Barack Obama photo

Interview with the First Lady and Charlie Rose of CBS News

July 12, 2012

Rose. Not a bad place to live.

The President. You know, it is gorgeous and –

The First Lady. It's got a great day –

The President. The humidity went down a little bit for you, Charlie.

Rose. Well, you got a basketball court. You got a tennis court. You got a fountain.

The President. Yes.

Rose. You can see the Washington Monument.

The President. Yes I just always remind our kids this is rental housing.

The First Lady. Right.

The President. We — the American people have loaned us this for a — for a little bit.

Rose. A year or five years, we'll see.

The First Lady. Yes. And our goal is to take good care of it.

Rose. Yes.

The President. Yes.

The First Lady. So we can hand it over to the next administration in four more years.

Rose. How are the things you're planning — how are the things that you're planning coming out?

The First Lady. They're going great, I mean our garden –

Rose. She's got a green thumb. Does she?

The President. You know the garden is spectacular.

The First Lady. I have a lot of help with my green thumb. I tell that to people all the time. But it's really spectacular. It is — just been so much more than growing food but it started just a tremendous conversation in this country about the health of our kids and our nation so it's going to be well.

Rose. There's not a more important issue in terms of coming to grips with what it is that make kids healthy. How are you going to spend your summer? Where is summer vacation?

The President. Well most of us — most of it is going to be campaigning. This is going to be my last campaign. And you know the girls are now of an age where they start having their own stuff so they've got a sleep away camp for a month. Both of them are leaving. We're going to be experiencing the first stages of empty nest syndrome.

Rose. Are you prepared for that?

The President. Well, I get a little depressed.

The First Lady. He'll be — he'll be so busy now. He's going to be so busy.

The President. But we're going to be doing most –

The First Lady. So we'll get family time in because any time the girls are out of school that's important time for us to spend as a family. We're still parents where you have to juggle your time around when they're free and summer time is that time. So we're going to you know keep — sneak in some time but we will be campaigning this — this time around.

The President. Yes.

Rose. No Martha's Vineyard.

The President. No, we'll probably use Camp David. You know we're only going to get snatches probably some long weekends.

The First Lady. Yes.

The President. We're not going to have a long stretch where it would make sense just to go someplace else.

Rose. Thank you very much for the opportunity to sit here with you at this important time in the presidency and for the country. And I'm especially pleased to have both of you because — I mean –

The President. Because she's more popular.

Rose. Because she's more popular. I've noticed you playing a prominent role in the campaign. I read you, though, this, that I found fascinating. You said "I'm extremely happy with her and part of it has to do with the fact that she is the most committed to me so that I can be myself and she knows me very well and I trust her completely. But at the same time she's also a complete mystery to me in some ways. It is that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong because even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support you retain some sense of surprise or wonder." Is that even more so now and in this place?

The President. Absolutely. The –

The First Lady. That's very sweet.

The President. Yes.

The First Lady. Where did he write that?

Rose. 1996.

The President. You see there. You know, I am happily surprised at how I think this experience has strengthened rather than diminished our marriage. I rely on her even more no than I did back then. The importance of family and knowing that at least when I'm in town at 6:30 even if I end up having to go back to work later I'm sitting there at the dinner table with Michelle and the girls. And the perspective they provide talking about their days and their lives. And after the girls are out walking the dog and Michelle and I are trading notes about how Malia's doing and what's Sasha up to, it constantly grounds me. And I do think that part of the great thing about our marriage is we have complete trust and honesty but we are different people with different temperaments. And it means sometimes we get in arguments but it also means that we can see things from different angles and surprise each other and make each other laugh in ways that you don't always expect and that keeps the relationship fresh and young.

Rose. Does this place change you?

The First Lady. You know, I don't — I say this all the time. I think particularly at our age — you know late 40s, early 50s.

The President. 50s.

The First Lady. You — I'm 48.

Rose. Have you forgotten that he just turned 50?

The First Lady. No, I didn't. I'm just being clear that I'm not there yet. But I — I just — I think you are who you are fundamentally in terms of your values and what you care about and your character. And I don't think you change in this place. I think this place magnifies the good parts and the bad parts of you which is why I was so adamant about supporting him in this race not as his wife but as somebody who knows him because who he was coming in would be what kind of President he would be. And I wanted this kind of man in office, somebody steady, you know, clear headed, smart, humble and he's –

Rose. Is that him?

