Barack Obama photo

Interview with John Dickerson of CBS's "Face the Nation"

July 24, 2016

Dickerson: Mr. President, when Donald Trump spoke to his convention, he talked about the security threat. He talked -- he painted a very dark picture. Now there's been a terrorist attack in Germany.

The President: Right.

Dickerson: Doesn't that suggest he's right about the darkness?

The President: No, it doesn't.

Terrorism is a real threat. And nobody knows that better than me. I have been spending most of my days over the last seven-and-a- half years coordinating our intelligence, our military, our diplomatic efforts to crush organizations like al Qaeda and now ISIL.

It is going to be an ongoing threat for some time. But what we have been able to do, I think, is to build coalitions with other countries to make sure that, rather than have 180,000 troops overseas fighting a non-state actor, that we have got special forces and intelligence assets and local partners, and ISIL is being defeated in Syria and Iraq.

But we're going to have circumstances in which small cells, individuals are going to be able to do some harm to innocent people. And we have got to do everything we can to prevent it.

One of the best ways of preventing it is making sure that we don't divide our own country, that we don't succumb to fear, that we don't sacrifice our values, and that we send a very strong signal to the world and to every American citizen that we're in this together.

Dickerson: Explain how we would sacrifice our values specifically by being divided.

The President. Well, look, if we start engaging in the kinds of proposals that we have heard from Mr. Trump or some of his surrogates, like Mr. Gingrich, where we start suggesting that we would apply religious tests to who could come in here, that we are screening Muslim-Americans differently than we would others, then we are betraying that very thing that makes America exceptional and that, by the way, has helped to insulate us from some of the worst, you know, patterns of terrorist attacks, because the Muslim-American here -- community here feels deeply American and deeply committed to upholding the rule of law and working with law enforcement and rejecting intolerance and extremism that's represented by the perversions of Islam that ISIL is sending out to the Internet or carrying out in the Middle East.

But that requires leaders, political leaders, religious leaders, business leaders, all of us, to send a very clear signal that we are not going to be divided in that fashion. And I think the kinds of rhetoric that we have heard too often from Mr. Trump and others is ultimately helping to do ISIL's work for us.

Dickerson: He was the chief birther in America, questioning whether you -- what is it -- what's your reaction to fact that he's the nominee of the Republican Party?

The President. Well, I think it says something about what's happened to the Republican Party over the course of the last eight, 10, 15 years.

If you think about what a Bob Dole or a Jim Baker or a Howard Baker or a Dick Lugar or a Colin Powell stood for, now, they were conservative. They were concerned about limited government and balancing budgets and making sure we had a strong defense, but they also understood that our system of government requires compromise, that Democrats weren't the enemy, that the way our government works requires us to listen to each other.

And that's not the kind of politics that we have seen practiced, I think, all too often.

Dickerson: Do you think the majority of the American people feel safe, that the world is safer after...

The President. Well, I think, right now, we have gone through a really tough month, and that happens sometimes.

We have had a terrorist attack in Orlando, although it does not appear externally motivated, but a deranged man killing scores of people. You have had the tragedies that happened in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, police officers targeted both in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and the senseless violence that took place in Nice.

And if that's what you're consuming, that's what you're seeing on a day-to-day basis for the last month, I think it's understandable that people are concerned.

What I think is important for leaders to do is to let the American people know they are right to be concerned. We have got to make sure that our police officers are protected in a very tough job, that our criminal justice system operates the way it should and without bias, that we're doing everything we can to go after terrorists.

But it's also important for the American people to remember that our crime rate in this country is much lower than it was in the '80s or the '90s or when I first took office, that immigration rates are substantially lower than they were when Ronald Reagan was president, that, as serious as these terrorist attacks are, the fact of the matter is, is that the American people are significantly more safe now than they were before all the work that we have done since 9/11.

And so maintaining that perspective, I think, is absolutely critical, and trying to fan fears simply to score political points, I think, is not in the best interests of the American people.

Dickerson: You had a very strong reaction to Donald Trump's criticism of you for not using the phrase radical Islam.

But, in 2008, when you were a candidate for president, you did use the term radical Islam. Why did you stop?

The President. You know, this is an interesting example of where something that shouldn't be an issue gets magnified.

The fact of the matter is, is that I have never been politically -- or particularly concerned with the phrase. What I have been more concerned about is, how do we stop violent extremists from killing us?

The reason that I haven't used the particular phrase "radical Islam" on a regular basis is because, in talking to Muslim allies, in talking to the Muslim-American community here, that was being heard as if we were ascribing to crazy groups like ISIL or al Qaeda the mantle of Islam.

And since we need them as allies, I think it's useful for us to listen to how the president of the United States' words and messages are being received, because, if we're going to defeat those organizations, we need help from the billion-plus Muslims in this world, so that they can help root out this perversion of Islam that's taking place.

