As his two-term presidency draws to a close, Barack Obama is looking back—at the legacies of his predecessors, as well as his own—and forward, to the freedom of life after the White House. In a wide-ranging conversation with one of the nation’s foremost presidential historians, he talks about his ambitions, frustrations, and the decisions that still haunt him.
Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
His presidency is winding down. A contentious election—fought largely over his record and legacy—is about to be decided. With that in mind, Barack Obama recently invited the presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to the White House for a long, personal, open-ended conversation. The meeting, arranged by Vanity Fair, took place in the president’s private dining room, just off the Oval Office.
Doris Kearns Goodwin is no stranger to these precincts. She has been in and out of the West Wing ever since 1967, when, as a 24-year-old White House Fellow, she worked closely with Lyndon Johnson during the last year of his presidency (and then afterward as he wrote his memoirs). She has earned a raft of literary prizes, including a Pulitzer, for books about J.F.K., L.B.J., Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and, most notably, Abraham Lincoln—the subject of her landmark history, Team of Rivals, whose title gave America’s political language a new and permanent catchphrase. (Steven Spielberg would use Goodwin’s book as the basis for his film Lincoln, and when Daniel Day-Lewis won the 2012 best-actor Oscar for his portrayal of the president, he entered the Vanity Fair after-party with the author in tow.)
Goodwin likes to tell the story of the day in the spring of 2007, when a young Illinois senator phoned her, out of the blue, requesting that they meet because he’d just finished reading Team of Rivals. That call would begin a friendship. Since taking office, Obama has occasionally invited Goodwin, along with a small cohort of presidential historians, to come to the White House to discuss past presidents, their legacies—and his. And over the years she has had the president’s ear and provided historical context and, on occasion, counsel.
In their conversation, the president and Goodwin exhibit an easy camaraderie, sometimes completing each other’s sentences. They touch on everything from comedy Web sites to bodysurfing in Hawaii. But the central focus is on history, and on enduring questions. What is presidential temperament? How does a leader maintain perspective? When does the job of president feel the heaviest? What is good and bad about ambition?
Obama and Goodwin spent more than an hour over coffee, water, and scones (“I won’t be eating those,” said the president), followed by a brief chat in the Oval Office. Obama, in shirtsleeves, sat in a straight-backed chair, his long frame relaxed, legs crossed, as he responded or parried—always thoughtfully, sometimes intensely. V.F.’s Annie Leibovitz photographed at the start of the session and then re-entered, periodically, but mainly let them be.
The walls of the private dining room and the hallway nearby are lined with telling mementos: images of Martin Luther King Jr.; a photo of the president with Nelson Mandela; and a Life-magazine cover showing the 1965 march on Selma, signed by civil-rights leader John Lewis (who, inside the House chamber the next morning, would lead a sit-in against gun violence). Tables in the room hold framed family photos, a bust of J.F.K., and a pair of Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves.
Looming over everything is The Peacemakers, an oil painting of Lincoln and his war council. And in its way the picture, by George P. A. Healy, with its none-too-subtle rainbow shining above Lincoln’s shoulder, seemed to visually reinforce the discussion at hand. Obama, for his part, noted at one point that even in the nation’s darkest moments he gains strength—and perspective—by tapping into an abiding sense of optimism. It is a heartening notion in an era of blaring headlines, instant analysis, and perishable sound bites.
The conversation between Obama and Goodwin, above all else, is a conversation between two writers, each steeped in history.
GOODWIN: Preparing for this conversation today, I realized that it was nine years ago that you first called me on my cell phone: “Hello, this is Barack Obama. I’ve just read Team of Rivals and we have to talk about Lincoln.” Soon afterward, I came to see you in your Senate office. So what was it about him? What made you give your announcement speech in the shadow of the Old State Capitol? What spoke to you about Lincoln to make you say, “I love this guy”?
OBAMA: Well, look, I’m from Illinois, and I spent eight years down in Springfield. So the location and the announcement, to some degree, made sense optically. My particular passion for Lincoln, though, dates back from my earliest memories of politics. And we’ve talked about this before—that there’s no one who I believe has ever captured the soul of America more profoundly than Abraham Lincoln has.
