President Obama spoke with NPR’s Steve Inskeep.
Steve Inskeep: You’ve been told, I think, that we are doing a documentary. We went across a good part of the country to places where you have given speeches over the years to just talk with people about how their lives have changed.
President Obama: That sounds great. I’m going to listen to this one.
I appreciate that. And that’s the beginning of our discussion here, although we’ll range a little bit farther. This caused me to go back and look at some of your speeches. And there was one in St. Charles, Mo., in 2010, in which you said, “Let’s face it, people have lost faith in government,” that it started before you were president and it is getting worse.
Do the events of this year suggest that it is getting even worse?
I’m not sure if it is getting even worse. I think that there has been a steady growth in people’s cynicism about institutions generally, and government in particular. And some of it is justified because we have got a Congress that’s been dysfunctional now for quite some time and can’t seem to organize itself to solve problems.
You now have a Republican Congress, they control both chambers and they can’t even pass their own agenda, much less pass something that has bipartisan support. And at a time when there are a lot of big issues out there, people feel as if things aren’t working the way they should.
Having said that, not all the cynicism is justified. Even without Congress cooperating, we have been able to make progress on a whole range of issues. And I think people are seeing that when government makes smart decisions, it actually has a significant impact. And part of my hope during the course of this election is that it’s clarifying that people say, all right, here’s what each party stands for, here’s what each presidential candidate and various congressional candidates stand for.
If we are going to move forward in a democracy then the ultimate arbiter of making things work is the voter, and putting people in charge who are serious about America’s business as opposed to just playing to various narrow constituency groups.
If some of the cynicism is not justified, are you concerned that voters this year will go too far in overturning things?
You know, ultimately I have confidence in our voters. If you look at American history, there have been times where we’ve taken some tough turns, primarily fed by fear and disruptions and dislocations, but with a very substantial exception of the Civil War, generally speaking, the democratic process muddled through and we emerged better and stronger than we were before.
And I have no doubt that the same thing will happen this time. But I do think that part of what has changed — during the course of my presidency, I’ve seen it — is the splintering of media. The power of social media and the Internet has turbocharged what previously might have been marginal views or marginal groups, has made it harder to generate consensus because people aren’t looking at the same set of facts.
I have said this before. If you are watching Fox News, you have a different set of facts than if you’re reading the New York Times editorial page. And that, I think, has led — or increased the polarization, and that makes it harder for people to sort through who is telling the truth and how we actually get stuff done.
Let me ask though, Mr. President, you’ve still got the biggest megaphone. People can even see you on Fox News. If you’ve been president for almost 7 1/2 years and people have still no faith in government, are you accountable for that?
Well, look, as a general proposition, I don’t spend a lot of time looking at polls. But what’s interesting is right now …
There’s a poll you like to look at.
Well, right now I think the majority of the American people think that I am doing a good job. That does not necessarily give me a lot of comfort if I can’t move this Congress forward. And the question then becomes — and I have heard some people in the Republican Party suggest that in some fashion I am responsible for what’s happened to them, and the rise of [Donald] Trump and the dysfunction that you see in their party generally.
What I would say is that I came into office wanting to work on a bipartisan basis, and if you’ve looked at my old speeches you would see that. [The Republicans] made a determination that it was good politics to oppose everything that I did. The problem was that by opposing everything I did, even things that previously they had been for, it pushed their party further and further to the right.
And, look, at the risk of sounding partisan, but I believe if you look at the facts that this is a pretty accurate description: When we talk about dysfunction in government, it’s not as if both parties are equally dysfunctional. The Democrats have a pretty well thought through agenda. When we were governing in the first two years of my administration, we got a lot done. We were probably as productive as any Congress in 20, 30, 40 years.
You have a particular problem in the Republican Party right now that needs to get sorted through. Now, that’s not unique in the annals of American history. There have been times when the Democrats were wrapped around the axle, and extreme wings were setting the agenda. And I think the Republicans will get out of this. I don’t think that it is something that will last the next 10, 15, 20 years.
But right now, at least, partly in reaction to my presidency and the political decisions that they made, they find themselves having created an atmosphere in which even somebody like Paul Ryan is viewed as not sufficiently conservative, or if he does just some of the basic work of governance that somehow he has betrayed the base and is decried as a Republican in name only.
And when you have that kind of environment, it’s very hard to get the kind of cooperation that is necessary for us to solve problems that people are concerned about and that I am assuming that during the course of your conversations they’ve raised repeatedly.