Dickerson: Speaking of allies, Donald Trump had a response and a view about NATO. He said, if one the Baltic nations were attacked, that he might not defend unless they were paying their dues.

Now, you have talked about free-riders...

The President. Yes.

Dickerson: ... countries that rely on U.S. defense without pulling their share.

So, why aren't those similar thoughts, if not playing out a little differently, but it's the same thought? OBAMA: Well, I think that anybody who has been paying attention knows there is a big difference between challenging our European allies to keep up their defense spending, particularly at a time when Russia has been more aggressive, and saying to them, you know what, we might not abide by the central tenet of the most important alliance in the history of the world, one that was built by Democrats and Republicans and has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II.

And for Mr. Trump, who has in the past suggested that America is weak and not looking out for its allies, to then maybe not have enough information or understanding, to go out and say that America might not stand by its solemn commitment to protect those same allies who stood with us after 9/11 when we were attacked, I think, is an indication of the lack of preparedness that he's been displaying when it comes to foreign policy.

Dickerson: Switching topics to talk about race in America, you wrote a book about race and identity in America.

If you were a young man now growing up in America, how would that book be different?

The President. Well, you know, it's a great question.

In some ways, I'm able to see it through the eyes of my daughters. Now, obviously, they have got a unique circumstance, having grown up in the White House. So, they're in no way typical of black kids or Latino kids, or other ethnic minorities around the country.

But, in some ways, I would be more optimistic. I look at the way in which my daughters take for granted their right to aspire to anything. And I think about the way, in their interactions with their white friends, they have a common culture and a common language and common perspectives that were far more segregated even when I was growing up, and that wasn't that long ago.

So, in a lot of ways, I would feel more hopeful. Ironically, I think precisely because things have gotten better, what I have heard from younger African-Americans is more shock about the images and the videos from Minnesota or Baton Rouge.

And what I have had to say to them is that, you know, these issues are not new. They have been there and come up periodically for quite some time. What's new is smartphones and videos. And this actually gives us a greater opportunity to try to tackle these problems.

[end videotape]

Dickerson: President Obama discusses his relationship with Hillary Clinton when we come back.

[commercial break]

[begin videotape]

Dickerson: I want to talk to you about the skills that it takes to be president.

The President. Yes.

Dickerson: In about 72 hours recently, you had to grieve in Dallas with the families of the five police officers, you had to monitor a terrorist attack in Nice, you also had to monitor a coup attempt and then what people are calling a purge in Turkey.

Given that that's what a president has to deal with, what attributes should we be looking for in the candidates who are running for president to handle those kinds of days?

The President. Well, let's start off with the fact that I'm biased.

Dickerson: Sure.

The President. Right?

Dickerson: But you're a man of reason. So, you will be able to make the case...[crosstalk]

The President. So, I think I will try to be as objective as I can.

And I have thought about this. You know, the first thing I think the American people should be looking for is somebody that can build a team and create a culture that knows how to organize and move the ball down the field.

And the reason for that is, because no matter how good you are as president, you are overseeing two million people and a trillion dollar-plus budget, and the largest organization on Earth. And you can't do it all by yourself. And so you are reliant on really talented, hardworking, skilled people, and making sure they're all moving in the same direction, and doing it without drama, and not worrying as much about who is getting credit, and creating all those good habits inside of an organization that I think are critical.

The second thing I think a president needs is a sense of discipline, personal discipline, in terms of doing your homework and knowing your subject matter, and being able to stay focused, helping to make sure that the team in the White House is disciplined, because you are responding constantly to unexpected events. And you have got to be able to just work those through in rapid, effective fashion, but also not lose track of your overall goals.

The third is, you need vision about where you want to take the country, and you have got to know ahead of time enough about the economy and foreign policy and American history and, you know, our system of government, so that, when you stake out a vision that we need more economic equality in this country, you're just not making assertions. You're actually able to drive policy forward to achieve the vision.

And then the final thing is, you have to really care about the American people, not in the abstract, not as boilerplate, but you have to really every single day want to do your best for them, because, if you don't have that sense grounding you, you will be buffeted and blown back and forth by polls and interest groups and voices whispering in your heads, and you will lose your center of gravity. You will lose your moral compass.

But if you really are here because, man, that -- I want the make sure that woman who is working really hard is getting paid a decent wage, I rally want that family with a sick kid to make sure they're not losing their home, then, even when things go bad -- and there are going to be times in this job where things go bad -- you have a frame of reference. You know why you're doing it.

And that means also that you can push through and do some things that may not be politically popular initially.

Dickerson: In 2008, a lot of your supporters said, look at the way he ran his campaign. If he runs the presidency like his campaign, he's going to be in good shape.

Why isn't that true for Donald Trump, who has run a pretty remarkable campaign, beating 16 other politicians?

