-- WALK-AND-TALK INTERVIEW
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, thank you for doing this. As we're walking towards your office I have to think you're going to miss this short commute.
BARACK OBAMA: [laughs] I am, it's one of the biggest benefits of being president that you really don't think about until you get here. I have never had to travel more than thirty seconds from home to office, and it's because of that that I've been able to maintain, you know, really a family life that has nurtured and sustained me during this time.
STEPHANOPOULOS: How long did it take for the White House to feel like home though?
OBAMA: You know, it, it took shorter, I think, for us, just because when you've got little kids, and you're tucking them in –
STEPHANOPOULOS: It's home.
OBAMA: It's home, right? When you open a door and they're in their pajamas and they're, you know, wrestling with you and asking you, you know, to read to them and stuff, you know it starts feeling like home pretty quick. Not to mention having a mother-in-law upstairs, and the dog, and now two. It feels even more like home now because you have all these memories that were formed watching your kids grow up.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You know you talk about the kids, and I know you all were pretty, a little bit apprehensive coming into the White House, they were young. Was it a good experience for them?
OBAMA: You know, you don't know how it would have turned out if they'd grown up in Chicago instead, and a more normal environment. All I can say is they have turned out to be terrific young women. We were concerned mostly about whether they'd develop an attitude, right?
STEPHANOPOULOS: How not, yeah.
OBAMA: And they are, you know, sweet, kind, funny, smart, respectful people, and they treat everybody with respect. That's not just the biases of a parent. You know, we feel pretty good when we hear back from friends, cause they still have sleepovers and they go to other folks houses and when the parents say, oh you know, Malia, she's just so sweet, or Sasha helped to pick up the dishes, what is it that you're doing to –
STEPHANOPOULOS: They never complain about it?
OBAMA: You know, they complained about Secret Service as they became teenagers, and Secret Service has done the very best job they could accommodating them, so it hasn't restricted any of their activities, but as you might imagine, if you're a teenager having a couple of people with microphones –
STEPHANOPOULOS: Always on your tail, yeah.
OBAMA: and guns always following you around, that could grate on them. But you know, they've handled it with grace and I give Michelle most of the credit for how well they've done, but I also just think they are graceful, good young, young women.
STEPHANOPOULOS: This part of the White House is so iconic.
OBAMA: It's my favorite, yeah. This walk. It--it doesn't matter what time of day it is, in some ways I feel more attached to this walk even than the Oval Office.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I believe it.
OBAMA: Yeah. There's something about these steps and thinking about everybody who's walked here and all the business that's been done here.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And business gets done on this walk.
OBAMA: Yes, exactly. And even when you go up this ramp, and you think about FDR wheeling himself up, you know, got a little cigarette holder in his mouth, and it, that, that awe that you feel, that reverence that you feel for the place never entirely leaves.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well that's one of the things I was going ask you, because I know you kept in touch with people by reading those letters every day.
STEPHANOPOULOS: How did you keep in touch with the presidency?
OBAMA: It's an interesting question. I, more than anything, obviously the presidency is the people, and it's been interesting the emotions in the last few months. What you realize is that you may never have the team that is together in the same way, under the same pressures, and the attachments that you make to folks from your chief of staff down to –
STEPHANOPOULOS: It's the ultimate bunker.
OBAMA: It is, and the people here have been extraordinary. We had a farewell dinner for some of my senior staff, and generally everybody likes to talk about how cool I was. I had trouble getting through just a few remarks, because not only do you appreciate the sacrifices they've made and the hours they've kept and the soccer games they missed and the birthday parties, but I also had a lot of young people who came in here, and this probably, you know, echoes with you, in your own experience, you were young when you got here.
STEPHANOPOULOS: It didn't feel like it when I left.
OBAMA: Yeah, but you know, now suddenly you got members of your team who were 23, 24. They've met their wives here, or their husbands here.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And you have a lot of eight year people.
