Barack Obama photo

Interview with Savannah Guthrie of NBC's "Today Show"

April 15, 2013

[Broadcast in segments on April 16, 17, & 24]

[Broadcast April 16, 2013]

THE PRESIDENT: I think we've got a good chance of seeing it pass if members of Congress are listening to the American people. So let's just take the example of background checks. 90% of Americans think that we should make it tougher for criminals or people with serious mental illnesses to obtain a gun, and so the notion that Congress would defy the overwhelming instinct of the American people after what we saw happen in Newtown, I think, is unimaginable.

GUTHRIE: You are asking Democrats in conservative states to take a tough vote politically, something you, yourself, did not do. You didn't run on this in 2008 or 2012, not after Tucson, not after Aurora.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that all of us had to reflect on what we did or didn't do after Newtown. If the question is, is this potentially difficult politically because the gun lobby is paying attention and has shown no willingness to budge? Then the answer is yes. That's a given. Now, if the question is, what's the right thing to do and what are the American people believe in overwhelmingly? If that's what's guiding members of Congress during the next couple of weeks, then this will pass.

GUTHRIE: Let's move to North Korea. Is Kim Jong-Un unstable?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm not a psychiatrist, and you know, I don't know the leader of North Korea. What I do know is, is that the actions they've taken, the rhetoric they've engaged in has been provocative. It has been condemned across the board internationally, and it's unnecessary, because what it's done is ironically isolated North Korea further. If they want to rejoin the community of nations, that path is available to them. But they-

GUTHRIE: This is a cycle of provocation for them, as you well know. Is there something qualitatively different about this time?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, this is the same kind of pattern that we saw his father engage in and his grandfather before that. Since I came into office, the one thing I was clear about was we're not going to reward this kind of provocative behavior. You don't get to bang your - your spoon on the table and somehow you get your way.

GUTHRIE: Is this the closest we've been to war with North Korea on your watch?

THE PRESIDENT: You'll recall that North Korea shot down a Korean, South Korean fishing boat, that wasn't just words, that was action, so we've seen this kind of pattern before. I think all of us would anticipate that, you know, North Korea will probably make more provocative moves over the next several weeks, but our hope is, is that we can contain it, and that we can move into a different phase in which they try to work through diplomatically some of these issues so that they can get back on a path where they're actually feeding their people.

GUTHRIE: Does North Korea, in your estimation, have the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile?

THE PRESIDENT: Based on our current intelligence assessments, we do not think they have that capacity, but, you know, we have to make sure that we are dealing with every contingency out there and that's why I've repositioned missile defense systems to guard against any miscalculation on their part.

GUTHRIE: On the budget, is this your last best final offer to Republicans?

THE PRESIDENT: What I tried to do is put forward a budget that I think is a realistic compromise.

GUTHRIE: Would you go farther on entitlement cuts?

THE PRESIDENT: It does not give Republicans everything they want, frankly it doesn't reflect everything that I would like to see. What it does is it puts forward some of the ideas that Republicans had suggested around entitlement reform that I think are reasonable policy.

GUTHRIE: But they say it's not enough and they say it's not enough to make a deal, would you go farther?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that before we go anywhere, right now we've got to see from Republicans what exactly is it that they want to do. I mean, when they say they want to go farther, what do they want to do? What are they putting on the table?

GUTHRIE: By the way, you've got Democrats a little mad at you, too, saying you've cut Social Security and Medicare and now this is going to come back and haunt them in their races.

THE PRESIDENT: Part of what we have to think about, whether we're Democrats or Republicans, is how do we create a system where our social insurance programs, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, are sustainable for the long-term and my budget does that. It makes sure that people in need are cared for, but what it also says is let's make sure that we're not spending it all down now so that the next generation that's paying into the system isn't going to have those same benefits.

GUTHRIE: A lot to talk to the President about, Matt, and of course we sat down with him just a few hours before all of this happened in Boston. So much going on in the news, between the gun legislation, immigration legislation being unveiled, and yet, as we are so often reminded, news events, something like this, changes everything in an instant.

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah, nothing can be predicted now, another big issue, perhaps, on his plate, and I look forward to more of your interview tomorrow, Savannah, here on Today.

[Broadcast April 17, 2013]

GUTHRIE: These families are in the midst of their grief. It's right now. Do you feel personally responsible to them, having started this journey with them?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I feel personally responsible the same way I hope every parent out there feels responsible for all our kids. The key thing for me is every once in a while we are confronted with an issue that should transcend politics. And now is the time for us to take some measure of action that's going to prevent some of these tragedies from happening again.

GUTHRIE: On immigration, do you think this is a once-in-a- generation moment where reform can actually get done? How confident are you that you'll get a bill by the end of the summer?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I'm actually reasonably confident on this one. I think that you've seen great work on a bipartisan basis between Democratic and Republican senators. So if you take that package together, one that's supported by labor, that's supported by business, that's supported by advocacy groups, that's supported by evangelical Christian groups, you know, this is about as broad-based a coalition as you're going to get.

GUTHRIE: Has Marco Rubio, in your estimation, shown political courage?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that he has been a very positive force, as have all the senators who've been involved. And my hope is not only that we are going to end up with an immigration bill that shows that we're a nation of laws and a nation of citizens, that helps our economic growth, that helps us attract incredible talent to our shores, but I also hope that it kind of restarts muscle memory in Congress for getting bipartisan legislation done.