Not just his biography, of somebody who genuinely rose from nothing, self-taught, striking out along the borders of our Great Frontier. Somebody who worked with his hands and then worked with his mind, and somehow became one of the greatest writers in the English language. And I think, most importantly, somebody who was able to see humanity clearly, see the fundamental contradictions of the American experiment clearly, and yet still remain hopeful and still remain full of humor, and still have a basic sympathy for the human condition, even in the midst of a terrible war and having to make terrible decisions. And having a forgiving spirit.
I mean, I could go on and on for hours about Lincoln. For me, Lincoln is like just a handful of people—a Gandhi, or a Picasso, or a Martin Luther King Jr.—who is an original and captures something essential.
GOODWIN: When Lincoln was 23 years old, and running for office the first time, he said, “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.” And then, a decade later, when he was in the midst of a depression so severe that his friends took all the knives, razors, and other dangerous things from his room, he said he was more than willing to die but that he had “done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived.” Isn’t that incredible? So how would you describe your “peculiar ambition” that every man has? And when did it develop?
OBAMA: It’s always dangerous to amend the words of Abraham Lincoln, but let me see if this is a friendly amendment. I actually think, when you’re young, ambitions are somewhat common—you want to prove yourself. It may grow out of different life experiences. You may want to prove that you are worthy of the admiration of the demanding father. You may want to prove that you are worthy of the love of an absent father. You may want to prove that you’re worthy of other kids or neighbors who were wealthier than you and teased you. You may want to prove that you’re worthy of high expectations. But I do think that there is a youthful ambition that very much has to do with making your mark in the world. And I think that cuts across the experiences of a lot of people who end up achieving something significant in their field. I think, as you get older, that’s when your ambitions become “peculiar” …
GOODWIN: Oh, well said, sir. We can amend Lincoln.
OBAMA: … because I think that at a certain stage those early ambitions burn away, partly because you achieve something, you get something done, you get some notoriety. And then the particularities of who you are and what your deepest commitments are begin expressing themselves. You’re not just chasing the idea of “me” being important, but you, rather, are chasing a particular passion.
So, in my case, you could analyze me and say that my father leaving and being absent was a motivator for early ambition, trying to prove myself to this apparition who had vanished. You could argue that me being a mixed kid in a place where there weren’t a lot of black kids around might have spurred on my ambitions. You could go through a whole litany of things that sparked me wanting to do something important.
But as I got older, then my particular ambitions started cohering around creating a world in which people of different races or backgrounds or faiths can recognize each other’s humanity, or creating a world in which every kid, regardless of their background, can strive and achieve and fulfill their potential.
And those particular ambitions end up being rooted not just in me wanting to prove myself, but they end up being rooted in a particular worldview, a recognition that the world only makes sense to me given my life and my background if, in fact, we’re not just an assortment of tribes that can never understand each other, but that we’re, rather, one common humanity that can meet and learn and love each other.
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GOODWIN: And at some point politics becomes the channel for that, right?
GOODWIN: For example, young F.D.R. seemed a pretty ordinary guy. At 28 he’s a clerk in a law firm. He hasn’t done anything particularly great in college or law school. He gets his first chance to run for the state legislature, and somehow, when he’s out there on the campaign trail, something clicks in. William James said, “At such moments, there is a voice inside which speaks and says, ‘This is the real me.’ ” And F.D.R. knew then that’s what he wanted to be.
OBAMA: I think F.D.R. is a great example of what I mean. If you look at his early life, it is ambition for ambition’s sake …
OBAMA: It’s like he’s just checking off boxes. There’s no sense of what he wants to do with power; he wants power. There’s no clarity about where he wants to take his notoriety; he just wants to be famous. And there’s a hunger there, right?
GOODWIN: And that’s partly because of Teddy Roosevelt …
GOODWIN: Because Teddy—his distant cousin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncle—did this, so I’m going to be this at 25, I’m going to be this at 30; I’m going to be president. He says this at 28, but he doesn’t have that inner …
OBAMA: And some of it is his mom, right? Who’s just been telling him from day one …
GOODWIN: “You’re the best. You’re the center of the world.”
