President Obama, buffeted by criticism of his massive health care reform bill and election setbacks, said today he remained determined to tackle health care and other big problems despite the political dangers to his presidency.
"I'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president," he told ABC's "World News" anchor Diane Sawyer in an exclusive interview today.
Obama sat down with Sawyer two days before he will deliver a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, and he acknowledged the political setbacks of his first year in office.
The State of the Union will be Obama's chance to jump-start his agenda, but he ducked when Sawyer asked if he could guarantee there would not be a tax increase for anyone making less than $250,000.
"I can guarantee that the worst thing we could do would be to raise taxes when the economy is still this weak," he replied.
Watch Diane Sawyer's interview with President Obama on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. tonight, and on "Good Morning America" at 7 a.m. Tuesday
The speech this Wednesday comes at a time when the president's health care reform bill, the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, is stalled in Congress because the Senate lost its supermajority when Massachusetts elected Republican Scott Brown last week. Brown campaigned on a promise to vote against the bill.
The president had previously admitted the convoluted process of cobbling together the huge bill had alarmed voters but said today he would not back off of tackling large issues despite the political jeopardy involved.
"You know, there is a tendency in Washington to believe our job description, of elected officials, is to get re-elected. That's not our job description," Obama said. "Our job description is to solve problems and to help people."
The president said he was not deterred by the problems with the health care bill.
"I will not slow down in terms of going after the big problems that this country faces," he said. "The easiest thing for me to do, Diane, would be to go small bore, avoid controversy, just make sure that everybody's comfortable and we only propose things that don't threaten any special interests in Washington. If you do that, then you can get a boost in the poll numbers."
Seated across from Sawyer in the White House, the president added, "I don't want to look back on my time here and say to myself all I was interested in was nurturing my own popularity."
The president's poll numbers have sagged in recent weeks as the debate over health care peaked and the economy, particularly the unemployment numbers, stubbornly resisted a quick fix. Obama dismissed the dip in his job approval rate.
"I went through this [in] the campaign. When your poll numbers drop, you are an idiot. When your poll numbers are high, you are a genius. If my poll numbers are low, then I am cool and cerebral, and cool and detached. If my poll numbers are high," Obama said with a laugh, "boy he's calm and reasoned all right."
The president conceded he has made mistakes, at one point saying, "I'd probably say I make a mistake a day, maybe two." One of the biggest, he said, was the confusing way in which the health bill was shaped.