The President. Well, in 2008, I don't think they were referring merely to the fact that I had won.

I think they were referring to the fact that we built a really good team. We were really well-organized. We were -- we had a great culture that -- that there was no whiff of scandal to how we approached getting elected. We told the truth.

So, there were a bunch of things that hopefully showed the kind of White House I would run. And I think we have been pretty consistent in doing that.

I do think that the body of work of a person matters. And I would say that -- and I have said this before -- I will say again, since you opened this line of questioning -- I generally believe that there has never been a candidate better prepared for the presidency than Hillary Clinton.

Dickerson: Not Eisenhower, not George Herbert Walker Bush? Those were pretty...

The President. Well, I said more prepared. I didn't say that they were, you know, chopped liver.

I mean, you know, heading up the Allied forces is pretty good training for the presidency. And I'm huge admirers of both Eisenhower and Herbert Walker Bush. In fact, I think that George H.W. Bush is one of the most underrated presidents we have had. I think he was and is a really good man. But the skill sets that Hillary has are similar to many of the skill sets that they had, experience in government, experience in working with a wide range of people, solving big, difficult problems, familiarity with the world.

You know, the truth is, is that Hillary and I have become friends, but we're not bosom buddies. We don't go vacationing together. I think that I have got a pretty clear-eyed sense of both her strengths and her weaknesses.

And what I would say would be that this is somebody who knows as much about domestic and foreign policy as anybody, is tough as nails, is motivated by what's best for America and ordinary people, understands that, in this democracy that we have, things don't always happen as fast as we'd like, and it requires compromise and grinding it out.

She's not always flashy, and there are better speechmakers, but she knows her stuff. And more than anything, that is what is ultimately required to do a good job in this office.

[end videotape]

Dickerson: We will have more of our interview in our next half- hour.

Stay with us.

[commercial break]

Dickerson: Welcome back to FACE THE NATION.

We continue our conversation with President Obama, picking up where we left off, talking about Hillary Clinton.

[begin videotape]

Dickerson: You built a team at the beginning. And you were really clear about transparency.

The President. Yes.

Dickerson: You were going to change the White House and the...

The President. Yes.

Dickerson: -- to be transparent...

The President. Right.

Dickerson: -- to send a message to the country, who felt let down by people.

The President. Right.

Dickerson: She set up an email server that was neither in the spirt or the letter of that transparency. That's no small thing based on what you told everybody about transparency at the beginning?

The President. Right. And I -- and I think that she would acknowledge she made a mistake. But what I also think is true is is that if you've been in the public eye for decades at the highest levels of scrutiny, folks are going to find some mistakes you make. I've made mistakes. I don't know any president or public official at her level who aren't going to look back and say I should have done something like that differently.

But what I would also say is that the consistency with which she has devoted her life to trying to make sure that kids get health care and a good education, and that, you know, families are getting a fair break if they're working hard and that America upholds its best traditions of foreign policy, on the big stuff, she's gotten it right.

Dickerson: But if you make mistakes, you've got to admit them quick and be -- come clean.

The President. Well...

Dickerson: You -- you said that about the -- your -- the Reverend Wright. You gave -- you said afterwards, you said, you know what, we learned, you've got to get this done and you've got to...

The President. Yes. Ultimately, government is a human enterprise. You know, none of us are perfect. And this job, by definition, leader of the free world, the president of the United States of America, the -- the most powerful country and wealthiest country and most influential country in the history of the world, it's a big job. And it -- it has gotten more and more complicated and the speed and the pace at which you're moving is different.

And if you think about now that we know our history, about the errors of even our greatest presidents, of FDR or JFK or Ronald Reagan or Harry Truman, then what you realize is that ultimately, each of us who occupy this office, including me, are going to, in some ways, in some areas, fall short of the ideal. And I promise you, if you occupy this job long enough, you're -- you're acutely aware of it. You're -- you're painfully aware. And there aren't -- there isn't a day where I don't say to myself I wish I could have done this just a little better. I -- I wish I could explain to the American people this issue just a -- a little bit more effectively. I wish that I had some perfect scheme that could bring about an end to the -- the crisis of Syria quicker so that -- be -- because I'm seeing the consequences of events that are unfolding all around the world.

But what keeps you going is the fact that you're doing your best, that you -- you are re--- you have put together a team of people that could not be working harder or be smarter or more effective and what you also know is is that, at the end of the day, our democracy works because it's not reliant just on one person, but it's a -- it's a process of self-government where we're all involved in making things a little bit better.

Dickerson: FDR and Lincoln were both talented at letting both sides of an issue think that they agreed with both of them. [laughter]

Dickerson: Is honesty overrated as a presidential quality?

The President. It's interesting. I actually think that honesty is not overrated. I think it is absolutely necessary, because the trust you have with the American people is a currency that can get depleted and it's hard to build back up.