OBAMA: “You’re the center of the world” and all that. So there are all these things going on. And then he gets polio. And then suddenly there’s this intersection between a personal crisis and what is beginning to happen in the country. And that thing in him that was great but untapped suddenly is released in a way that reflects compassion …
GOODWIN: And empathy.
OBAMA: … and empathy. And the innate optimism that early on might have been cockiness now is leavened with tragedy in a way that makes that optimism that much more profound, right?
By Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Presidential Library.
GOODWIN: There’s no question. Adversity in almost all the presidents I’ve studied changes them. For Teddy Roosevelt, in 1884, losing his wife and his mother on the same day, in the same house. He goes to the Badlands, and he’s suddenly out among people. Both he and F.D.R. had to move beyond their privileged class. Polio and his time at Warm Springs, Georgia [rehab facility], allowed F.D.R. to do that. And then they created a different sense of themselves, connected to other people—partly what you’re talking about—wanting to make other people’s lives better. Fate had dealt them an unkind hand, like it does to many, and they suddenly felt more deeply toward a wider range of people.
OBAMA: Exactly. And so I think there’s a process you go through. I found during the course of my political career on the national scene—which is relatively compressed compared to some of these other presidents—there’s a point where the vanity burns away and you’ve had your fill of your name in the papers, or big adoring crowds, or the exercise of power. And for me that happened fairly quickly. And then you are really focused on: What am I going to get done with this strange privilege that’s been granted to me? How do I make myself worthy of it?
And if you don’t go through that, then you start getting into trouble, because then you’re just [gesturing, as if climbing a ladder] clinging to prerogatives and the power and the attention. There’s an expression that my daughters use: You get thirsty.
GOODWIN: And the thirst is unquenchable.
OBAMA: And the thirst is unquenchable. And that’s what you see, I think, sometimes with somebody like a Nixon—a brilliant person who, early on, had ambitions that probably were not that different from an F.D.R., certainly not that different from an L.B.J. But that thirst overwhelms everything, and you start making decisions based solely on that.
GOODWIN: So that brings us to the question of temperament, which is probably the greatest separator in presidential leadership. There’s that quote when [retired Supreme Court justice] Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who met with F.D.R. after his inauguration, famously said Roosevelt had “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” How would you describe your temperament and why it’s fit for this office if, in fact, you think it is?
OBAMA: Well, whether it’s fit for this office or not is up to historians like you to determine. I think it’s fair to say that my temperament is [pause, seemingly in search of the right word] steady—and on the buoyant side.
GOODWIN: Do you think of yourself as an extrovert?
OBAMA: No. On the spectrum of successful politicians, I’m not introverted the way some have been, but I’m not an F.D.R. or a Bill Clinton, who are just constantly …
GOODWIN: Needing the people all the time.
OBAMA: … in a crowd and just relishing it. I like my quiet time. There is a writer’s sensibility in me sometimes, where I step back. But I do think that I am generally optimistic. I see tragedy and comedy and pain and irony and all that stuff. But in the end I think life is fascinating, and I think people are more good than bad, and I think that the possibilities of progress are real.
GOODWIN: I think people are born with that spirit. My father was orphaned when he was 10. My mother died when I was young. But despite these sorrows my father remained an optimist. And that optimism was the greatest gift he gave to me—a sense of excitement about life that has carried me through everything.
OBAMA: Yes . . . . I think it’s up to the American people and historians, et cetera, to decide. But I can tell you what I think served me well in this office, and that is this basic optimism and a capacity to take the long view on things. I don’t buy the hype when everybody is saying how wonderful things are and how great I am, and I don’t get too down when people say, “This is a disaster and he’s done for.”
I think I’ve said this before. Early in my presidency, I went to Cairo to make a speech to the Muslim world. And in the afternoon, after the speech, we took helicopters out to the pyramids. And they had emptied the pyramids for us, and we could just wander around for a couple hours [at] the pyramids and the Sphinx. And the pyramids are one of those things that live up to the hype. They’re elemental in ways that are hard to describe. And you’re going to these tombs and looking at the hieroglyphics and imagining the civilization that built these iconic images.