OBAMA: Yeah, and you, and they start bringing in their kids, who you think should be babies and now are in second grade or something, and you've watched them grow up. So I think what ends up happening is you end up maintaining those networks and those contacts, but the concentrated interactions and experience that you have here, I don't think, I don't expect you can duplicate anyplace else.
STEPHANOPOULOS: We're about to walk into the Oval, and I was just wondering, the big gut-check decisions, did you make them in there or up in the Treaty Room at home?
OBAMA: I think I made them on this walk sometimes. You know, there are times where I'd say the Oval Office, you use to gather the facts. The decisions you probably make late at night, or at least I do, I'm kind of a night owl, up there. But there are some times where you think you've made a decision, but during that walk, where you're announcing the decision, you've just got to make sure that, you're prepared to live with it, because as you know George, a lot of these decisions are not-- the outcomes are uncertain.
OVAL OFFICE INTERVIEW
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: As you said, it is very busy, newsy day here, that shooting down in Fort Lauderdale this afternoon. Do we know enough now to know if it was an act of terror?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As a general rule, until I've got all the information, George, I don't wanna comment on it other than just to say how heartbroken we are for the families who've been affected. These kinds of tragedies have happened too often during the eight years that I've been president. The pain, the grief, the shock that they must be going through is enormous. I've asked me staff to reach out to the mayor down there and make sure that coordination between the state and local officials is what it should be. But I think we'll find out over the next 24 hours exactly how this happened and what motivated this individual.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And also just a few minutes ago, this intelligence report came out on the Russian activities, declassified version. Pretty stark opening sentences. "Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign. We further assess that Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-Elect Trump." President Putin was trying to elect Trump?
OBAMA: Well, I think the report is very clear. Number one, the Russians sought to interfere with the election process-- that the cyber hacking that took place by the Russians was part of that campaign, and that they had a clear preference in terms of outcomes.
What-- what I've repeatedly said is that you know, our intelligence communities spend a lot of time and effort gathering a lot of strands and a lot of data. There are times where they're very cautious and they say, "We think this is what happened, but we're not certain."
STEPHANOPOULOS: You're saying high confidence here--
OBAMA: The-- this time they've got high confidence, and having seen some of the underlying sources and information that they're basing this on I stand fully behind the-- the report.
STEPHANOPOULOS: What does that tell you about what President Putin is trying to do right now? And I-- I think back to 2012 when Mitt Romney talked about Russia being the number one geostrategic threat, you kinda dismissed him in the second debate--
OBAMA: I did.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you underestimate Vladimir Putin?
OBAMA: You know, I don't think I underestimated him, but I think that I underestimated the degree to which, in this new information age, it is possible for misinformation for cyber hacking and so forth to have an impact on our open societies, our open systems, to insinuate themselves into our democratic practices in ways that I think are accelerating.
And so part of the reason that I ordered this report was not simply to re-litigate what happened over the last several months, but rather to make sure that we understand this is something that Putin has been doing for quite some time in Europe, initially in the former satellite states where there are a lot of Russian speakers, but increasingly in Western democracies.
There are gonna be elections coming up among our NATO allies that we have to pay attention to. I anticipate that this kind of thing can happen again here. And so in addition to the report assessing what exactly happened, what we have also done is to make sure that the Department of Homeland Security and our intelligence teams are working with the various folks who run our elections.
And one of the things that I've urged the president-elect to do is to develop a strong working relationship with the intelligence community and I think it's important that Congress, on a bipartisan basis, work with the next administration looking forward to make sure that this kind of influence is minimized--
STEPHANOPOULOS: He-- he met with the intelligence leaders this afternoon.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Praised their work at the top. Still didn't seem to accept their conclusions fully. He talked about Russia and China and-- and other countries. They made no assessment on whether this affected the outcome of the election. He said very clearly it had no effect on the outcome. What do you think?
OBAMA: You know, I think there are a lot of factors going into an election. I think the bottom line is-- is that Donald Trump is gonna be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. And it's not necessarily profitable to sort of try to untangle all the different factors that went into it.
