In a recent interview with NPR, President Obama talks about what question he’d pose to the people who want his job — that is, the current field of presidential candidates.
The topic came up because Obama and NPR’s Steve Inskeep were discussing a different set of questions — the president’s questions for others.
Obama talks about interviewing people he finds interesting or extraordinary, and about the challenges he’s taken on, and those that remain in his presidency.
You’ll find a full transcript of these questions below. More of this interview is posted here.
STEVE INSKEEP: Final question, Mr. President, and it’s a question about questions. You’ve done something that I can’t recall other presidents doing over the course of this year. Several times, publicly, you’ve questioned people, interviewed people. You’ve put questions to a teenager on StoryCorps on NPR. You questioned a novelist. You interviewed a naturalist. Why are you doing that?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, one of the best things about this job is that you can talk to anybody. It turns out you pick up the phone if somebody is doing something interesting, something that inspires you, you can usually get them to take your phone call. You know, sometimes I do it to learn myself what is it that, you know, makes them tick and what can they teach me about the world.
Sometimes I just want to shine a light on somebody who I think is extraordinary. When I talked to that young teenager, that high school kid…
INSKEEP: Eighteen-year-old African-American.
OBAMA: You know, here’s a guy who was on the streets and going down the wrong path, most likely would have ended up in jail if you looked at the odds, and he was able, through faith and some timely intervention, to completely turn his life around and was on his way to college, and at a time where popular culture often portrays young African-American men coming from low-income neighborhoods as a danger, I wanted people to hear what an extraordinary kid this was, and how much he was like a lot of teenage boys who just may be growing up in more forgiving environments.
The novelist Marilynne Robinson, she’s become a friend of mine. I just love her books, and I think she says something about the essential decency and goodness of the American people. The folks she writes about are from Midwest and small towns and are rooted in, you know, flags and apple pie and Americana. And yet they’ve got these really complicated lives. What she says about our democracy and what’s best in us I thought was important for people to hear.
Part of what I hope people take from this year and the remainder of my presidency is that we have got big challenges. We’ve got divisions, we’ve got frustrations. There are real challenges and dangers like ISIL. There are big problems around how we make sure the economy is working for everybody and for middle-class families, how do we educate our kids for the 21st century when the kinds of skills that are going to be demanded are going to be so much more sophisticated and different from what a previous generation needed.
Those are all real challenges, real issues, but I hope people remember that this country is just brimming with incredible possibility and opportunity and that actually we’re surprisingly strong considering what we went through in 2007, 2008 with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. You’ve got an unemployment rate that has dropped down to 5 percent. You’ve got essentially five years of growth that’s been uninterrupted. People have recovered the value of their homes and their 401(k)s. You’ve got fewer kids dropping out of high school than ever before, more kids going to college than ever before.
We continue to produce incredible businesses that are transforming the planet. Internationally, just this year we’ve been able to help shape trade rules that are good for American workers, American businesses in the entire Asia-Pacific region. We’ve been able to forge a climate pact that can preserve the planet for future generations. Normalized Cuba. Made sure that Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons without having to fire a shot. And are every day making incredible contributions to reduce poverty and violence and abuse against women and gays and lesbians around the world. There is just good stuff happening.
And that doesn’t make us complacent about all the challenges that remain, but it’s a useful reminder as we wrap up this year. I remember standing outside, or looking at people standing outside the White House the day that the ruling about same-sex marriage came down. Families and friends and partners — people who had once felt that their lives had to be cramped and undercover, and now they’re hearing people say that they’re full American citizens like everybody else. That’s a good thing. That’s, that’s America.
I think it’s important for us to make sure that we are fully mindful of the incredible blessings that we received as we go into the holidays.
INSKEEP: If you had an opportunity to ask a question to the people who want your job — which maybe you could. One of these debates you could write in on Facebook and ask your question. What would you ask?
OBAMA: You know, that’s a great question, Steve, and I might have to give it some thought. But what I can tell you I ask myself every single day is, how can I be useful in creating an America that is more tolerant, more prosperous, provides greater opportunity, is safer.
So I might just ask somebody, why do you want to do this? And I suppose they’d give a cliche answer because that’s what candidates do, but I will tell you as president, if you are interested just because you like the title or you like the trappings or you like the power or the fame or the celebrity, that side of it wears off pretty quick. At least it has for me.
And what sustains me, what lasts, what makes me happy, proud, frustrated sometimes, is the recognition that if you want this job then you really need to love this country and have a very clear vision and idea of what it is that you want to do to help make this country work even better.
I don’t think this country works best on fear. I don’t think this country works best on hate. I don’t think this country works best on cynicism. I think this country works best on community and hope and optimism and dynamism and change.
If you are aspiring to this job then you need to ask yourself some very serious questions about why you’re doing it because that’s what’s going to keep you going on those days that things aren’t going so well.
INSKEEP: Mr. President, thanks as always for your time.
OBAMA: I enjoyed it. Thank you.
INSKEEP: It was great. Thank you very much.