And I still remember it—because I hadn’t been president that long at that point—thinking to myself, There were a lot of people during the period when these pyramids were built who thought they were really important. And there was the equivalent of cable news and television and newspapers and Twitter and people anguishing over their relative popularity or position at any given time. And now it’s all just covered in dust and sand. And all that people know [today] are the pyramids.
Sometimes I carry with me that perspective, which tells me that my particular worries on any given day—how I’m doing in the polls or what somebody is saying about me … for good or for ill—isn’t particularly relevant. What is relevant is: What am I building that lasts?
And here in the United States, hopefully, what we’re building are not just pyramids, are not icons to one pharaoh. What we’re building is a culture and a way of living together that we can look back on and say, [This] was good, was inclusive, was kind, was innovative, was able to fulfill the dreams of as many people as possible. And that part of my temperament I think has served me well.
GOODWIN: So when you think about the importance of that part of temperament in a president, how do you view what’s happening with [Donald] Trump right now?
OBAMA: Well, you know, I see Trump as a phenomenon of an expression of certain fears, certain resentments, that have been a running thread in American history.
GOODWIN: Yes, not unlike the turn of the 20th century, when so many of those same anxieties and fears had developed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution—immigration, technological change, people moving from farms to cities.
OBAMA: Right. And so there are always going to be figures who become symbols and expressions of those fears and resentments. So he’s not unique in that sense. I don’t think it’s a surprise for me to say that I don’t think his temperament is suited for this office. But it’s not something that I have to emphasize because I think the majority of the American people have figured that out.
GOODWIN: And the people are looking at his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as well. I’m reminded of another moment that had to do with Team of Rivals—and you. You were in Boca Raton late in May of 2008, and somebody asked you if you’d really be willing to put into your inner circle one of your chief rivals, even if his or her spouse were an occasional pain in the butt. [Laughter.] And then you referred to Lincoln. You said, “I don’t want to jump the gun, [but] I will tell you, though, that my goal is to have the best possible government.” And you explained: “Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet because, whatever personal feelings there were, the issue was ‘How can we get this country through this time of crisis?’ ” And then when you chose Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state, of course, “team of rivals” emerged as a term to characterize her selection.
It came full circle when I was at the Vernon Jordan party the night before your inauguration. Hillary came up to me and said, in a teasing way, “Doris, this is all your fault. You’re responsible for my being secretary of state.” [Laughter.] She meant Lincoln, of course, not me. But obviously your successor matters a great deal to you, as does the importance of carrying out the things that you care about. It’s like a relay race, as you’ve said, so the next person will take over. And that’s an important part of what you need to think about now.
OBAMA: Absolutely. I am a firm believer that you don’t do anything significant by yourself. Again, maybe there are exceptions. There’s the Picasso or the Mozart.
GOODWIN: Yes, Teddy Roosevelt wrote that there are certain geniuses, of which he was not one. But Lincoln was one. Keats could write a poem that nobody else could write.
OBAMA: I don’t fall in that category. I marvel at those people who are true geniuses of that sort. But what I’ve seen in my own life is that when I get something important done it’s because of a lot of other people—some who get credit, some who don’t.
You look at something like health care, the Affordable Care Act. And for all the controversy, we now have 20 million people who have health insurance who didn’t have it. It’s actually proven to be more effective, cheaper than even advocates like me expected. But I still view it as a starter home, in the same way that when L.B.J. started Medicare and Medicaid, or F.D.R. started Social Security, there were a series of refinements and incremental improvements that overall made the system more sturdy.
GOODWIN: L.B.J. used to say about his domestic anti-poverty programs that made up the Great Society that it was a process, from crawling to walking to running.
OBAMA: I think about this being a relay race in that way. I welcome the next president saying, “This is a good start. Here are some additional things we shouldn’t or should be doing. Here are the things that we’ve learned from the first phases of this that could stand improvement.” That’s a good thing. To me that’s not a failure on my part. That’s not a criticism of me. That’s the nature of how social change comes about.
So in that sense I don’t see myself doing this alone. But in a more granular way I think about all the people who were involved in getting that thing passed. There were staff people here, whose names nobody knows, who worked tirelessly to make this happen.