GUTHRIE: Dinner diplomacy. How is your charm offensive going with the Republicans?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't know about my charms, but they've been useful conversations. I think that everybody involved in them has felt like they created some space to talk about areas of agreement and disagreement.

I've always maintained that people are not as polarized, even in this town, as it's portrayed in the media. The political engines of the party and blogs, et cetera, force people into taking more extreme positions publicly than they actually believe privately. I'm willing to try anything. As I said, I'm willing to wash folks' cars and walk their dogs if I can get some legislation passed.

GUTHRIE: Have you been watching the Gosnell trial? It's the Philadelphia abortion doctor accused of gruesome crimes. Are you following it? And do you think it animates a larger debate about abortion in this country?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm familiar with it. I can't comment on it because it's an active trial. What I can say is this. You know, I think President Clinton said it pretty well when he said abortion should be safe, legal and rare. If an individual carrying out an abortion, operating a clinic or doing anything else, is violating medical ethics, violating the law, then they should be prosecuted.

GUTHRIE: Kamala Harris. You had to apologize last week for listing, among her many qualifications, that she was the best-looking attorney general in America. Why did you apologize? Did you really think you did something wrong, or was it blown out of proportion?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, you know, Kamala's a friend of mine. We had been joking off-stage. You know, when I got to the stage, I made the same joke. And obviously, you know, some people, I think, reacted negatively.

Kamala knew where I was coming from. But I do think that it was a useful teaching moment for me and for the country. As the father of two daughters, I want to make sure that they're judged on their merits and not on their appearance. And so, you know, I've got no problem in, you know, people, I think, using what was intended as an innocuous comment to make this larger point that we want to make sure that women are judged, you know, based on the job they do and not how they look.

GUTHRIE: Let me ask you about Jay-Z and Beyonce's trip to Cuba. Were you aware of it ahead of time? And have you seen his open letter, which raps about getting White House clearance?

THE PRESIDENT: I wasn't familiar that they were taking the trip. My understanding is I think they went through a group that organizes these educational trips down to Cuba. This is not something the White House was involved with. We've got better things to do.

GUTHRIE: Last thing. I know you're not endorsing, but do you personally hope that Hillary Clinton runs in 2016?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I think we're very far away from that. But I have said before and I'll say again, I think she was an extraordinary secretary of state. And she became not only a great partner for me in foreign policy, but a good friend. And --

GUTHRIE: Do you miss her around here?

THE PRESIDENT: I do. She's earned her rest. And I know that she's going to be able, whatever she does, to continue to be a leader and an incredibly positive force for the causes I care about and that she cares about all around the world.

[Broadcast April 24, 2013]

GUTHRIE: You'll be in Texas, dedicating or being part of the dedication of the Bush Library. Has your viewpoint changed on him and his legacy as you've now walked these halls and held this job?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I've always thought that President Bush was gracious, he was patriotic. He couldn't have been nicer to my team and my family when we made the transition in. And I always had a good, friendly relationship with him. Obviously, we had some deep disagreements in terms of policy, but there's no doubt that anybody who takes on this job has a greater appreciation for the challenges involved. And it is a humbling job, you know you're going to make some mistakes. You know that there are going to be times where you wish you could roll back the clock.

GUTHRIE: Have to ask you, from the sublime to the ridiculous, Mrs. Obama slipped a little bit a couple weeks ago and accidentally referred to herself as a single mother. And I wonder, did you get a kick out of that, or were you consulting your Freud textbook?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, as somebody who has stumbled over my lines many times, you know, I tend to cut my wife, or anybody, some slack when it comes to just slips of the tongue. But there's no doubt that there have been times where Michelle probably felt like a single mom. I know that before we got here, when we were still, when I was running for the U.S. Senate, when I was running for president, there were times where I wouldn't see her for a week, and she was still working and having to look after the girls. And so there's - she definitely, I think, understands the burdens that women in particular tend to feel if they're both responsible for child rearing and they're responsible for working at the same time.

GUTHRIE: What did you think of her mom dancing? Do you have dad dancing that can give it a run for its money?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, she consistently maintains, and I don't argue with her, that she's a better dancer than me. I think that, you know, now in private--

GUTHRIE: You're a competitive guy?

THE PRESIDENT: I am. And in private, you know, I can bust a move and I think I'm pretty good. But she tends to hold out when it comes to praise of my dancing.

GUTHRIE: I heard a rumor of Gangnam Style around inauguration at the White House. Can you confirm?

THE PRESIDENT: I can confirm that. Fortunately, we destroyed all the tapes.

GUTHRIE: Is there any trend or viral video or music that the girls are into right now that you just don't get?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, the girls have been pretty good about keeping me posted on what's cool and what's not. And we use the - we use the music series here sometimes to invite new artists, just so that I can seem like I'm up to speed on things.

GUTHRIE: If you like it, is it immediately uncool?

THE PRESIDENT: No. Although Michelle and I have used this strategy when it comes to things like tattoos. What we've said to the girls is, if you guys ever decide you're going to get a tattoo, then mommy and me will get the exact same tattoo, in the same place, and we'll go on YouTube and show it off as a family tattoo. And our thinking is that might dissuade them from thinking that somehow that's a good way to rebel.

Barack Obama, Interview with Savannah Guthrie of NBC's "Today Show" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Simple Search of Our Archives