The First Lady. And he's still all of that. It's — he's still all of that. I've just been so proud to watch him maneuver through some pretty interesting waters and to retain himself. And when he walks in the door, the second floor of the residence there are times when I would have no idea what kind of day he'd have but he just lights up as if there's nothing on his mind, you know. He shows us in the way he looks at me and the girls when he comes home at 6:30 that there is nothing more important than being there with us and the fact that he can do that and then later on after dinner, after we've walked the dog and got the girls started on their home work, he starts unloading his day and I think, wow, is that what happened? I'm just impressed, you know, with his steadiness. And that hasn't changed.

The President. I — I — I do think the fact that we lived an entire life together — we were — I was past 40 when I got any national attention because of my Democratic convention speech. So we knew what it was like to be broke. And we knew what it was like to have to figure out how to juggle child care, two jobs.

The First Lady. Yes.

Rose. Pay off college loans.

The President. Pay off college loans.

The First Lady. Yes.

The President. All that stuff. We knew what it was to be disappointed, to go through struggles. So in some ways I always count it as a blessing that the political life and public attention that we received came late and that meant that we kind of knew who we were, what was important and what — what values we care about and I think we've been able to hang on to that.

Rose. Take a look at this. This is four years ago. Come January.

The President. Look at that, almost no gray hair.

The First Lady. Oh, wow.

The President. Just a little couple of flecks, huh?

Rose. This was also a time of "Yes, We Can," "Hope and Change." What happened to that because that's not the narrative today?

The President. Well, it's funny. You know I just came back from a bus tour in Ohio and we're now starting to get in the campaign — campaign swing. And I tell people this campaign is still about hope. If somebody asks you, it's still about change. What is undoubtedly true is that in part because of the enormity of the financial crisis and the economic crisis and the difficulties that so many people have had to suffer over the last several years but also the strategic decision that the Republican Party made which was at that moment to oppose, as opposed to collaborate, in solving some of these problems, Washington feels as broken as it did four years ago. And you know — you know, if you ask me what is the one thing that has frustrated me most over the last four years it's not the hard work, it's not the enormity of the decisions, it's not the pace, it's not the accomplishments because I think we can point to as productive an administration as we've seen in a long time. It is that I haven't been able to change the atmosphere here in Washington to reflect the decency and common sense of ordinary people, Democrats, Republicans and Independents, who I think just want to see their leadership solve problems. And there's enough blame to go around for that.

Rose. And do you blame yourself in part? Because I mean you had this confidence that you had these skills that would allow you to bridge the gap?

The President. I think there's no doubt that I underestimated the degree to which in this town politics trumps problem solving, right? You know, my wonderful Secretary of State when I was running against her in the primary, you know, Hillary would, I think, tease me sometimes about saying just because you say you want to work with Republicans, let me tell you, I've been through this and they may not always want to work with you. And — and I think that because I knew the hunger that the American people had for that kind of cooperation and the fact that we were going through as tough of as a crisis as we've seen since the Great Depression my expectation was that we would see more cooperation. But having said that, the basic notion that we are not Democrats or Republicans first, we're Americans first and that most of the problems that we face are solvable not in some ideological way but in a practical common sense American way that I believe as much as ever and I think so did the American people.

Rose. Here's something you said "The only way my life makes sense is if regardless of culture and race and religion, tribe there is a commonality of these essential human truths and passions and hopes and moral precepts that are universal and that we can reach out beyond our differences. If that is not the case then it is pretty hard for me to make sense of my life."

The President. Yes.

Rose. Do you feel that?

The President. Well, I do.

Rose. You can't make sense of your life because you haven't been able to bridge this gap.

The President. No, here is the reason that I remain a happy warrior in this whole process is what Michelle and I always talk about which is when they get out of this town then my life makes perfect sense because I meet people from all walks of life everywhere I go. And they've got the same values, they care about hard work, they care about responsibility, they care about family, they care about working together, they care about treating people with respect, they care about looking after the vulnerable. You know the — that point that I made is something I am convinced of more than ever because as President we travel all across the country and I meet people from every walk of life and the American people actually don't think the same way this town thinks sometimes. And so the challenge for me is not so much that I lost faith in the capacity for America to come together. The frustration I have right now is that we still need to break the fever here in Washington so that this town operates and reflects those values that are shared by people across the country.