GOODWIN: They know, they know.
OBAMA: Legislative folks, who were up on the Hill till four in the morning trying to get a particular provision done. Teams here who were crunching the numbers to figure out how we could pay for it. Members of Congress who voted for this thing knowing that the politics were really tough for them, and that they might lose their race[s].
There were just a lot of people who ended up making enormous sacrifices—and I’m the front man of the band. But it doesn’t work without them. And that’s why I was always amused that people were either skeptical or surprised that I would choose a Hillary Clinton as a secretary of state. To my mind, having somebody smart, tough, capable with her own stature, who could travel around the world and command the stage, was a huge asset. What I also knew—partly by virtue of her having served as First Lady, and partly just because I knew her and had observed her—was [that] her dedication to the country would lead her to operate with great loyalty regardless of …
GOODWIN: Her own ambitions.
OBAMA: … whatever ambitions she may have had or lingering aggravations that carried over from the campaign.
GOODWIN: I detected a note of wistfulness in the speech you gave at Springfield last February. You talked about what it was like in the legislature there when you could cross party lines and share drinks and play poker, making it harder to call your opponents fascists or idiots. It makes me want to ask: Did you absorb, back in 2010, the full impact of what Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell meant when he said that his party’s “most important” objective would be to make you a “one-term president”? Did you realize how polarized it was going to become?
OBAMA: No. I would say that’s one of the things that surprised me, mainly because we were in the midst of [an economic] crisis. And I was politically aware during the Clinton presidency, so I’d watch the ways in which slash-and-burn politics had come to be the norm nationally—some of the things that [former House Speaker] Newt Gingrich had unleashed with his revolution. But that was during a period of relative quiet and prosperity.
GOODWIN: Right. So there was more freedom to play around.
OBAMA: And so that kind of reality-TV game playing you could forgive. I expected when we were undergoing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression that there would be at least a span of time on the front end in which people would rally. And the fact that that was missing probably showed my naïveté. I didn’t anticipate that fully. But I got educated pretty quick on it.
And I do think that there has been a degree of venom and viciousness and anger that has been unleashed in our national politics that is qualitatively different in at least our modern history.
GOODWIN: And why do you think it happened?
OBAMA: It’s a combination of things. We’ve talked about these things before. Political gerrymandering makes the incentive for most members of Congress to play to the extremes of their base rather than to the center. The Balkanization of the media means that nobody is having a single conversation with a single set of agreed-upon facts and assumptions the way you had as recently as the 90s. The influence of not just big money, but dark money. The collapse of party structures. The fact that most legislators now, most members of Congress, don’t live here but travel back and forth. Yeah, all these things have contributed.
GOODWIN: So when you get upset with this lack of discourse, what do you do? When F.D.R. was very upset about isolationists, when he knew we had to deal with World War II, he would actually write drafts of speeches where he would call them out by name.
OBAMA: Yes. [Laughter.]
GOODWIN: And then he would do Draft Two, Draft Three, Draft Four, and one of his young speechwriters said, “Oh, my God, you can’t say this.” And then by Draft Six, the offending phrase was gone. Lincoln, as you know, wrote hot letters to people. And then he’d cool down and didn’t send them. Have you ever written any drafts of speeches or hot letters?
OBAMA: I do it all the time.
GOODWIN: What do you mean you do it all the time?
OBAMA: I do it all the time. I will write a response—a full rant.
GOODWIN: No kidding? [Laughter.]
OBAMA: And then I’ll crumple it up. Every once in a while, my team here will hear me go on a rant. Generally speaking, people who know me will tell you that my public persona is not that different from my private persona. I am who I am. You sort of get what you see with me. The two exceptions are that I curse more than I should, and I find myself cursing more in this office than I had in my previous life. [Laughter.] And fortunately both my chief of staff and my national-security adviser have even bigger potty mouths than me, so it’s O.K. And the second thing is that I can be much more sarcastic and, I think, sometimes withering in my assessments of things than I allow to show in my public life.
GOODWIN: Well, we see it sometimes. [Laughter.]
OBAMA: Yes, every once in a while you see it.