The issue here is you have I think the-- the clear example of how, if we're not vigilant foreign countries can have an impact on the political debate in the United States in ways that might not have been true 10, 20, 30 years ago in-- in part because of the way news is transmitted and in part because so many people are skeptical of mainstream news organizations that-- everything's true and everything's false. You know nothing-- nothing is-- is settled. Everything is contested.
In that kind of environment, where there's so much skepticism about information that's coming in, we're gonna have to spend a lot more time thinking about how do we protect our democratic process and as I've been saying for years, we're gonna have to spend a lot more time on cyber security. That's one of the reasons why I'd ordered a commission--
STEPHANOPOULOS: But bottom line, this time Vladimir Putin got what he wanted.
OBAMA: Well-- look, I-- I think that what is true is that the Russians intended to meddle, and they meddled. And it could be another country in the future. It could be another election where you know, the-- the alignments between Republicans and Democrats are different than they were this time and—and--who a foreign country prefers.
And that's why I hope that this does not continue to be viewed purely through a partisan lens. I think there are Republicans as well as Democrats who are concerned about this. And the-- the two things we need to do, George-- number one, we have to spend a lot more time, energy, resources on cyber security. And it makes--what makes this difficult is because it's not just a government problem. It is a private sector and government problem. And there's gotta be a lot more cooperation. That was one of the key recommendations of this commissions that I got a report from just a few weeks ago.
And the second thing we have to do is to make sure that all of us think about how we approach our elections and our democracy not only to secure them from vote tampering, but also to make sure that we understand when propaganda is being churned through the system.
And-- and one of the things I-- I'll be honest with you, George. One of the things that I am concerned about is the degree to which we've seen a lot of commentary lately where there were, there are Republicans or pundits or cable commentators who seemed to have more confidence in Vladimir Putin than fellow Americans because those fellow Americans were Democrats. That cannot be.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Does that include the president-elect?
OBAMA: Well, what I will say is that--and I said this right after the election--we have to remind ourselves we're on the same team. Vladimir Putin's not on our team. If we get to a point where people in this country feel more affinity with a leader who is an adversary and view the United States and our way of life as a threat to him, then we're gonna have bigger problems than just cyber hacking.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You-- you've talked to the president-elect Trump now several times over the course of this transition. What have you tried to impress on him about the job?
OBAMA: Well, as I've said before, the-- the conversations have been cordial. He has been open to suggestions, and the main thing that I've tried to transmit is that there's a different between governing and campaigning, so that what he has to appreciate is as soon as you walk into this office after you've been sworn in, you're now in charge of the largest organization on Earth.
You can't manage it the way you would manage a family business. You can't manage it the way you would manage a Senate office. I-- I was a senator before I became president. And so you have to have a strong team around you. You have to have respect for institutions and the process to make good decisions because you are inherently reliant on other folks.
So when I talked to him about-- our intelligence agencies, what I've said to him is-- is that there are gonna be times where you've got raw intelligence that comes in and in my experience, over eight years, the intelligence community is pretty good about saying, "Look, we can't say for certain what this means." But there are gonna be times where the only way you can make a good decision is if you have confidence that the process is working, and the people that you put in charge are giving you their very best assessments.
STEPHANOPOULOS: How has he impressed you?
OBAMA: You know, he is somebody who I think is very engaging and gregarious.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you like him?
OBAMA: You know, I've enjoyed the conversations that we've had. He is somebody who I think is not lacking in confidence, which is I think--
STEPHANOPOULOS: Some say that about you too.
OBAMA: Well, that's what I was saying. It-- it's-- it's probably a prerequisite for the job, or at least you have to have enough craziness to think that you can do the job. I-- I think that he has not spent a lot of time sweating the details of, you know, all the policies that--
STEPHANOPOULOS: Does that worry you?
