President Obama's Surprising Advice for Aspiring Politicians

"You have to be willing to lose," the president told young leaders.

June 01, 2015, 6:17 PM
PHOTO: President Barack Obama speaks during an event with Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative fellows, June 1, 2015, in Washington.
President Barack Obama speaks during an event with Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative fellows, June 1, 2015, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP Photo

— -- President Obama said today his most valuable advice for young, aspiring politicians is that “you have to be willing to lose.”

“You have to be willing to lose an election, because you think there's something more important than you just winning an election,” Obama told a woman from the Philippines who was visiting the White House as part of a group of young leaders from Southeast Asian countries in the U.S. for a fellowship program.

”You should try to win. I'm not saying you should try to lose. But you have to stand for something,” Obama quickly qualified.

The president's comments seemed to echo those of his vice president, Joe Biden, who has spoken publicly about giving the same advice to his son, Beau, who died Saturday from brain cancer.

"Whatever you decide to do, make sure there's something you're willing to lose over," Biden said in a 2009 interview. "Don't just do it because it's the next step. If you conclude that you care deeply about something that you're willing to lose over it in a campaign, then do it."

Obama said today that the goal of a political career should be "that you want to help people."

The president, who has 20 months left in the Oval Office, used the forum to reflect on his own legacy.

Asked how he would like to be remembered, Obama said, “Fondly, I hope.”

Avoiding an economic depression, the Affordable Care Act, and diplomatic efforts were all among those achievements he sees as legacy items.

“People don't remember, when I came into office, the United States in world opinion ranked just below China and just above Russia, and today the United States is the most respected nation on Earth and part of that, I think, is because of the work we did to re-engage the world,” Obama said, noting that he ended two wars, re-established ties with Cuba and has led negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran.

The greatest lesson he’s learned: Living with the consequences of wrong decisions.

“To make a decision based not just on what I think is the easiest but what I think is the best long-term solution, and then feel comfortable in the knowledge that I may be wrong and there will be significant consequences if I am wrong, and to have the courage then maybe 6 months later or a year later, to admit that it didn't work and then to try something new but being willing to take responsibility for making hard decisions, not being paralyzed because you know there are big consequences, and then being able to adapt,” Obama said.

His most political statement came during a discussion of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

“Obviously, there's significant tension right now between many of the ASEAN countries and China, as well as the United States with China, around the South China Sea and how those issues are going to be resolved,” Obama said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The president also said the U.S. wants to encourage higher education in ASEAN countries as a means to ensuring that Asian countries don’t win on manufacturing just because the labor is cheap.

“It's less likely that workers are exploited and that means then that you're competing with us because you have the best ideas and the best products as opposed to just you have the cheapest labor,” Obama said. “And if all that ASEAN countries are offering is cheap labor then what happens is U.S. workers get hurt and you don't necessarily see an improvement in standards of living for those ASEAN countries."

ABC News' Gregory Hughes contributed to this report.

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