Let me ask one of those concerns. In Kansas, we spoke with a woman named Heather Gray, who said, 16 years ago I was making $10 an hour. Today, she said, I make $10 an hour. The problem of stagnant wages, of course, did not start with your presidency, but it hasn’t improved much. Why not?
Well, we’ve got some long-term trends that we have to battle, and when I came into office we were in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. We have successfully dug ourselves out of that hole.
The country has, but wages have not improved for average people …
I’m going to answer your question. Just giving it a little context here. So we had unemployment at 10 percent. It’s now below 5. We had a housing market that had completely collapsed. It’s now normalized. We had a situation in which people had lost trillions of dollars in wealth in their 401(k)’s and they have recovered it. In fact, Americans have gotten back about $30 trillion of wealth since I came into office. So by every measure, the economy has improved.
But the long-term trends that had occurred before I took office and have continued is a combination of globalization and automation, leading to more downward pressure on wages because you need fewer workers to make a certain amount of stuff; and entire job sectors being shrunk or eliminated; more and more people going into the service sector, and in the service sector, historically wages have been lower.
And that’s all been compounded by some very specific policies both at the federal and the state level that’s made it harder for workers to organize and get more leverage to get higher wages. This is why we fought for higher minimum wages. This is why we fought for making it easier to collectively bargain.
This is why, I think, it is so important that as we move forward, if we are going to benefit from all the huge productivity increases and efficiencies that arise out of the global supply chain and automated everything, then we are going to have to redesign that social compact to make sure that everybody is getting a decent wage.
And that is possible to do. It’s not as if we need a radical restructuring of the economy. If we had a minimum wage that required everybody to get — be above poverty if they are working full time, that would go a long way towards alleviating some of the trends that we talked about.
And in fact, we’ve seen wage growth now begin to occur over the last couple of years, but it’s not happening as fast as it should.
There is a writer for the Financial Times, Philip Stephens, who wrote something interesting after Britain voted to leave the European Union last week. He wrote in a column, globalization is not working, that it may make countries richer, but the majority of people are not benefiting.
He was writing about Britain, but you mentioned globalization in the context of the United States. Is he right, globalization isn’t working?
I think he is right that what you are seeing across the advanced economies is that when you have globalization and suddenly there is competition from everywhere, that empowers people who have a lot of skills, can use the Internet. Suddenly they have access to all the markets. And what that means is, if you are very good at something, if you are LeBron James or you are [Jerry] Seinfeld or you are Steve Jobs, then suddenly you can leverage your skills in ways that you could never do before.
If you are a manual worker, and are doing work that can be replaced not just by a lower-wage worker somewhere else but more frequently by a machine, then you are in a tougher spot because you now are competing against the entire world instead of just the people who live around you.
And that’s why it’s so important for us to think about how do we make sure that everybody is participating in that global economy. If you continue on the current trends, then what you are going to see is a continuing increase in inequality, and that is not going to be economically sustainable because it turns out that the economy works best when everybody has a stake in it and workers have money in their pockets and are spending it, and that’s good for business.
But it’s also not politically sustainable because people start getting frustrated, and they start getting resentful. And I think you see that somewhat in the Brexit vote. You see some of it in both the Sanders campaign and the Trump campaign, people feeling as if we are potentially being left behind.
Now the question then is, what’s the prognosis? Or what’s the cure to this whole thing? And the notion is that, from my perspective, we are not going to suddenly eliminate the global supply chain. We are not going to disentangle the world economy. It’s just too integrated now by virtue of technology and the Internet.
And so what we have to do is to make sure that wages around the world are beginning to rise, that environmental standards around the world are beginning to rise, that within our own countries we are providing the education that people need to compete in this global economy, with new skills for the new industries that are out there, that we invest more in things like infrastructure that make us competitive, and also, by the way, can’t be shipped away.
The issue is not that the world is shrinking and globalization is inherently a bad thing. I actually think that, over time, it can raise everybody’s living standards and create a more peaceful world. But if you do it in a way where the benefits of globalization are only for the elites who are flying around from capital to capital and looking at their investment portfolios on a laptop or a computer screen, and they are not worrying, they feel disengaged from their national economies and their national workers and their national communities, then you are going to see a reaction to it.
Donald Trump talked about global elites after the vote in Britain. Is Trump right that there are big parallels between what motivated the British vote and what people are feeling and thinking about in the election this year in the United States?