OBAMA: Well, I think that can be both a strength and a weakness. I think it depends on how he approaches it. If he-- if it gives him fresh eyes, then that can be valuable. But it also requires you knowing what you don't know and putting in place people who do have the kinds of experience and background and-- and knowledge that can inform good decision making. And look, I-- I-- I think it's fair to say that he and I are-- are sort of opposites in some ways.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Voters often do that, don't they?
OBAMA: Yeah. Yeah. But so-- so let's say I'm on the-- the policy wonk end of the spectrum. As much as I can dive into a briefing book and really work to-- to master various subjects that come before my desk, I'm still not an expert on a huge amount of the stuff that we work on. But I do make sure that I've got people who are experts that are helping me make the best decisions possible.
And if you don't have good people, and you don't have a good process and you don't have, at some level, the basic reverence for this office, and an understanding of the-- the incredible responsibilities and obligations, then, I think you can get into trouble.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You're also not much of a tweeter. He was on a tirade (LAUGH) this morning, sent out a lot of tweets early this morning. Clearly, according to him and his people, he's gonna keep on doing it when he's sitting there behind that desk. Good idea?
OBAMA: On the one hand information is--is moving quick, and-- I-- I-- or-- or the way in which people consume information is changing so fast. Clearly this worked for him, and it gives him a direct connection to a lot of the people that voted for him.
I-- in-- I've said to him, and I think others have said to him that the day that he is the President of the United States, there are world capitals and financial markets and people all around the world who take really seriously what he says, and in a way that's just not true before you're actually sworn in as president.
STEPHANOPOULOS: People take seriously what you say as well. And during the campaign-- many of your speeches you say, "All the progress we've made in the last eight years go out the window if we don't win." Still think that?
OBAMA: No. (SIGH) I think that the-- the risk to all the progress we've made was at stake in the election because not just the president-elect but a lot of members of Congress, including now the Speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader, have said that their principal agenda was to undo a lot of this progress. But as I've been talking about over the last several days when it comes to health care, the gains that we've made are there. Twenty million people have health insurance that didn't have it before. The uninsured rate is the lowest it's ever been.
The rise in health care costs since Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act was passed, have been at their lowest rate in 50 years. Those savings have extended the Medicare trust fund by 11 years. So we-- we've got-- we've got a baseline of facts. Here-- here-- here's-- here's where we were, here's where we are now. So it is true theoretically that all that progress can be undone, and suddenly 20 million people or more don't have health insurance.
But as I think Republicans now are recognizing that's-- may not be what the American people, including even Trump voters, are looking for. And my hope is that the president-elect, members of Congress from both parties look at, "Where have we objectively made progress, where things are working better?" Don't undo things just because I did them. I don't have pride of authorship. I said today in a forum on health care if the Republicans can come up with a system that insures more people cheaper, better I will be the first one--
STEPHANOPOULOS: And I can tell by your smile you don't think they can do it?
OBAMA: Well, I'm skeptical that they can do it mainly because for seven years now, including when we first tried to pass health care, I said to 'em, "Okay, if-- if this doesn't work tell me what does." In this room I remember having meetings with Republican senators who initially had been trying to engage but saw that the politics of ‘no’ were growing inside the Republican Party. And I remember having a conversation in the Oval Office with one of those senators who was-- was starting to get a little sheepish about (LAUGH) what compromises might-- garner his support.
And finally I asked him, "Is there any changes I could make that would get you to support this?" And he said, "Probably not, Mr. President," which was a nice change in terms of just candor. But what-- what that means then is, is that now the burden is to take a look. All right, if-- if-- if-- if you think that we've overregulated in the environmental space what I can show you is that we have tripled the amount of wind power in this country, increased by tenfold the amount of solar power. We are producing as much oil and gas as we've ever produced.
Gas is at two bucks a gallon. Utility rates and electricity rates are low. So you will, it seems like the energy policy we got right now is working pretty good. If you think you got a better idea in terms of how to approach this that's not gonna result in more pollution, and more asthma, and more illness then put your ideas out there. But don't just oppose things because, "This was Obama's agenda."
STEPHANOPOULOS: Sounds like that's what's happening right now.
