President Obama Reflects on First-Term Mistakes, Economic Recovery

In 20/20 interview, Obama says "worst of recession and crisis is behind us."

December 19, 2011, 3:07 PM

Dec. 22, 2011— -- As his third year in the White House draws to a close, President Obama offered a candid assessment of his presidency in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Barbara Walters, accepting some responsibility for the gridlock in Washington while projecting a sense of optimism for his re-election and America's future.

Obama took office in 2009 promising to change the culture in Washington, while refusing to let it change him. Taking stock three years on, Obama admits he's come up short on cultivating a spirit of bipartisan cooperation and unity of purpose and needs more time.

"That mindset doesn't exist in Washington right now, and I do take some responsibility for making sure that that spirit which I think the country longs for, that we can somehow get that in the Congress as well," Obama said. "But that seems to be a longer than one-term project."

"Can you admit to any mistakes that you've made?" Walters asked.

"Oh, I think probably once a day, I look back and I say, you know, I could have done that a little bit better," Obama said.

The full interview can be seen during a "20/20" holiday special on Friday, Dec. 23, 10 p.m. ET on ABC stations.

Obama cited his approach to setting expectations for the "long haul" of economic recovery -- balancing the need to convey the seriousness of the situation without being alarmist -- as less effective than desired.

He also admits that he could have been more resolute in his early dealings with congressional Republicans, a nod that his more compromising approach ultimately angered some parts of his base.

"When it comes to dealing with Congress, you know, of late, I've said, I'm not going to wait for Congress. I'm going to go ahead and just do whatever I have in my executive power," he said. "I think that there were times in my first couple a years where I kept on sitting there trying to see if we can negotiate some sort of compromise, and there just was a lot of refusal on the other side's part to compromise.

"And, I'd just stay at it... but as a consequence, I think a lot of time was lost that frustrated a lot of people around the country," Obama said. "They want to see action on behalf of some of these issues."

INTERVIEW EXTRA: Obama jabs Romney and Gingrich over health care reform.

Still, Obama, who has sat down with Walters for a pre-Christmas interview in each year of his term, said little about himself has changed despite the political buffeting presidents endure.

"I'm definitely grayer. And people tell me I'm a little thinner, so I've got to start making sure I'm eating enough," Obama said. "But in terms of what I care about, in terms of what led me to run for president in the first place, those things haven't changed."

As the president steps up his appeals to voters in the 2012 campaign, the constancy of his values is one theme he will continue to underscore, as well as the steady -- albeit slow -- upward trajectory for the U.S. economy.

"Are we going to have solved every problem? Absolutely not," Obama said of what he's promising voters in a second Obama term.

"One of the great things about America is, you know, we're always looking at what else can we do better? What more do we need to do?" he said. "But I think that we can be in a very strong position, and I'm absolutely confident, because we still have the best workers in the world, we still have the most entrepreneurial businesspeople in the world. We've got, you know, the best universities, the best scientists. This should be our moment."

Barbara Walters Poses 10 Personal Questions to the First Couple

Students Submit Questions for Obamas

The president and first lady also fielded questions submitted by middle and high school students to ABC News from across the country.

"If you were a superhero and you could have one superpower, what would it be?" Walters asked on behalf of one student.

"I've talked to Malia about this. We both agree that flying seems like it'd be a pretty good thing to be able to do," said President Obama. "Then, typically as an adult, I'll come up with something a little more obscure, like, I'd love to speak every foreign language there is. And she kind of looks at me and says, 'What kind of superpower is that?'"

Another student inquired whether the president believes reporters ask too many questions.

"No. I love reporters and I love all their questions," Obama said.

As for what he would do differently in a second term, Obama suggested he would try to be a more effective communicator.

"What I want to be able to do is to communicate to the American people my absolute confidence in our future," Obama said.

Walters said one child asked, "are we the number one superpower still?"

"Absolutely," Obama said. "And we will continue to be. We've had a tough couple a years, but we've had tougher times and we always come through, and we always emerge stronger, more unified, more effective than we were before."

Obamas' Christmas Message: Better Days Ahead

As Americans gather to celebrate the holidays with their families and friends, the Obamas offered messages of hope and encouragement.

"I believe that the worst of this recession and crisis is behind us, I think better days are coming, but we're not there yet," Obama said. "And I just want people to have confidence in themselves and in the ability of America to remake itself."

Michelle Obama agreed, stressing the importance of rekindling family relationships at this time of year.

"I just hope that people find the time to draw each other close, to reach out to their family members, friends, and spend time," she said. "This is a rare time of year when people can create that space and to open their hearts, to find forgiveness where they need to, to know that in the end the things that are most important are ensuring the health and well being of the next generation our children. And in this time and others we'll be thinking about how everything we do affects the future."

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