Well, first of all, I think it’s important to remember that Mr. Trump embodies global elites and has taken full advantage of it his entire life. So he is hardly a spokesperson for — a legitimate spokesperson for a populist surge from working-class people, on either side of the Atlantic.
I think that some of the concerns around immigration, some of the concerns around a loss of control or a loss of national identity, those are similar. I think there is a xenophobia, an anti-immigrant sentiment that is flashing up not just in Great Britain but throughout Europe, that has some parallels with what Mr. Trump has been trying to stir up here.
Having said all that, the U.S. economy has not only recovered but we are about 10 percent larger than we were pre-crisis, when I came into office. And Europe is just now beginning to get back to where it was pre-crisis. You’ve had a decade of stagnation there, partly because of austerity measures that we did not duplicate. The Republicans attempted to impose those kinds of strategies here and I resisted them, and I would argue that that is part of the reason why we did a lot better. We reformed our banking system a lot faster.
And so overall, I think that the differences are greater than the similarities. But what is absolutely true is that the ability to tap into a fear that people may have about losing control, and to offer some sort of vague, nostalgic feelings about how, you know, we’ll make Britain great again or we’ll make America great again. And the subtext for that is somehow that a bunch of foreigners and funny-looking people are coming in here and changing the basic character of the nation. I think that some of that is out there, both in Europe and the United States.
And again, that’s not unique to England. You’ve seen it in the Le Pen Party in France. You see it in some of the far-right parties in other parts of Europe as well.
You mentioned people fearful of change. The way that voters express that when we talk with them is that they are concerned about changing the traditions, values or institutions of this country that have made the country great over time. Immigrants do bring new ideas, new cultures, different religions, other things.
Does it matter particularly if they do change the country?
Well, I think that there are some bedrock values that shouldn’t change, and in fact, haven’t changed. It’s the immigrants that change, not the values themselves.
The values of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the values of free speech, the values of religious tolerance, the values of pluralism, the values of us being a nation of immigrants that can absorb people from every corner of the world and yet at the end of the day, because we all pledge allegiance to a flag and a creed, we become one. Those traditions should not change.
I think, ironically, that if you look at the values that immigrants bring when they come here — whether they’re coming from Poland, or Italy, or now Vietnam, or South Korea or India — the values they bring are quintessentially American values. They’re striver’s values; they’re the values that say we’re going to make something of ourselves, regardless of the station in which we were born.
When you look at second-generation immigrants, or third-generation immigrants, they are as American as any kid here. And that’s been our strength. That is part of what separates us from the United Kingdom or Europe, is we’ve had that tradition of being a nation of immigrants.
And so, you know, when people are concerned about some of the changes that immigrants may bring, you know, they need to go back and read what people were saying about their grandparents or great-grandparents when they came.
You read about the description of Irish who arrived, and the language that is being used is identical to the language that Mr. Trump uses about Mexicans. You know, when Southern Europeans were coming instead of Northern Europeans, there was absolute certainty that America was going down the tubes because these swarthy, you know, folks were coming here and they had different attitudes. And Catholics were coming, which meant that the pope was going to control us.
And — this kind of xenophobia is part of the American tradition, and the good news is that, you know, after these spasms of it, it typically fades away, because the immigrants who come here, in fact, are coming here precisely to embrace the opportunities of being American.
A couple of follow-ups, one each side of the Atlantic. Is there a danger that Europe, after this Brexit vote, will turn inward, focus increasingly on its own problems and its own turmoil, and be less active in the world?
Well, I think that the best way to think about this is [that] a pause button has been pressed on the project of full European integration. I would not overstate it. There has been a little bit of hysteria post-Brexit vote, as if, somehow, NATO’s gone and the trans-Atlantic alliance is dissolving and every country is rushing off to its own corner. That’s not what’s happening.
What’s happening is that you had a European project that was probably moving faster and without as much consensus as it should have. You have a monetary union — although England wasn’t a part of that — that was always going to be difficult to manage, because the economy in Germany is very different than the economy in Italy or Greece. And you have a European Union government in Brussels that, because it needs consensus from, you know, more than a — more than a couple of dozen countries, oftentimes seems overly bureaucratic and deadlocked.
And I think this will be a moment in which all of Europe says, all right, let’s take a breath, and let’s figure out how do we maintain some of our national identities, how do we preserve the benefits of integration and how do we deal with some of the frustrations that our own voters are feeling.