Rose. Meaning what "break the fever"?

The President. Break the fever meaning that we've got to stop thinking in purely political terms about who's on top, who gets the advantage in the spin wars. I'll give you a very concrete example. And that is everybody agrees that we need to bring down our deficit and our debt. And if you look at public opinion polls and how the American people think about this they understand, everybody's got to give a little bit. We've got to reduce spending that's not helping to build the economy. We've got to make sure that everybody's paying their fair share of taxes. We've got to make sure that folks like you and I, Charlie, who have been incredibly blessed by this country that we're doing a little bit more so that the next generation is seeing the investments in education, infrastructure and basic science and research, continuing to grow the economy and giving everybody opportunity. Now — so the problem in reducing our deficit is not technically how do we do it? The problem is that we've got the other side ideologically saying "we will not vote for a dime's worth of increased taxes on millionaires or billionaires. We would prefer to reduce by 20 percent or 30 percent investments in education."

Rose. So –

The President. That's not something that is — is consistent with how — traditionally Democrats or Republicans survive.

Rose. Some believe, you know, that in fact you've lost faith in some sense of this business' capacity to come to compromise and that view this election to say to the country there are two ideologies and they're in conflict and you have to make a decision as to whether we can go a different direction.

The President. I do think — I do think that the American people are the ultimate tiebreaker. I mean that's how our democracy is supposed to work.

Rose. They can break the fever?

The President. They can break the fever. So look, let me give you another example. My — the health care bill that the Republicans have called everything but — a child of god. Right, I mean –

Rose. Everything but a what?

The President. They — they — they have — you know, who —they've made a center piece of what they consider to be my mistakes as President. There's a reason why their front-runner has a problem talking about it. Because it basically matches what he signed into law in Massachusetts and that's been successful.

Rose. Right. Of course, you know he would say that's a state mandate.

The President. I understand. But — but the — but the point is, that's an approach to making sure everybody's got health care; that five or ten years ago would have been considered not just mainstream but a center right approach to solving this problem. So it's not as if there is an equivalent between Democrats and Republicans on this issue. I think the American people have to decide whether a sharply ideological shift by the Republicans is what they want — and it may be; or whether the traditional, balanced, responsible approach that we're taking is one that is most likely to lead for prosperity for the most people.

Rose. The question most people want to know from both of you is why do you want to be President? Why do you want him to be President? And what will be the significant achievement that you want to accomplish in the next four years.

The President. Well, first of all, I think it's important to know we did an awful lot in the first four years.

Rose. Of course.

The President. So — so the — you know, one of the things you learn in this office is everything takes a little longer than you'd like.

Rose. That's the lesson of the presidency.

The President. Right. But when I think about next four years what — what's undone? The most important issue we face as a country is how do we build an economy where the middle-class is strong and growing and those who are willing to work hard can fight their way into the middle-class and the components that we put in place have made a difference. But what we can also continue to do is change our tax codes so that we're rewarding companies that invest here in the United States as opposed to shipping jobs overseas; investing in our education system so we have great new teachers, especially in math and science. Make college more affordable. Invest in our infrastructure and bring down our deficit in a responsible, balanced way. Those are all components of an overarching strategy.

Rose. Of all of those things, what would be the equivalent of health care for the next term? What's the single thing that ignites your passion, your drive, your ambition, all of your skills?

The President. The most important thing for us to do right now is to go ahead and resolve the fiscal issues — debt, deficit, who's paying what in taxes and where are we investing? Making that decision because once we resolve that issue then it frees us up to focus on hiring more teachers and helping young people afford college education. But as long as we're in this deadlock where we've got a big deficit and debt, and we haven't determined how to bring that down we're going to continue to have problems. So that's going to be a top priority. And the good news is, as I said, the American people actuallyagree on how we should do it. It should be a balance of some smart cuts in programs that don't work — and we've already cut a trillion dollars out of the federal budget. But it also requires us to change our tax code so folks like you and me pay a little bit more. And the reason I'm confident we can do that is because after this election we've got a whole bunch of laws that are about to expire, including the Bush tax cuts. And I intend to win this election and if we do nothing then everybody's taxes are going up and my assumption is that's not something that the Republicans want to run on. And what I'm going to say to them is I'm prepared to make sure that 98 percent of Americans don't see their taxes increased. We're going to use the money that we saved from not giving you or me a tax break to bring down our deficit. And we're going to be able to make investments in the future that help America grow and give everybody opportunity. And I think that we're going to be in a strong position to make that case come 2013.