What I also believe, though, is that the issues we deal with are so complicated and trying to move all the pieces together to -- to move this huge ocean liner that is the U.S. government means that sometimes holding your tongue, sometimes letting things play themselves out, knowing not just when to act, but also to -- when to hold back and -- and see how things are playing out so that you can pick and choose the time to do what needs to be done, because the moment may not be right yet.

You know, those -- those things, I think, are a matter of feel. You know, Lincoln and FDR were masters at it. You know, I'm not in -- in their league, but hopefully, after seven and a half years, I've gotten a little better at it.

Dickerson: What's the one piece of advice that you're predecessor gave you that worked, that was really useful?

The President. Well, first of all, George W. Bush, despite, you know, obviously, very different political philosophies, is a -- is a really good man and -- and has been very gracious to me, and Laura has been gracious to Michelle and the whole family has been terrific.

Probably two useful pieces of -- of advice.

The first piece of advice was trust yourself. And know that ultimately, regardless of the day to day news cycles and the noise, that the American people need their president to succeed, regardless of political party, which I thought was very generous of him.

The second piece of advice is always use Purell hand sanitizer, because if you don't, you're going to get a lot of -- a lot of colds, because you're shocking a lot of hands.

Dickerson: And news you can use.

The President. Absolutely.

Dickerson: Thanks, Mr. President.

The President. Thanks. I enjoyed it.

[end videotape]

Dickerson: We also visited the Oval Office while we were at the White House Friday. That's coming up.

[commercial break]

Dickerson: During our visit to the Oval Office, the president gave us his thoughts about leaving office.

[begin videotape]

Dickerson: So you're ready to -- you're ready to go when it's time.

The President. Yes. I -- you know, one of the things that I've -- I've come to realize is the wisdom of George Washington and the founders that, you know, for the health of our democracy, having some turnover, having some fresh legs come in, having -- are really important.

I feel as if I'm a better president than I've ever been, that the experience has made me sharper, clearer about how to get stuff done. My team is operating at a -- a peak level and, you know, we -- we're really proud of what we're going to do and we're going to run through the tape, but I also think it's really important for self-governance and democracy that we go through this -- this process and I'm able to turn over the keys.

Dickerson: Do you walk in here and think like, OK, another day is gone off the calendar, the days are dwindling...

The President. Yes.

Dickerson: -- that we've got to -- we've got to move fast, because time is passing?

The President. There is a strong sense of urgency and I have no doubt that on the last day, as I'm, you know, leaving this office for the final time, that there's going to be some melancholy and nostalgia, particularly about the people that I've -- I've worked with here.

But frankly, on a day to day basis, you're so busy you don't have a lot of time for that kind of reflection. I think that comes after you're -- you're gone.

Dickerson: On the last day, what are you going to do?

Are you going to go look at the Remington?

Are you going to look at the hopper?

What are you going to -- what, for you, in this room, is -- "The Emancipation Proclamation" is no longer here...

The President. Yes, that's not -- that's not here any longer. I will tell you that I'll probably look at the carpet, because I still remember, it took us a couple of years to actually get the thing in. We didn't want to remodel in the middle of a recession, even though that's the tradition.

But I still remember thinking about those quotes that we were quoting from Teddy Roosevelt and JFK and Martin Luther King and -- you know, I'll probably wonder whether -- whether I did everything I could to stay true to those quotes. And, hopefully, I'll be able to say yes.

Dickerson: Do you feel that's true?

In the Martin Luther King quote, which you -- I believe was in your acceptance speech on election night...

The President. Yes.

Dickerson: -- in Chicago.

The President. Yes.

Dickerson: Is that quote true?

The President. Yes.

Dickerson: [inaudible] even remind...

The President. Yes.

Dickerson: -- people what that quote is.

The President. Well, the -- that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. And I believe that it does.

One of the things I always tell my staff is that, you know, we're here for such a short time in history. And we never are going to get done everything we believe should get done. In that sense, we're relay runners. And we do our part. We run a good race.

But even during this eight year period, this eight year stretch, which, in human history, is the blink of an eye, 20 million people have health insurance that don't -- that didn't have it before. And same-sex couples can get married in all 50 states. You know, families who saw their loved ones struck down on 9/11 know that justice was delivered to bin Laden. Companies and families are a little more financially secure because we didn't go into a great re--- a depression.

And, you know, the accumulation of work that we've done moved the needle. It didn't revolutionize the country, but it bent that arc. And, you know, my job is to make sure that when I leave this place, America is a little bit better off and it will be up to the next person to continue that process and I'll have a role to play as citizen in making sure that that arc keeps bending toward justice, because it doesn't do it on its own.

Dickerson: And we'll be right back with our political panel.

Barack Obama, Interview with John Dickerson of CBS's "Face the Nation" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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