OBAMA: Well, that's what's happening at the moment. But you know, the American people-- are-- are both anxious for change. We're in a time of-- of flux. You know, the-- the globe is shrinking, the inform age-- information age is-- is bringing a lot of changes. People are anxious about their future and their children's futures. But they don't want folks to be reckless and they don't want this town to just be tit-for-tat. And-- you know, one of the gratifying things, I think, about the end of my presidency-- even though admittedly-- my successor ran against a lot of what we stood for, is when you look at the individual issues and the progress that we've made on a lot of those issues, we got the support of a pretty decent majority. Even on health care what you've seen is a lot of stories surfacing lately about people who said, "Well, I voted for Trump but I don't think he's really gonna take away my health care--"
STEPHANOPOULOS: So is Obamacare gonna survive?
OBAMA: I think it will. Or-- it may be called something else. And-- and as I said (LAUGH) I don't-- I don't mind. If in fact the Republicans make some modifications, some of which I may have been seeking previously, but they wouldn't cooperate because they didn't wanna-- make the system work, and re-label it as Trumpcare, I'm fine with that. Because what I'm thinking about are the millions of people, many of whom write me very personal letters-- "Dear Mr. President: I did not vote for you. I was against Obamacare. And then my son who didn't have health insurance signed up and we just found out that he had an illness. And thankfully he's now covered, otherwise he might not have gotten treatment and I might have lost my house."
"Dear Mr. President: You know, my husband got hooked on opioids and thank God we have coverage and were able to access substance abuse. He's clean now, he's gone back to work." You have people around the country who are benefitting from the steps that we've taken and as long as they continue to get helped, then at least I'll know in my own mind that the work we did here had a lasting impact.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You've often said that your toughest day in office was the day of the Newtown shootings. What was your toughest decision?
OBAMA: (SIGH) Toughest decision was early in my presidency when I ordered 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. As somebody who had run to end a large troop presence overseas. Now, I had said from the start that I thought Iraq was a mistake, that we should have stayed focused on Afghanistan. I think it was the right decision because the Taliban at that point had gotten a lot of momentum before I'd gotten into office, partly because we hadn't been paying attention as much as we needed to to Afghanistan.
And since that time we've been able to build up the Afghan security forces and stabilize it. But that was the first time in which I looked out at a crowd of West Point graduates and knew that some of those might not come back because of-- because of that decision--
STEPHANOPOULOS: How disappointing --then how disappointing is it to you that even though it's far fewer, there would still be troops in Afghanistan, still be troops in Iraq as you leave?
OBAMA: Yeah. Well, one of the things that I've learned, and I think we've all learned, is that we are not going to get the kind of decisive, permanent victories in this fight against terrorism that we would get from fighting another country. We're not going to get that MacArthur/Emperor moment, because by definition, even after decimating Al Qaeda in the Fata, even after taking out bin Laden there's still people there who have both the--the interest and the capacity if we don't maintain vigilance to strike against the United States.
And these are still countries that are fragile enough that we're gonna have to partner with them in some way. But what we have done, I think, is build a model from a lot of hard lessons in Afghanistan and Iraq-- but in other places around the world, where we are working with them in an advisory capacity.
It still puts burden on some troops of ours who are there as advisors and facilitators. But we don't have this huge footprint, we are less likely to be targeted as, you know, occupiers. And if you look at the current Mosul campaign again-- against ISIL, for example the-- the few thousand troops that we have there to support that effort allows the Iraqi military to move forward in an effective way.
Now, would they do it as fast as if we had 50,000 or 100,000 Marines in there? Obviously not. But it does give us the ability to make sure that we are strengthening those folk who are interested in building up their countries rather than destroying them, and doing so in a way that is sustainable and doesn't put a constant burden on the amazing men and women that we've got in uniform.
STEPHANOPOULOS: What has to be a disappointment on the home front is that-- it looks like the Democratic Party got pretty hollowed out on your watch, about 1,000 seats lost in the Congress, Senate, governors, state houses. Is that on you?