Rose. There's a lot of the campaign ahead of us but many people look at the campaign so far and they are saying "I see too much negative campaigning and not enough talk about the future." They look at your own ads from your own campaign and they say a lot of negative campaigning here about your opponent in the Republican Party rather than what you just talked about. Does it bother you, the negativity of this campaign so far?

The First Lady. You know, let me tell you, the one thing that I've learned not to do is paying any attention to the back and forth. I mean truly –

Rose. That's how you get him up there for dinner.

The First Lady. But it's just — it's — it's not — it's not useful and it's not actually indicative. So when I'm on the campaign trail that's all I talk about is the future. I mean, I talk about my dad and people like my dad who worked a blue-collar job all his life, was able to pay his bills and pay them on time. That's all he wanted. He never wanted a house on the lake. He never wanted — he wanted to be able to send his kids to college and make sure he could retire with some dignity and respect. And that's what the next four years has to be about.

Rose. But — but there are those who look at the campaign so far and they say that rather than talk about the future there is an effort here to tear down your opponent and make him unacceptable so there will not be a debate or referendum on the first four years.

The President. I have to tell you, Charlie, if you look at the ads that we do, first of all, we've done a whole slew of positive ads that talk exactly about how we need to change our education system; how we need to change our tax code, how we need to rebuild America, how we need to promote American energy. So those just don't get attention in the news. But we are very much promoting. And if you look at my stump speeches I spend a whole slew of time — sometimes people say I talk too long because I'm outlining all the things we want to get done. What is true is that there's a sharp contrast — probably as sharp a contrast as we've seen — philosophically between myself and Mr. Romney. I think he's a patriot, I think he loves his family, but he has a particular theory of how to grow the economy that has to do with providing tax cuts for folks at the very top, eliminating all regulations and somehow that is going to generate solutions to the challenges we face. I've got a very different approach and I think it is entirely appropriate for the American people to understand those two theories. And the more detailed we get into what he's saying and what I'm saying, I think that serves this democratic process well.

Rose. Because politics are about choices.

The President. Politics are about choices.

Rose. But there's also this. I mean, do you believe his presidency would be a disaster? Because this is a man who's been a successful business person? Does that disqualify him or make him appropriately a candidate for a political office? How do you take the measure of his business experience?

The President. What will — I do not think at all it disqualifies him. But I also think it's important if that's his main calling card.If his basic premise is that I'm Mr. Fix-it on the economy because I made a lot of money.

Rose. But that's not what he's saying.

The President. Well, no, that is to some degree. What he says is he understands the economy and the private sector.

Rose. And they built businesses and –

The President. And well, they invested — they invested –

Rose. But they invested and making better.

The President. Exactly. So — so that's his premise. I think it is entirely appropriate to look at that record and see whether, in fact, both that is true, that in fact his focus was creating jobs and he successfully did that when you look at the record. There are question there is that have been to be asked. And –

Rose. Like what? Like what?

The President. Well, you know, as I said, when some people questioned why I would challenge his Bain record, the point I made there in the past is if you're a head of a large private equity firms or a hedge fund your job is to make money. It's not to create jobs. It's not even to create a successful business, it's to make sure that you're maximizing returns for your investor. Now, that's appropriate. That's part of the American way. That's part of the system. But that doesn't necessarily make you qualified to think about the economy as a whole because as President my job is to think about the workers. My job is to think about communities where jobs have been outsourced. And so it is not that he is disqualified because of what he's done. It is if that's your main claim — since he doesn't talk about the fact that he was Governor of Massachusetts for four years very much.

Rose. Or ran the Olympics.

The President. Or — then I want us to make sure that we know what your theory is about how to grow the economy. And that is a question that I think most Americans want to know as well. This is the nature of running for President.

Rose. Do you believe there's anything about his experience at Bain that should be called into question?

The President. Well, I think that when you run for President everything is called into question. When you're President everything's called into question. And — and that's a healthy part of –

Rose. Ok so there's nothing illegal though about his experience then.

The President. I — the — I think that this is entirely a question of how do you think you can help you know the Average Joe out there to get a job, get a home, send his kids to college, retire with dignity and respect — all the things that Michelle's dad wanted. I think the question right now for the American people is which vision — mine or Mr. Romney's — is most likely to deliver for those folks because that is where the majority of the American people live.