GOODWIN: You’ve said you’d rather be alive now than any other time. But do you ever wish you had been president in another era? Suppose you’d been around in Lincoln’s time, when your written word would be pamphletized, when everybody would be reading the entire speech and they’d be talking to each other about it. And Teddy Roosevelt was right for the era when punchy language worked. F.D.R. was perfect for conversational style on radio, J.F.K. and Reagan for the big TV networks. And you’re governing in the age of the Internet, with its divergent voices and sound bites.
OBAMA: It’s an interesting question. As I said earlier, there is a big part of me that has a writer’s sensibility. And so that’s how I think. That’s how I pursue truth. That’s how I hope to communicate truth to people. And I know that’s not how it is always received. Because it gets chopped up. Or if it’s too long, then it’s dismissed as being professorial, or abstract, or long-winded.
But I tell you what, though. [Long pause.] I’m named Barack Hussein Obama. I’m African-American. And I’ve been elected twice to this office with the majorities of the American people. So something is working.
GOODWIN: And you can tell yourself that. [Laughter.]
Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
OBAMA: Somebody is reading some of these speeches. And it’s interesting: I just had an exchange with a columnist who I like, but it was on the topic of using the phrase “radical Islam,” and the criticism that’s come from some of the Republicans. And this is a columnist who is generally sympathetic and a thoughtful person but actually thought that I was underestimating the importance of having this pithy phrase that includes “Islam” to accurately label the nature of the threat. And he said, “Well, you acknowledge all these truths, but you do it in long paragraphs, and that’s not sufficient.”
And I took the criticism to heart. But I responded to him, saying, “I refuse to give in to the notion that the American people can’t handle complicated information.” Because I know the American people. I’ve met a lot of them. I’ve met a lot more of them than any columnist has, or any talking head on TV has. And they’re pretty sophisticated. They’re not always paying attention, and there’s a lot of noise out there, but when they have the time, they’re not looking to be spoken down to and there’s no requirement to dumb things down. They get it.
You think about the race speech that I gave in Philadelphia [in 2008] when the Jeremiah Wright stuff broke [regarding the Obamas’ Chicago pastor]. That was a pretty complicated piece of business, but I think people heard me. Now there are filters, there are a lot of filters there, and so sometimes it’s hard to get at folks. What I miss is just the fact that there’s not a single conversation, but there is just this …
GOODWIN: It would have been easier if there were just three television networks.
OBAMA: Right. So I don’t need to go back to Lincoln. If I just had [the benefits of] what Reagan had, then the concentrated power of the bully pulpit would be an enormous advantage.
I think part of the reason that I have been successful, though, despite maybe not always fitting my message into the pre-packaged formulas, is there is this whole other media ecology out there of the Internet and Instagram and memes and talk shows and comedy, and I’m pretty good at that. I [give] maybe the long-winded speeches that not everybody reads, but I can also do a slow jam on Jimmy Fallon better than most. [Laughter.]
GOODWIN: You’re proud of that, aren’t you? [Laughter.]
OBAMA: No, no, no, I mean—
GOODWIN: I’m teasing you.
OBAMA: I mean, I have fun with it sometimes. But it actually serves a purpose because I can—I think I have a pretty good take on popular culture that maybe makes up for the fact that I’m not a sound-bite politician for the nightly news. And as a consequence I think I’m able to reach a lot of folks, despite the fact that the conventional news media sometimes says, “You know, this speech is too long,” or “It’s too complicated,” or “He needs to have better sound bites,” or what have you. Because they’re not seeing me on Between Two Ferns [laughter] trying to sell the Affordable Care Act to young people, and the fact that we’re getting millions of hits on something that is not on conventional TV.
GOODWIN: So what do you regret the most that you wish you had done—or that you might have been able to deal better with?
OBAMA: Oh, look, the list of things I wish I had gotten done is long.
GOODWIN: I don’t mean what you didn’t get done, but what you might have done differently.
OBAMA: What I might have done differently. Yes, even that list is perpetually renewing itself because each day I say, Maybe if I had done that just a little bit different or that a little bit better. I know there are problems that I say to myself, If maybe I was a little more gifted I might have been able to solve. But that’s not because I believe what I did was a mistake. It’s that maybe it required the talents of a Lincoln.