OBAMA: I take some responsibility on that. I-- I think that some of it was circumstances. If you look at-- what happened, I came in in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And unlike FDR who waited-- well, didn't take office until about three years into the Great Depression, it was happening just as I was elected.
I think we did a really good job in saving this economy and putting us back on the track of growth. But what that meant is in 2010 there were a lot of folks who were still out of work. There were a lot of folks who had lost their homes or saw their home values plummet, their 401k's plummet.
And we were just at the beginnings of a recovery. And the, you know, whoever is president at that point is gonna get hit and his party's gonna get hit. That then means that suddenly you've got a redistricting in which a lot of state legislatures are now Republican. They draw lines that give a huge structural advantage in subsequent elections.
So-- so some of this was circumstances. But what I think that what is also true is that partly because my docket was really full here, so I couldn't be both chief organizer of the Democratic Party and function as Commander-in-Chief and President of the United States. We did not begin what I think needs to happen over the long haul, and that is rebuild the Democratic Party at the ground level.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Part of your job now?
OBAMA: Well, I think that it's something that I have an interest in. As-- as you know, George, my entire career, I started as a community organizer. Every one of my campaigns was premised on getting new people involved. And if there's a theme in my public career it's that if ordinary people get involved then good things happen. So I want to see the Democratic Party move in that direction. And what that means is that we aren't just micro-targeting to eke out presidential victories; it means that we're showing up in places where right now we're not winning a lot.
And if you look at sort of how politics has divided itself here in this country, the big divide right now is between urban areas, which have become increasingly Democratic, and rural or exurban areas that feel as if they're being ignored. And if Democrats are not showing up in those places, even if you-- even if you're not gonna win right away but if you're not in there at least making an argument that, "Hey, you know what? It's the Democrats who are trying to raise your minimum wage.
"It's the Democrats who are trying to make sure you got health care or that your health care costs aren't killing ya. It's Democrats who were making sure that your kids aren't drinking polluted water. It's Democrats who are trying to reign in the banks if they engage in excesses so that you don't end up having a problem." If we're not there making the argument then the-- the cultural gulf that Republicans try to exploit saying, "Ah, these city slickers: they're all looking down on you, they don't care about you. They're just trying to help out their various special interest constituencies," that argument ends up being successful. And so we've got to do a better job of showing up. And I was able to do that when I was the candidate. But I have not-- I've not seen or-- or presided over that kind of systematic outreach that I think needs to happen.
STEPHANOPOULOS: This is JFK's desk, right?
OBAMA: Yeah. He used it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Famous story about him: Clare Booth Luce, the diplomat, former Congresswoman goes to him in 1962. He asks her, "What's on your mind?" She says, "The greater the man, the easier it is to describe him in a single sentence." And she said to him, "What's your sentence?" What's your sentence?
OBAMA: What was JFK's answer?
STEPHANOPOULOS: “I don't care what history thinks."
OBAMA: (LAUGH) I'm sure he did. (LAUGH) (PAUSE) I'd like to think that-- maybe the sentence is-- "President Obama believed deeply in this democracy and the American people." Because-- as I reflect back on what's worked for me in this office it's been that I've-- I've gotten people who maybe didn't believe in the process to get engaged. Ironically, I've even gotten the other side that maybe didn't believe in the process to get engaged. I, you know, I-- I-- I'm-- I gather I'm the-- the father of the Tea Party. I-- I invigorated the grassroots in the Republican Party as well as the Democratic Party. So, you know, I-- if-- health care got done because there were a lot of people out there who aren't professional politicians, but are citizens, who pushed for it even when the politics was hard.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But did you succeed on your own terms? Back in the campaign you talked about Ronald Reagan changing the trajectory of the country, setting on a fundamentally different path. Do you think you did that?