But the basic core values of Europe, the tenets of liberal, market-based democracies, those aren’t changing. The interests that we have in common with Europe remain the same. And our concerns internationally are the same.
So, Europe can’t afford to turn in. They’re going to have to worry about working with us on the Middle East; they’re going to have to worry about us working together to deal with an aggressive Russia. They’re going to have to deal with us, with respect to how do we continue to uphold international rules and norms around the world that have served both the U.S. and Europe very well.
And so, I don’t anticipate that there’s going to be major cataclysmic changes as a consequence of this. Keep in mind that Norway is not a member of the European Union, but Norway is one of our closest allies. They align themselves on almost every issue with Europe and us. They are a place that is continually supporting the kinds of initiatives internationally that we support.
And if over the course of what is going to be at least a two-year negotiation between England and Europe, Great Britain ends up being affiliated to Europe like Norway is, the average person is not to notice a big change.
Should Britain vote again, as some have suggested?
I think that is entirely up to them.
OK. On this side of the Atlantic, we heard from a number of people about immigration when we traveled across the country. One of them was a man named Jose Luis Valdez. He is a business owner, a restaurant owner in Kansas City, Kan. He is a new citizen.
So, he is getting ready to vote for the first time, but he has followed politics for a long time.
He knows that you won the Latino vote very heavily in both your elections.
And speaking about the failure to pass immigration reform, he said of you, he used us. He used our votes. Felt you should have done it when you had a chance when you had a Democratic Congress, you should have done more.
What would you say to him?
Well, what I would say to him is his restaurant might not be doing so well if I hadn’t focused my first two years on saving the economy. So, it’s not as if I didn’t have anything else to do. And I think it would be pretty hard to argue that I haven’t put everything I’ve had into getting this done.
But, you know, one of the things that I have learned in this presidency is that until you get something done, people are going to be frustrated. You think of the incredible progress we’ve made during the course of my presidency with respect to LGBT rights — the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender — the historic speed with which we consolidated equal treatment for that population has been amazing.
And you know, these days, if I go before an LGBT crowd, you know, people are cheering and saying I’ve been one of their greatest champions. But it was only about three or four years ago when, you know, I would get heckled in some LGBT events because, you know, marriage equality hadn’t gotten done yet. Or before that, “don’t ask, don’t tell” hadn’t gotten done yet.
And it didn’t matter how many times I told them, look, you know, it’s — it’s going to get done. It’s just — it turns out that the wheels in democracy don’t always move as quickly as you’d hope. And I can’t just do these things with a stroke of the pen.
You know, that’s — that’s sort of the nature of all social change here. And so, if you — if you were interviewing one of the DREAM Act kids, who over the last several years have been able to get a driver’s license, a permit to work or [go] to school, have joined our military, they — they wouldn’t say that they have been used. They would say, thank you. And I think that’s the reason the vast majority of Latino voters continue to support me, because they see the effort that has been put in.
Now, one last point I’ll make, because I — right after this most recent Supreme [Court] ruling, or lack of ruling came down …
4 to 4
Because it was basically a 4-4 tie. I said to them, look, everything is teed up. And instead of despairing, you just need to understand we’ve got four months, five months, and you’ve got a very clear choice between two candidates — one of whom not only supports all the initiatives that I’ve put forward, but is going to be in a position if I don’t get a ninth Supreme Court justice to break that tie.
And to — one way or another, by next year, we’re going to have either my administrative solution to immigration reform done, it will be in train, because it will have been decided on and — and will no longer be blocked. Or, alternatively, you know, Mr. Trump will win, in which case, you know, we’ll have a whole bunch of other problems on our hands with respect to immigration.
So, in some ways, this is how the democratic process works. And I’m constantly reminding young people, who are full of passion, that I want them to keep their passion, but they’ve got to gird for the fact that it takes a long time to get stuff done in this democracy. It’s not as convenient as, you know, people would always like, but this is a big country with a lot of diverse views.
Let me ask about a passionate young person that we met along the way. His name is Kwame Rose.
He is an activist now in Baltimore. He was active in the protests after the death of Freddie Gray …
… who was in a police van, and died later, as you know.
And he was unhappy with a statement that you made at the time, when you were supportive of peaceful protests but also criticized what you called criminals and thugs who had looted stores.