Rose. Because the middle-class has been and is in a terrible place in America and losing ground in terms of their history.

The President. And — and they've been losing ground even before this recession hit; for the ten years before their incomes and wages have flat- 0lined.

Rose. But suppose — I mean, he clearly will say let's look at your record. Let's look at the fact that unemployment is at 8.2 percent. It's unlikely to change. Let's look at how effective the stimulus was.

The President. Right.

Rose. Let's look at your management of the economy.

The President. Exactly.

Rose. Yes, it was a bad hand you were dealt but you have not made it to what it ought to be.

The President. Right.

Rose. That is the centrality of their campaign.

The President. Exactly.

Rose. You know and that you haven't created jobs and what are you going to tell us that you're going to do in the next four years that you didn't try in the first four years that failed?

The President. Exactly. That is his argument and you don't hear me complaining about him making that argument because if I was in his shoes I'd be making the same argument.

Rose. You had an enormously successful health care legislation because the Supreme Court did not declare it unconstitutional. That's your proudest achievement in the first four years.

The President. You know my proudest achievement is actually stabilizing the economy to avert a Great Depression. Because if I don't do that nothing else matters. Now, we're not where we need to be. And you're right, the unemployment rate is way too high to where I want it to be and a lot of folks are still hurting and struggling out there. But the fact of the matter is that we were able to stop a hemorrhaging of jobs, get the economy growing again, add 4.4 million jobs, 500,000 manufacturing jobs, save the auto industry. All those things provide us at least a base from which now to grow. And the central question becomes building on what we've done, where do we go from here? And making sure that we are constantly thinking about growing this economy not from the top down, because we tried that and it didn't work and it hasn't worked in our — historically. But rather how do we make sure that every man and woman out there who is willing to work hard has a chance? That's what we're going to be spending these next four months debating and that's what I hope to be spending the next four years working on.

Rose. We have a mutual friend her name is Doris Kearns Goodwin. I often asked her, what would Lincoln do in many conferences we have had? She has said before that what Lincoln says is — And what she has learned is that the ability of Lincoln and FDR to learn from their mistakes of the first term is what made them successful in the second term. What do you think the lessons have been that might guarantee success in a second term if that happens?

The First Lady. I think that's your — I think that's your question, pretty clearly.

The President. You know, when I think about what we've done well and what we haven't done well, the mistake of my first couple of years was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that's important. But, you know, the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times. It's funny, when I ran everybody said "Well, he can give a great speech but can he actually manage the job?" And then my first two years I think the notion was well, he's been juggling and managing a lot of stuff but where's the story that tells us where he's going? And I think that was a legitimate criticism. So getting out of this town, spending more time with the American people, listening to them and also then being in a conversation with them about where do we go together as a country, I need to do a better job of that in my second term.

Rose. A better job of explaining?

The President. Well, explaining but also inspiring.

The First Lady. Because hope is still there. I mean, hope doesn't get actualized in three and a half years. If that were the case we'd be out of luck as a country. So people still need to grasp on to something important and they need a leader and a message and a set of possibilities for their lives. I mean that's what kept my dad getting up everyday going to work with MS was his vision and hope for us, his kids. And I always say that if we live out our visions for our children in our policies and our decisions that we make as adults, if we do that everyday not just for our own children but if we're thinking about all of our children, we will always get where we need to go. And I can tell you that is really the only thing I'm talking about on the campaign trail. I'm just trying to help people remember that none of this is about us because we are only here because of our fathers and grandfathers, those people in our lives who made huge, painful sacrifices for us and it's our turn to do the same. If we continue to do that we will build a vibrant —continue to build a vibrant society and we have always moved forward in this country. Always have. I can't think of a time in understanding the history of this country where we've moved backwards. Where women have had fewer rights, where children have been more vulnerable. So we're making progress but sometimes it's hard in a day to day struggle to remember that and that's a big part of what leadership is about. It's just giving people that glass half full kind of perspective that is real that helps keep you going day in and day out. That's what I'm going to be doing and I know he's doing on the campaign trail and will do for the next four years.

Rose. Thank you for this opportunity to talk to you.

The President. It was great to talk to you, Charlie.

The First Lady. Thank you.

The President. Thank you so much.

Barack Obama, Interview with the First Lady and Charlie Rose of CBS News Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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