OBAMA: I think I did in the sense that there's a whole generation coming up behind us that was engaged, inspired, worked for change during the course of my presidency, saw what was possible. And that-- that-- that generation, it's coming. They're not the majority yet but they're gonna be the majority soon. And when you look at what they believe in, when they, you look at how they value diversity, how they believe in science, how they care about the environment, how they believe in, you know, everybody getting a fair shot, how they believe in not discriminating against people for sexual orientation and you know, their belief that we have to work with other countries to create a more peaceful world and-- and to alleviate poverty, that's the majority of-- of an entire generation that's coming up behind us.
STEPHANOPOULOS: They didn't come out to vote?
OBAMA: Well, you know, they came out to vote for me. And they came out to vote where that-- spirit was touched. The next phase and this is part of what I'm interested in doing after I get out of the presidency is to make sure that I'm working with that next generation so that they understand you can't just rely on inspiration. There's a little perspiration involved in bringing about change too. That you have to be organized, that you have to vote even when it's not exciting.
You have to be involved during midterm elections, you have to care about what happens at a school board level. You have to be involved in terms of what's happening in your local neighborhood and what issues are there. So-- so I think that there's gonna be a lot of work to do in order to consolidate the transformations that I was interested in. But I--but the spirit's there and-- and that's not just my imagination. I think if you look at surveys and attitudes among young people, you see it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I imagine you think the presidency's something you get better at over time?
OBAMA: You do.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But at what point does the experience become a liability? And what put this in my mind was reading Bob Gates' memoir. And he talks about being in the meetings with you and talking about the raid on Osama bin Laden, saying, "Maybe he's getting too cautious; he's been there too long." Is that a risk?
OBAMA: Well, what I'll say is this: I believe in term limits for presidents because I think that there is no doubt I'm a better president now than I was when I start. In fact, I-- I would argue that I-- I am the best president I've ever been over the last year or-- or two. My team is more effective than it's ever been. But what is also true is that number one, this is grueling. And sustaining the energy and focus involved in doing a good job I think starts to-- starts to gets tougher the longer you do it.
The second thing is, the bubble's the bubble. And-- and I think we've done a pretty good job staying in touch with the American people. But at a certain point you can't help but lose some feel for what's on the ground because you're not on the ground and-- and--
STEPHANOPOULOS: You didn't think Donald Trump could win?
OBAMA: Case in point. So-- so that tells me that there is-- there-- there's a utility in the democracy refreshing itself on an ongoing basis. And-- and that's part of what I tried to describe to my team and supporters after the election, there was a lot of disappointment. You know, I--what I've said to them is, "Look, we-- we ran our leg of the race and we did a darn good job." I can document-- in fact, this past week we're-- we've put out memos from every agency showing what did we do. Try to be as honest as possible. There's a little hype involved obviously. It's spin because it's our agencies. We-- we feel some pride about it. But tried to be self-critical as well. And-- and I can honestly say, George-- and I don't think there's a lot of dispute for this. You-- you can argue that we didn't get everything done that we wanted to get done, but I can make a really strong argument, and I think prove, that by almost every measure the country's better off now than when I started.
OBAMA: And so just to finish the thought, what that means then is that if we started here and we're now here, just like I described in health care, yeah, somebody comes in, they got new ideas, maybe ideas that are completely opposite of my ideas. Maybe some of it goes, maybe some of that progress goes back. Maybe they think of some things we didn't think of, and so in some other areas-- we can learn something.
But that just gives sort of the democracy an opportunity to test ideas, for those who lost to catch their breath, regain energy, reenergize themselves and then get back in the arena, and then we'll make some more progress in the future.
STEPHANOPOULOS: One-- one possible big exception: In the first line of your biography it's probably going to be "first African-American president."
STEPHANOPOULOS: The heart of your promise when you first burst on the national scene, bringing everyone together. And you look now and most African-Americans think we've gone backwards on race relations over the last eight years. What do you say to that?
OBAMA: I-- (SIGH) I am absolutely convinced that race relations on the whole are actually better now than they were 20 years--
STEPHANOPOULOS: Better now?
