KUALA LUMPUR – How do you achieve your dreams? Where do you find the most happiness? And what are your biggest regrets?
For more than an hour today, young Southeast Asians peppered President Obama with questions that demanded his self-reflection and personal analysis. And the famously professional Obama delivered on both, talking about life, legacy and family in at times deeply personal terms, during a town hall meeting at the University of Malaya.
“I regret not having spent more time with my mother,” Obama candidly told the students when asked about his life regrets. “Because she died early — she got cancer right around when she was my age, actually, she was just a year older than I am now — she died. It happened very fast, in about six months.”
Ann Dunham died from ovarian cancer in 1995 just 22 days shy of her 53rd birthday.
“There was a stretch of time from when I was, let’s say, 20 until I was 30, where I was so busy with my own life that I didn’t always reach out and communicate with her and ask her how she was doing and tell her about things,” Obama said. “I was nice and I’d call and write once in a while. But this goes to what I was saying earlier about what you remember in the end I think is the people you love. I realized that I didn’t – every single day, or at least more often – just spend time with her and find out what she was thinking and what she was doing, because she had been such an important part of my life.”
The president described a rebellious youth stemming from his “complicated” family life, growing up without a father at home, and “sometimes I was enjoying life too much.”
“You have to focus more on what kind of influence and impact are you going to have on other people’s lives,” he said.
Family is the most significant source of happiness, Obama told the audience, but also “feeling as if I’ve been true to my beliefs and that I’ve lived with some integrity.”
Perhaps the toughest question for the president was what he hopes his legacy will be. In a rambling 9-minute answer, Obama cited a range of factors. He said his “most important” legacy is fathering daughters Malia and Sasha, whom he said are “turning out to be wonderful young people.”
“Being a great husband,” also matters, he added, “because if you don’t do those things well, then everything else you’re gonna have problems with.”
As for his presidential legacy, Obama spoke more broadly, noting his response to the financial crisis of 2009; promotion of greater economic opportunity for all people; curbing Syria’s chemical weapons; confronting Iran; encouraging peace between Israelis and Palestinians; and, being the first American president to visit Burma. He didn’t mention the Affordable Care Act.
President Obama said the event was an opportunity for him to make a personal connection with the future leaders of Southeast Asia, making something of a down payment on enhanced future ties with the U.S. Young adults under the age of 35 represent more than 60 percent of the population of ASEAN nations. Obama took questions from people representing five different nations – Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand.
He said the U.S. wants to have stronger ties with all of them.
“Some people have wondered whether because of what happens in Ukraine or what happens in the Middle East, whether this will sideline our strategy — it has not,” he said. “We are focused and we’re going to follow through on our interest in promoting a strong U.S.-Asia relationship.”