Full Interview Transcript: President Obama on 'This Week'

Pete Souza/The White House

Below is the full interview transcript for the interview conducted by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos with President Barack Obama. This may contain errors and will be updated.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, thank you for doing this.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Great to be here.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you had a friendly crowd out there but a pretty fierce Republican reaction in Washington. The Speaker this morning says your acting like an emperor and you're damaging the presidency. Your response?

OBAMA: Well, my response is pass a bill. You heard me out there today and you heard me yesterday. The truth is that the Senate did a good job in crafting a bipartisan bill that would have greatly improved our immigration system, and my preference is for a legislative solution to this problem.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But that didn't happen.

OBAMA: It didn't happen because the Speaker would not call the bill for a vote in the House. And he still has several weeks to call that bill in the House or he can work with me and Democrats to craft a new bill.

STEPHANOPOULOS: He says that's not going to happen now.

OBAMA: And the point is that ultimately, Congress has a responsibility to deal with these issues. And there are some things that I can't do on my own. What I do have is the legal authority to try to make the system better, given the resource constraints that we have, we have to prioritize…

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you have done more than you used to think you can do. You know several times over the last couple of years you were asked can you do more and you said nope, I am out of administrative flexibility, what changed?

OBAMA: Well, that's not true, if you look George, I often times was asked: 'Can you just halt deportations?' And I said, 'No I can't do that.'

STEPHANOPOULOS: No, but I have it right here-

OBAMA: Go ahead-

STEPHANOPOULOS: On a Google Hangout, you were asked specifically, "'What can you do to prevent families from being broken apart' and you said, 'I'm not an emperor, I am out of administrative flexibility.'"

OBAMA: I-I-George, what is absolutely true is that we couldn't solve the entire problem and still can't solve the entire problem. But what we can do is to prioritize felons, criminals, recent arrivals, folks who are coming right at the border, and acknowledge that if somebody's been here for over five years, they may have an American child or a legal permanent resident child, it doesn't make sense for us to prioritize them when we know that we need more resources-

STEPHANOPOULOS: But do you have the right to make that decision on your own?

OBAMA: Absolutely. If you look, every president - Democrat and Republican - over decades has done the same thing as I mentioned in my remarks today. George H. W. Bush, about 40% of the undocumented persons, at the time, were provided a similar kind of relief as a consequence of executive action-

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you know the response of both Reagan - but in that case, there were bipartisan bills passed, they were acting after the bills were passed, not because Congress did not act.

OBAMA: Well George, I'm not sure that argues in favor. If Congress acted specifically and left something out and then a President goes ahead right afterwards and does more than Congress agreed to, it's actually not different. It's similar. The fact is is that we exercise prosecutorial discretion all the time. And, you know, the primary response that I have to Speaker Boehner and others is go ahead and pass legislation. They don't need me to act. In fact, I encourage them to act but in the meantime what we've got to make sure of is, number one that our borders are secure and what I'm doing is going to allow us to put more resources there, number two it's going to allow us to focus on the people that we really want out. Number three, what it allows us to do is to say to folks who have been here for a while, register, we're gonna submit - you're going to submit to a criminal background check and you're going to pay taxes. Why we would prefer a system in which they're in the shadows, potentially taking advantage of living here but not contributing makes no sense.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How do you respond to the argument, a future president comes in, wants lower taxes. Doesn't happen. Congress won't do it - he says I'm not going to prosecute those who don't pay capital gains tax.

OBAMA: Well, the truth of the matter is, George, that the reason that we have to do prosecutorial discretion in immigration is that we know we are not even close to being able to deal with the folks who have been here a long time. The vast majority of folks understand that they need to pay taxes, and when we conduct an audit, for example, we are selecting those folks who are most likely to be cheating. We're not going after millions and millions of people who everybody knows are here and were taking advantage of low wages as they're mowing lawns or cleaning out bedpans, and looking the other way - but then you got politicians suddenly going out there saying, suggesting somehow that we should be deporting all of them. Everybody knows, including Republicans, that we're not going to deport 11 million people.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you don't think it'd be legitimate for a future president to make that argument?