So when I think about the polarization that occurred in 2009 and 2010, I’ve gone back and I’ve looked at my proposals and my speeches and the steps we took to reach out to Congress. And the notion that we weren’t engaging Congress, or that we were overly partisan, or we didn’t schmooze enough, or we didn’t reach out enough to Republicans—that whole narrative just isn’t true.
GOODWIN: But that narrative took hold, right?
OBAMA: What I can say is maybe if I had the genius of an Abraham Lincoln, or the charm of F.D.R. …
GOODWIN: Or, like Lyndon Johnson, you had them over every night for dinner.
OBAMA: Or the energy of Teddy Roosevelt, or the legislative acumen of L.B.J., or all those things wrapped into one, maybe things would have turned out differently. On the other hand, when I read history, I [see] what typically happens to presidents and the other party during tumultuous times and how … people react when the economy is collapsing and they’re losing their homes, losing their pensions—it sort of tracks, what ended up happening, because some of that is human nature.
So I guess my point is that there are always things that I think I wish I could have done better. I wish I could have persuaded the public more or my colleagues more, here in Washington, around a particular course of action. But there aren’t a lot of situations where I look back and I say, The decision I actually made or the course we actually pursued was the wrong course.
GOODWIN: That’s what F.D.R. used to say: “I think of the things that have come before me during the day and the decisions that I have made, I say to myself—well, I have done the best I could and turn over and go to sleep.”
OBAMA: Exactly. Another good example of that is the situation in Syria, which haunts me constantly. I would say of all the things that have happened during the course of my presidency the knowledge that you have hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed, millions who have been displaced, [makes me] ask myself what might I have done differently along the course of the last five, six years.
The conventional arguments about what could have been done are wrong. The notion that if we had provided some more modest arms to Syrian rebels—that somehow that would have led to [Syrian president Bashar al-] Assad’s overthrow more decisively. The notion that if I had taken a pinprick strike when the chemical-weapons issue came out, as opposed to negotiating and getting all those chemical weapons out—that that would have been decisive. All those things I tend to be skeptical about.
But I do ask myself, Was there something that we hadn’t thought of? Was there some move that is beyond what was being presented to me that maybe a Churchill could have seen, or an Eisenhower might have figured out? So that’s the kind of thing that tends to occupy me when I have the time to think about it—mainly because I think that in this job one of the things you realize is there are problems that just end up being really hard and by definition the only problems that come to my desk are the ones that nobody else can solve.
Usually, I’m pretty good about sorting through the options and then making decisions that I’m confident are the best decisions in that moment, given the information we have. But there are times where I think I wish I could have imagined a different level of insight.
GOODWIN: Was there ever a time, at the beginning of your presidency, when you were haunted? The night F.D.R. was first elected, he told his son James, “All my life I have been afraid of only one thing—fire…. I’m just afraid that I may not have the strength to do this job.” He was a paralyzed man, so he never locked his door. Did you ever feel that? When confronting the explosion that you came into, with the recession and the difficulty we were facing?
OBAMA: [Long pause.] Honestly, no.
GOODWIN: And that’s the only time I think F.D.R. felt it, too. And then by the next day he was O.K.
OBAMA: Anybody who gets into bed and turns out the lights the first night in the White House probably feels a little bit of a start, where you say, “Goodness … ”
GOODWIN: “This is me, and I’m here.”
OBAMA: Right. “And I’ve got to make a bunch of decisions.” And so there’s a little bit of a jolt that you feel.
There wasn’t a time where I felt fearful that I couldn’t make the best decisions possible. The times where I had been anguished almost exclusively had to do with deploying our men and women overseas. The first Afghan decision to surge additional troops there because the situation was deteriorating. I remember giving a speech at West Point and seeing all those amazing young people and knowing that some would be sent and not every one of them would come back. Weighing that—those never get easy.
But that’s a feeling different than fear. It’s a feeling of the weight of the decision. And a different feeling, but related, is the decisions I’ve had to make to launch strikes. I don’t want ever to be a president who is comfortable and at ease with killing people. I don’t want my generals or my defense secretary or my national-security team to ever feel deploying weapons to kill people as routine or abstract, even if the targets are bad people. And that weighs on me.