He felt that you were being too harsh and went on to say in our interview that you were speaking from a position of privilege, his suggestion being that maybe you didn’t quite get what was going on in the streets.
What would you say to him?
Well, obviously, I don’t know him personally, so we would have to have a longer conversation.
What I would say is that the Black Lives Matter movement has been hugely important in getting all of America to — to see the challenges in the criminal justice system differently. And I could not be prouder of the activism that has been involved. And it’s making a difference.
You’re seeing it at state and local levels, and the task force that we pulled together in the wake of Ferguson has put forward recommendations that were shaped both by the people who organized the Ferguson protests as well as police officers. And it turns out that there’s common ground there, in terms of how we can be smart about crime, smart about policing, respectful to all communities and try to wring some of the racial bias that exists in the criminal justice system out of it.
What I would also say, though, is that if somebody is looting, they’re looting. And the notion that they’re making a political statement is not always the case because these are businesses oftentimes owned by African-Americans.
You have situations in which suddenly — friends of mine in Baltimore, their mothers who are elderly have to now travel across town to get their medicines because the local drugstore got torn up. And making excuses for them I think is a mistake.
There are ways of bringing about social change that are powerful and that have the ability to pull the country together and maintain the moral high ground and there are approaches where I may understand the frustrations, but they’re counterproductive. And tearing up your own neighborhood and stealing is counterproductive.
If I were to summarize what else this young man said, I might say that he feels that he is trying to overturn what he sees is a racist or corrupt system and that you’ve become part of it.
Yeah, look, Steve, I think that you can always find folks who are going to feel as if change hasn’t happened fast enough. That’s the nature of these issues and by virtue of being president of the United States, if there is a problem out there then I’m the ultimate public official that people know.
And if it hasn’t gotten fixed in a couple of weeks, people are going to say, why didn’t you fix it? I think it’d be — I think people would be pretty hard-pressed to not see the efforts that we put in around criminal justice reform where we’re supporting it fully.
The initiatives that we’ve made with local mayors and state officials around the country to reform the criminal justice system, the fact that as president, I’ve been the first ever to even visit a federal prison, that the positions I’ve taken on criminal justice issues are unprecedented by any president.
The work we’re doing with commutations is unprecedented and I have now commuted more sentences for nonviolent drug offenses than the last seven or eight presidents combined. But if you’re interviewing an 18- or 20-year-old …
22 in this case.
… 22-year-old kid on the streets of Baltimore who is still feeling frustrated, then I’m not going to be surprised if that frustration’s expressed.
As part of this project, we also had a look at your 2008 campaign speech in Philadelphia about race in which you talked in one passage about anger in the black community, which you said is sometimes counterproductive but it’s real and there are reasons it.
There’s another passage which I hadn’t even noticed before, in which you say there is a similar anger among some in the white community who don’t feel particularly privileged by their race and do feel frustrated that they’re losing jobs, losing pensions, feel like they’re losing ground.
Looking back, were you describing there the same force that is driving much of our election discussion here in 2016?
Well, not only the election and discussion driving 2016; this has been an ongoing theme in American history. You can go back and during Jim Crow and segregation and you’ve got black sharecroppers who have nothing and alongside them, poor white farmers who don’t have that much more except for the fact that they’re white.
And the degree to which a lot of politics in the South were specifically designed to make sure that that sharecropper and that white farmer didn’t get together to question how the economy was structured and how they both could benefit, that’s — that’s one of the oldest stories in American politics.
So — so it’s not surprising that what I said in 2008 still holds true today. It was true for a long time.
The nature of racial bias in this country is unique and the challenges that African-Americans have faced are incomparable. Native Americans in this country, you know, were burdened by extraordinary bias and cruelty, as well. And it’s probably not useful to sort of catalog every possible group’s grievances.
What is true, though, is that as I travel around the country, what a black, working-class person has in common with a white, working-class person is significant. And what prevents them from voting along the same lines or working together on the same projects [has] to do with a whole range of cultural and identity issues which, you know, they obviously feel are important and valid.
But what I’ve tried to do throughout my presidency is get — try to get people to recognize themselves in each other, and that’s probably partly related to my own upbringing. I was raised by a white mom and white grandparents who, you know, never suffered the kinds of discrimination that their black cohorts might have experienced but who had their own struggles, who went through a Great Depression, who — a grandmother who had to work her way up without ever a college education, starting in the steno pool or as a secretary to be — and experienced her own discrimination because of being a woman.