OBAMA: With respect to taxes? Absolutely not. But what is true - what is true today is we don't audit every single person, but we still expect that people are going to go ahead and follow the law. And we have limited resources, we have to make sure that we prioritize those folks who are most dangerous and we should acknowledge what everybody has already acknowledged through their actions - and Congress acknowledges through their budget - which is we're not in the business of deporting millions of people or breaking up families.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Ted Cruz says that now Republicans should block every nomination going forward. Your friend Senator Tom Coburn is wondering about possible violence. What do you think about those reactions?

OBAMA: Well, you know, there's often a lot of rhetoric coming out of Congress, uh, and in Washington. But it doesn't match up to what I think the American people expect. What the American people expect is that if we disagree on one thing, then we disagree on that thing. And then we work on everything else. One of the habits that we've seen in Congress over the last four years since the House Republicans took over, is that everything becomes hostage to one disagreement. So a couple of years ago it was Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. And they decided, "We're gonna shut down the government because we disagree with this one law."

STEPHANOPOULOS: They say they're not gonna do that this time.

OBAMA: Well, if they're not gonna do that then we shouldn't have a problem, because we should be able then to work on a whole host of other issues… that's how our democracy has always worked.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How much has your view of executive power changed over the years? I remember when you were a senator you used to warn about presidents over-reaching, yet a lot of your critics now say you're doing it more than anyone else. Has your view of executive power changed?

OBAMA: It actually hasn't, George. If you look - the history is that I have issued fewer executive actions than most of my predecessors, by a longshot. The difference is the response of Congress. And specifically the response of some of the Republicans. But if you ask historians, take a look at the track records of the modern presidency, I've actually been very restrained. And I've been very restrained with respect to immigration. I bent over backwards and will continue to do everything I can to get Congress to work. Because that's my preference.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk about Ferguson. Everyone's waiting for the grand jury to hear, what the final word from the grand jury is. Your FBI has warned about possible violence in the wake of that decision. What is your message to the people of Ferguson and others who are looking to protest?

OBAMA: Well I think, first and foremost, keep protests peaceful. You know, this is a country that allows everybody to express their views. Allows them to peacefully assemble to protest actions that they think are unjust but using any event as an excuse for violence is contrary to rule of law and contrary to who we are. You know, part of what I have asked Eric Holder to do is to not just engage with the folks in Ferguson, but to engage nationally in a conversation between law enforcement and communities of color that often times feel as if they not being treated fairly by law enforcement officials. Sometimes their concerns are justified, sometimes they're not justified. Law enforcement has a very tough job. But what is clear is that that lack of trust between communities and law enforcement crops up not just in Ferguson but in places all across the country-

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you worried here?

OBAMA: You know, we saw during the summer the possibility of even overwhelmingly peaceful crowds being overrun by a few thugs who might be looking for an excuse to loot or to commit vandalism. What I've done is called Jay Nixon, the Governor of Missouri, to make sure that he has a plan to respond in a careful and appropriate way to any potential violence. To be able to sort out the vast majority of peaceful protesters from the handful who are not.

OBAMA: But - over the - in the end, what I have confidence in is that if we do a better job of training our law enforcement to be sensitive to the concerns of minority communities, then over time trust can be built in part because minority communities typically are subject to more crime. They need law enforcement more than anybody and there are a lot of communities in my hometown of Chicago, for example, who want to actually see more police in but they want to make sure the police are trained so they can distinguish between a gangbanger and a kid who just happens to be wearing a hoodie but just otherwise is a good kid and not doing anything wrong.

STEPHANOPOULOS: One of your heroes, John Lewis, has suggested that if there's no indictment in this case, it would be a miscarriage of justice, and another turning point like Selma. Do you agree with that?

OBAMA: You know, I love John, I didn't see the quote, so I don't want to comment on what John specifically said. But I will say this - that the kinds of ongoing problems we have with police and communities of color around the country are not of the sort that we saw in Selma. We're not talking about systematic segregation or discrimination. They are solvable problems if in fact law enforcement officials are open to the kind of training and best practices that we've seen instituted in lot of parts of the country.

OBAMA: One of the things I was proudest of when I was in the state legislature, way back when I was in Illinois, in Springfield, was to pass both a racial profiling law and a law governing police interrogations. And in each case I worked with the police, and - both state police and local police organizations, and what they found was that they actually ended up doing better police work, had more trust, you started seeing a reduction in complaints about the behavior of the law enforcement. So we know how to do this, but there's got to be a commitment on the part of law enforcement to do it. And the community has to then give law enforcement that's operating in good faith a chance to improve its practices.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think it would make sense for you to go to Ferguson after this decision?

