in terms of her vulnerabilities and her assets? What were her vulnerabilities, what were her assets when you first encountered her there?

The President: Well, look, as I've said before, I think that, like any candidate, her strengths can be her weaknesses. Her strengths, which are the fact that she's extraordinarily experienced ? and, you know, wicked smart and knows every policy inside and out ? sometimes could make her more cautious and her campaign more prose than poetry, but those are also her strengths. It means that she can govern and she can start here, [on] day one, more experienced than any non-vice president has ever been who aspires to this office. Her strengths, in terms of the ability to debate, the ability to, I think, project genuine concern in smaller groups and to interact with people, where folks realize she's really warm and funny and engaging—

Thrush: Do you think being secretary of state for a while made it a little difficult in order for her to get back and transition to where she was?

The President: Well, look, you're always rusty when you start going back in.

Thrush: Yeah.

The President: Look at my first debate in 2012, right? If you haven't been doing it, you know, you lose some of those muscles. But the other thing that I'll always remember is the sheer strength, determination, endurance, stick-to-it-ness, never-give-up attitude that Hillary had during those primaries. I mean, we had as competitive and lengthy and expensive and tough primary fight as there has been in modern American politics, and she had to do everything that I had to do, except, like Ginger Rogers, backwards in heels. She had to wake up earlier than I did because she had to get her hair done. She had to, you know, handle all the expectations that were placed on her. She had a tougher job throughout that primary than I did and, you know, she was right there the entire time and, had things gone a little bit different in some states or if the sequence of primaries and caucuses been a little different, she could have easily won.

Thrush: How personally gratifying for you would it be to have the first female president succeed the first African-American president?

The President: Well, I — my No. 1 priority is having a Democratic president succeed me, and I think there's no doubt that, given our history, I want more women in politics generally, and I want my daughters to feel that there's nothing that they can't do. I don't think that Democrats are going to vote for Hillary just because she's a woman any more than they're going to vote for Bernie just because they agree with him on one particular issue. I think, you know, voters are pretty sophisticated. They're going to take all these things into account. I am proud of the fact that the Democratic Party represents today the breaking down of all sorts of barriers and a belief that you judge people on what they bring to the table and not what they look like or who they love or their last name. As I said at the State of the Union, that's a value that's central to my identity. It's central to my belief of what America is all about, and the good news is that we've got a couple of candidates and a third, Martin O'Malley, who subscribes to that.

Thrush: Right.

The President: So...

Thrush: This really will be—

The President: All right?

Thrush: Really, one last one: The ? when you were coming into this, you were a fairly inexperienced senator in...

The President: Yeah.

Thrush: 2007 and 2008, but you spoke about a whole multiplicity of issues. Bernie Sanders, part of his virtue and why he's got the zeitgeist right now [is] he's really narrowly focused on one thing.

The President: Yeah.

Thrush: Do you think he needs to be a more rounded candidate?

The President: Well, you know, I don't want to play political consultant because obviously what he's doing is working.

Thrush: Right.

The President: I will say that the longer you go in the process, the more you're going to have to pass a series of hurdles that the voters are going to put in front of you, because the one thing everybody understands is that [with] this job right here, you don't have the luxury of just focusing on one thing.

You know, you'll recall I was sitting at my desk there just a little over a week ago writing my convention speech — or my State of the Union speech, and somebody walks in and says, "A couple of our sailors wandered into Iranian waters." That's maybe a dramatic example but not an unusual example of the job.

Thrush: All right.

The President: So... All right?

Thrush: Thank you very much, Mr. President.

The President: Great to talk to you.

Thrush: Great to talk to you, too.

The President: All right. Good luck with the dog, all right?

Thrush: Thank you.

Barack Obama, Interview with Glenn Thrush of POLITICO Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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