And so I’ve seen the degree to which their struggles are not that different from Michelle’s parents’ struggles, at least in terms of how they think about it, and the similar values of hoping that their kids are going to do better and that education is the key. And that, you know, everybody’s got to work hard and take responsibility but that they’d like a government that was more responsive to clear out some of the barriers for their advancement.
And I believe that our politics — when our politics are at our best — is not based on identity politics, but it’s based on a sense that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should get a fair shake. Everybody should be responsible for doing their fair share, and you know, that theme you’ll see in every speech that I’ve given since I was running for the state Senate, and it hasn’t changed much now that I am nearing the end of my political career.
Somebody following this year’s election might say, well, that debate’s worse, it’s gotten worse. Do you see any sign that that debate is any better, that it’s moved in some direction?
You see it in the younger generation. If you look at the 18-to-30 cohort, or the 18-to-40 cohort, they have a very different set of attitudes about all these issues. It’s true, by the way, around the world.
… we were talking about Brexit, you know. The younger voter wasn’t fearful of global interdependence. They embrace it. They see themselves as being able to navigate through all these different worlds.
You see it when I visit Vietnam, or countries in Africa or Latin America at — the new generation is much more comfortable with diversity, with connectivity, with the fact that change is constant, that they are not going to be working at one job for 30 years. And you know, they want to make sure that they can get the skills, they can get the access. But they see a bright future for themselves.
That’s where the hope is. Here in the United States, you talk to young people, it doesn’t matter where, it doesn’t matter whether they’re black, white, Latino. They’re not afraid of the future.
And so when you look at the — the frustrations and the fear that a Trump [is] tapping into, you know, that’s an earlier generation that feels unsettled. And I think we can be sympathetic and understanding of the fact that they feel unsettled, but — but also recognize that, you know, if we get the decisions that need to be made right, then 10 years from now, 20 years from now, we may look back at something like the Trump campaign as the last vestige of — a kind of politics of us versus them that really doesn’t apply to — to today.
And one last thing I’d say about this, because you will — you will hear sometimes people suggest that, well, if Democrats and Republicans had been paying attention to white, working-class voters, then something like Trump would not have happened.
Well, the fact is, is that my administration, for example, when we promote a higher minimum wage or stronger union laws or health care, for that matter, that’s helping that cohort. That is designed to make sure that they get a better deal in this economy.
And, you know, one of the things that you’ve seen during the course of my presidency is the ability, the power of a certain slice of the media to emphasize to white, working-class voters somehow that these things are not good for you, that this is Obama and his socialist friends who are trying to take money from you to give to an undeserving, you know, Mexican immigrant or black welfare mom and — and tapping into — sort of an identity politics that, you know, is powerful and oftentimes can work, but it is actually counterproductive, and it certainly does not reflect what we have been trying to do.
What is true and what’s — what’s been interesting to see during this election cycle is that the Republican Party that has opposed minimum wages or union laws or what have you, they have a populist insurgency on their hands. And Mr. Trump, I think, has, at times, exploited this — this gap between what, you know, the Republican business community has promoted and — and what their constituencies are actually looking for.
We ran across a statement of yours from 2008 about changing the trajectory of the country. You said that Ronald Reagan had changed the trajectory of the country, partly because the country was ready for it. It was his moment. That John F. Kennedy had done the same thing, because it was the right moment. The country was going in a certain direction.
You wanted to see such a moment. You believed there was such a moment for you in 2008. Is there a risk that Donald Trump could say the same thing in 2016, that he could be the man to change the trajectory of the country now?
Well, if he won, he could say that.
I mean to say, you think the country might be ready for that?
No. And I think that will be tested over the next four months. But I think it is pretty hard to argue that somebody who almost three-quarters of the country think is unqualified to be president and has a negative opinion about it is tapping into the zeitgeist of the country, or is speaking for a broad base of the country.
But we’ll find out. Look, that’s what elections are for, and that — I think it’s important for Democrats, progressives, moderates, people who care about our traditions, who care about pluralism, who care about tolerance, who care about facts, who think climate change is real, who think that we have to reform our immigration system in an intelligent way, who believe … in women’s equality and equality for the LGBT community.
I think it’s important for those of us not to be complacent, not to be smug. And you know, the one thing I have tried to do during the course of my presidency is to take seriously the objections and the criticisms and the concerns of people who didn’t vote for me.