OBAMA: You know, I'm going to wait and see how - how the response comes about. But what does makes sense is for not just me but my entire administration to work with willing partners at the state and local level to see how we can address some of these systematic issues.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What about the broader issues of race? I was struck by a poll I saw recently that said since 2009 the number of African Americans who think that race relations are getting better has actually gone down.

OBAMA: Well, you know, we go in sort of ebbs and flows. I think that my own experience tells me that race relations continue to improve. If you think about just in our lifetimes - we're about the same age - where we've traveled, there's no way to say that somehow race relations are worse now than they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, or 50 years ago. Part of what happens is that they get a lot more attention today - occasionally problems that used to be pretty common 20, 30 years ago weren't videotaped…

STEPHANOPOULOS: …everybody knows it instantly…

OBAMA: Now, you know, somebody's got a camera and people see it and, you know…

STEPHANOPOULOS: It could be a good thing sometimes…

OBAMA: …which is a good thing. I mean, a good thing in the sense that it lays bare - and I've said this before as an African American male, there have been times where I have experienced discrimination as a young man - it's been a while since it happened - and, you know, I think that folks on the other side of it might not understand why there are concerns or mistrust. Not because they're in denial, just they haven't experienced it. And so when people start seeing these instances, then they start saying "okay, maybe we understand what we're talking about."

OBAMA: But, it's important not to overreact either. Or to suggest somehow that we haven't made progress. One of the things that I think the presidency drives home is - in a democracy, progress is incremental. You know, and it goes in stutter-steps and sometimes there is some backsliding. But the overall trajectory I think is positive.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Big deadline coming up on the Iranian nuclear negotiations - on Monday. Is there gonna be a deal?

OBAMA: It's too early to tell. I know that Secretary Kerry and the Foreign Minister Zarif of Iran are in some pretty intensive discussions right now. The good news is that the interim deal that we entered into has definitely stopped Iran's nuclear program from advancing, and in some cases has actually rolled back some of the things that they were doing - their stockpiles, for example, how they enriched uranium. So it's been successful, and Iran has followed the terms of the deal.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The deal would require rollback, wouldn't it?

OBAMA: Well, so, now the question is, can we get to a more permanent deal. And the gaps are still significant. I think that our goal has consistently been to shut off a whole bunch of different avenues whereby Iran might get a nuclear weapon, and at the same time make sure that the structure of sanctions are rolled back step for step as Iran is doing what it's supposed to do. I think Iran would love to see the sanctions end immediately, and then to still have some avenues that might not be completely closed, and we can't do that.

OBAMA: So the good news is that the negotiations continue, and most importantly, that the international coalition that has made sanctions so effective has held. The P5+1 has held. Russia and China, you know where we often have tensions - you know, with Russia big tensions lately - nevertheless they've acknowledged that our position is a fair one, and the question now just becomes, "Can Iran say yes," and they've got their own hardliners.

STEPHANOPOULOS: They'd say the question is, "Can you say yes?"

OBAMA: Well, the difference is I've got the entire international community on my side, and they're sort of on their own.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you willing to extend if there's no deal by Monday?

OBAMA: You know, I think that what we're going to do is take a look at what emerges over the course of the weekend.

STEPHANOPOULOS: One final question on that. You know both you and President Rouhani have some constraints. He's got the Ayatollah: you have Congress. Are you confident that if you reach a deal, Congress will back it?

OBAMA: I'm confident that if we reach a deal that is verifiable and ensures that Iran does not have breakout capacity, that not only can I persuade Congress, but I can persuade the American people that it's the right thing to do. Our goal is never to resort to military actions as a first resort: our goal is to solve a particular problem here, which is making sure Iran doesn't trigger a nuclear arms race, can't threaten the United States, can't threaten allies like Israel. If we're able to accomplish that goal, if I'm confident of it, and my experts and the technical people can say here's the science behind why they can't break out and we have verifiable mechanisms in place, then I'm confident I can sell the deal to the country.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And then Iran joins the fight against ISIS?