OBAMA: Yes. But we have greater awareness of where we're falling short than we used to. Let's just take the example of-- community police relations. I mean, the truth of the matter is that-- that the problem of police shootings and reactions in the community-- George, you and I are about the same age. I-- I think you remember what happened in Los Angeles after Rodney King, I think you remember what-- the divisions that happened after the O.J. trial. I think you -- the-- the notion that somehow any of that is new isn't the case.
What is true, though, is now we've got a bunch of videos that whatever side of the issue you're on, raises the temperature on these issues and makes people really focused and-- and-- and-- and trying to figure out, "What exactly is this?" And I think that is a healthy thing. But I also-- I'm not so out of touch that I don't see how young people interact today. And what's--
STEPHANOPOULOS: That horrific Facebook Live video yesterday--
OBAMA: And, well, it was horrific. And that's an example of something that it's not as if that's the first time that a hate crime has taken place in this country. Hate crimes have been taking place for hundreds of years in this country, but it's there on video. And the-- the-- the sort of seeing cruelty and callousness of that sort from young people is heartbreaking. And so naturally if you see a video like that you're gonna say to yourself, "My God, this is horrible," and-- and rightfully so.
But that allows us then to talk about how-- how-- how do we break free from those kinds of attitudes? And I think that we are in a position to continue to make progress, but it's gonna require us to both recognize what the problems are, also recognize the-- the-- the progress we've made. Last point I'd make on this, since we're on criminal justice: During the course of my presidency crime has been the lowest it's been probably since the '60s.
But you wouldn't know it if you were watching TV or looking at the internet, and you certainly wouldn't know it, listening to this past campaign. There are some exceptions: Chicago, my hometown, in particular. But overall in the country this is a much safer place than it used to be.
But if you ask the average person they'd tell ya, "Naw, it's much more dangerous," despite the fact that violent crime has dropped precipitously. And so we have to recognize we've got some big problems on race, just like we got still big problems on crime, just like we got big problems on just about everything. But we also have to make sure that we've-- draw confidence from the progress that we have made, 'cause otherwise, you get into this cycle of cynicism.
And you're also-- and I warn young people that I interact with about this-- you get into unrealistic expectations where you think that, "Oh, we're gonna eliminate racism like that. After Obama's elected how could there be any racism?" (LAUGH) Well, you know, that-- that-- that was never a realistic expectation.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I have one final question. I have a very strong memory of your inaugural. In that moment you're walking out of the Capitol, you see them all for the first time and you kind of pause and take it all in. Do you remember what you were thinking and feeling at that moment?
OBAMA: The two inaugurations were different. The first inauguration I was thinking to myself, "Let's make sure I don't screw this up." I think there is-- people always talk about how cool I am. I don't care how cool you are. JFK gave probably the greatest inauguration speech ever that first time, but I guarantee you when he first walked out there he was thinking, "Goodness gracious (LAUGH) this is-- this is-- this is big and I better be up to the task." I think the second inauguration you may recall I-- I finished my speech—
STEPHANOPOULOS: You turned around--
OBAMA:--I was walking out and I decided, "You know what? Let me turn back and-- and remember this." And-- and what I remember thinking at that point, having gone through both the ups and downs of my first four years, and seeing the sea of people was, "What a remarkable country this is and how lucky am I that-- that we live in a place where the son of a single mom, not born into any kind of fame or fortune, in a pretty remote state somehow can end up be in a position to-- to make a difference."
STEPHANOPOULOS: And at that moment, just a little under two weeks from now, when President-elect Trump finishes the oath, power passes from you to him, what emotion will you be left with?
OBAMA: It's hard to say. It's hard to anticipate. I can tell you what I'm feeling right now is that I'm busier than I expected these last two weeks. A great deal of emotion around the people that I've worked with and the gratitude I feel for the sacrifices they've made on behalf of the American people, but also on behalf of me personally. And I think I will still feel that same appreciation for what Churchill and others have said is the worst form of government except all the alternatives.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, thank you very much.
OBAMA: Thank you.