GOODWIN: So what is it going to be like when this weight is lifted? What are you going to be able to do that you haven’t been able to do for eight years?
OBAMA: Well, I’m hoping I can take a walk. [Laughter.] And …
GOODWIN: Somewhere else, not just with …
OBAMA: Yes, not just around and around the South Lawn with my chief of staff and my team and my dogs. [Laughter.]
GOODWIN: What else? You drove around in a car in that comedy video with Jerry Seinfeld, right? You hadn’t done it for a while.
OBAMA: I’m looking to negotiate to see maybe if I can take a drive somewhere at least on some open road.
GOODWIN: You mean before the end of your term?
GOODWIN: You know, the other guys could. Franklin Roosevelt drove Churchill almost to the edge of a cliff, in Hyde Park—and Churchill was so afraid. L.B.J. had his amphibious car when he was president. He tricked me and took me in his car one day, and the Secret Service collaborated with him. L.B.J., behind the wheel, warned me, “Be careful, we’re going toward a lake. The brakes aren’t working.” Well, we go into the lake: the car became a boat. Then he got so mad at me because I didn’t get scared. I’d figured, He’s not going to die. And he said, “Don’t you Harvard people have enough sense to be scared?” So these earlier presidents could do things like that. It seems like things have tightened.
OBAMA: Oh, absolutely. I think since the systematic emergence of terrorism and the assassination attempts, everything has tightened. My hope is that it loosens back up once I leave.
There are a couple of particular bodysurfing beaches that I’ve not been to in Hawaii for a long time that I want to go back to. [Laughter.] And there are places I want to visit where if I’m wearing a baseball cap and some sunglasses I think I can get away with and mingle in a crowd.
But, you know, when I leave I’ll be 55, and I’ll have an entirely new chapter of my life—the work I want to do with a presidential-center library, creating a platform for the next generation of young leaders across disciplines to work together … [and other] things that in some ways I suspect I’m able to do better out of this office.
GOODWIN: You mean, having had this office.
OBAMA: Having had this office has given me this incredible perch from which to see how the world works. The power of the office is unique and it is a humbling privilege. With that power, however, also comes a whole host of institutional constraints. There are things I cannot say. There are things that …
GOODWIN: You mean now, but you will later.
OBAMA: … that I cannot say, not out of any political concerns, but out of prudential concerns of the office. There are institutional obligations I have to carry out that are important for a president of the United States to carry out, but may not always align with what I think would move the ball down the field on the issues that I care most deeply about.
GOODWIN: It must be so freeing, I think—because you now have this foundation to do the stuff you want to do, but also you’re going to become more of a human being without this.
OBAMA: That’s the hope. And, look, I have no doubt that there will be moments as the next inauguration approaches where I’ll feel melancholy or nostalgic.
GOODWIN: And leaving all these people.
OBAMA: And the team that you build here, the family that you build here, is powerful. But there is a reason why George Washington is always one of the top three presidents, and it’s not because of his prowess as a military leader; it’s not because of the incredible innovations in policy that he introduced. It’s because he knew when it was time to go. And he understood that part of the experiment we were setting up was this idea that you serve the nation and then it’s over, and then you’re a citizen again. And that “office of citizen” remains important, but your ability to let go is part of the duty that you have.
GOODWIN: It’s as important as taking hold of the office. That’s part of our democracy.
OBAMA: As important as taking hold of the office is letting go of the office. And they’re of a piece—it is an expression of our fidelity to the ideals upon which this nation was founded.
GOODWIN: I agree. There will be perks that you’ll miss, I’m sure.
OBAMA: I will miss Air Force One. I will miss Marine One.
GOODWIN: I think I told you the story about Eisenhower, that he had not personally dialed a phone call for so long that when he finally was out of the presidency he picked up the phone and he hears this buzz, and he said, “What’s this buzz?” It’s the dial tone, Mr. President. [Laughter.]
OBAMA: I will say that, having a couple of teenage daughters, I’m a little more plugged into [laughter] technology than maybe Ike was.
PHOTOS: The Young Obama