OBAMA: Well, you know, Iran is already fighting ISIS through its various surrogates. We're not going to be I think anytime soon, you know, coordinating military activities with Iran, because keep in mind even if we solve the nuclear problem, we still have the problem of Iran sponsoring terrorist activities in the region, we still have problems in terms of their attitude towards friends like Israel. So there's going to be a long path towards normalization of our relationship with Iran.

OBAMA: What a deal would do is take a big piece of business off the table and perhaps begin a long process in which the relationship not just between Iran and us but the relationship between Iran and the world, and the region begins to change. I think ultimately that would be good for the people of Iran. You know it's a big country with a lot of talent, a lot of sophistication.

OBAMA: You know, Iran's not like North Korea, a country that's just completely isolated and completely dysfunctional. So they have the opportunity, I think, to really thrive. I suspect President Rouhani would like to seize that opportunity, but in the end he's going to have to deal with his politics at home, and he's not the ultimate decider inside of Iran; the Supreme Leader is.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Secretary Clinton tweeted out for support for your executive action last night and it just made me think of it. How- how's this gonna work over the next- couple years, your relationship with the secretary, as it certainly appears she's planning on running for president. Will you coordinate? Does she have your blessing to kind of separate when she needs to?

OBAMA: It- well, she hasn't announced so I don't wanna jump the gun. I can tell you a couple things. Number one, she was an outstanding secretary of State. Number two, she's a friend.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You still talk pretty regularly?

OBAMA: We do. Number three- I think- she- and- and a number of other- possible Democratic candidates, would be terrific presidents-

STEPHANOPOULOS: A number of other?

OBAMA: And I am very interested in making sure that- I've got a Democratic successor. So I'm gonna do everything I can, obviously, to make sure that- whoever the nominee is is successful. If she decides to run, I think she will be a formidable candidate and I think she'd be a great president.

OBAMA: And she's not gonna agree with me on- on everything. And, you know, one of the benefits of- running for president is you can stake out your own positions. You're- and- and have- a clean slate. A fresh start. You know, when you've been president for six years you- you know, you've got some dings and- (CHUCKLE) you know and- and-

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you don't mind absorbing a few more if that's-


STEPHANOPOULOS: -what it takes?

OBAMA: You know, I think- I think the American people, you know, they're gonna want- you know, that new car smell. (LAUGHTER) You know, their own- they- they wanna drive somethin' off the lot that- that doesn't have as- as much mileage as me.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I wonder how that's gonna make you feel, though, as this campaign's going on? You think you'll be itchin' to get back out there or glad to let someone else?

OBAMA: I- I tell you- when I think about the next two years, I just wanna every single day be making- this government work a little bit better for ordinary folks. And, you know, I told- my- cabinet this- and my White House staff the day. You know, it was- it was- it was a tough- election for us on the midterms and people were understandably down. And I said, "Folks, all of you collectively are in charge of the single most powerful institution in the world. And it's responsible for delivering on behalf of millions of Americans and billions of people around the world when you start looking at some of the- security and- and development assistance we provide."

OBAMA: I said, "Even if Congress doesn't do another thing, even if- you don't get a dime's more money or no new program is set up, you can figure out over these next two years how to make this thing work just a little bit better so that some kid out there who right now isn't- able to afford a college can get college."

OBAMA "So that somebody who doesn't have a job out there- has a better chance of getting a job or job training to prepare them for a job. So that somebody, you know- who- you know, is- is- is worried about- losing their home- has a chance to keep it."

OBAMA: And if- if I'm able to do that over the next two years- then not only will I be serving the American people well, I think I will be serving a potential successor well. You know, they're- they're probably not gonna be looking at me to campaign too much. As I said, it- you know, the- (CHUCKLE) one of the things about- our society which is great- is that- we don't have real long memories. And, you know, we get- we get impatient for the next thing. And I-

STEPHANOPOULOS: It's worked for you before.

OBAMA: It- it's worked for me (LAUGH) before and- and- you know, I- I think- at the end of two years if- if they want me to do some selective things- I'll be happy to do 'em, but I suspect that- folks will be ready to see me- go off to the next thing.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, thanks-

OBAMA: All right.


OBAMA: Appreciate it. Thank you.