I said on election night back in Grant Park, I’m president of everybody. I’ve got a particular point of view. I’ve — I don’t make any apologies for it. I believe that, if you go back and read my speeches dating back to 2004, where I first came to national prominence, that there has been a consistency there, that I have done or tried to do exactly what I said.
And the core of that message is “e pluribus unum,” out of many, one, that — that we are better when we are together, that I do not believe in tribalism. I do not believe in stoking divisions and scapegoating.
I think that people have common hopes and common dreams. And I think that America is at its best when we are unified and working together. And during the course of my presidency, you’ve seen polarization and division and all kinds of consternation and frustration. But what you’ve also seen quietly is a country that yanked itself out of a Great Recession and recovered as well as any country ever has from such a massive financial breakdown.
You’ve seen 20 million people have health insurance that didn’t have it before and health care inflation actually going down so that, you know, we’ve saved trillions of dollars in cost relative to what we’re expected to be paying over the course of programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
What we’ve seen is a financial system that is a lot sounder. We see an LGBT community that is — is recognized as equal in ways that they weren’t before. You’ve seen an entire generation grow up, I think, feeling as if the old divisions don’t make sense.
And you know, I feel pretty confident that as long as we do the work over the next several months and then continue that work over the next several years, that we will have emerged from this era stronger, more prosperous, more secure and adhering more closely to the values and ideals that make America exceptional.
Last question, Mr. President. We’ve gone across the country, we’ve gone across the country asking people how their lives have changed in the last eight years. That was the basic question. How has your life changed in the last eight years?
Well, everybody’s teased me about how gray I am and that’s OK. My daughters have …
That picture of you and Derek Jeter, that was something. That was — that was some gray. But go on, go on, I’m sorry.
My — my daughters have grown up and I think for any father out there, seeing your kids come into office — when I came in office, they were so much younger than I realized at the time, I think. And for them to be these amazing young women now, that changes your life more than just about anything.
It’s interesting, though, that my fundamental belief in public service, my fundamental belief in the capacity of politics to — to solve problems, my belief in this country is stronger, not weaker. I’m less cynical now than I was.
I’ve been frustrated by some things that I did not complete, that I couldn’t wrap and mail and ship before I got out of here. Immigration reform being a good example. Getting infrastructure done, you know, we got $2 trillion worth of infrastructure. If we got working on that now, we’d be growing a lot faster, the unemployment rate would be even lower, wages would be higher.
So there are things that we haven’t gotten done. Obviously, there are — there areas internationally where I’ve been enormously frustrated. You look at Syria being the most prominent example, where you’ve got a heartbreaking situation and not a lot of good choices.
Having said all that, if you had told me at the beginning of my presidency that we could begin the process of making sure everybody has health insurance in this country; that we could recover fully from a terrible economic crisis; that, you know, we could make sure that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon without having to launch a war; that we could restore diplomatic relations with Cuba in a way that didn’t just transform our relationship with Cuba, but has put our relationship with all of Latin America on its strongest footing, maybe in history.
If you told me that we could, you know, extend democracy to a place like Burma, one of the worst, you know, military dictatorships in the world and that I could visit there and you’d see millions of people lining the streets. If you told me that — that you could have gay and lesbian men and women proudly serving in our military without having to hide who they were, or that you could have a bipartisan effort to actually reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenses have a credible chance of getting through Congress.
You’d tally it up, it’s not bad for 7 1/2 years’ worth of work. And the stuff that has not gotten done, it’s teed up to get done. Climate change, with the Paris Agreement, 200 countries signed on — is a classic example of how I think about my work, but also the possibilities of government and politics.
We haven’t solved climate change because of that agreement, but we have now built an architecture that allows us, gives us a change to, over time collectively, in an unprecedented way, curb the pollution that contributes to climate change. And have we gotten it all done yet? No.
But have we now given the next president, the next Congress, the next generation a chance to solve it? Absolutely.
And — and I’ve said this before: I think of myself as a relay runner. I take the baton. Sometimes, you take the baton and you’re behind in the race, and you’ve got to run a little bit harder to catch up.
Hopefully, by the time you pass on the baton, you’re a little bit better positioned in the race. And I think there is a humility that comes out of this office, because you feel that no matter how much you’ve done, there’s more work to do.
But I think that there is a confidence that well-meaning people working together can — can change the country for the better. I’ve seen it happen.
Mr. President, thanks very much.
Thank you. Enjoyed it.