On August 25, after a short trip to Baton Rouge to assess flooding in Louisiana and before what will likely be his last visit to China on Air Force One, Barack Obama sat down at the White House to reflect on the past eight years. He led America through a period of dramatic, convulsive change — an era that New York Magazine explores this week in its cover story. Before his conversation with Jonathan Chait, he chose five moments that, he believes, will have outsized historical impact. Here is their conversation in full.
Let’s start with the time in 2010 when Mitch McConnell publicly says that his No. 1 goal is to make you a one-term president. How did that comment strike you? Was it news?
By that point it was pretty apparent by his actions that it was already his No. 1 goal. He validated what I think most of this town knew. When I came into office, my working assumption was that because we were in crisis, and the crisis had begun on the Republicans’ watch, that there would be a window in which they would feel obliged to cooperate on a common effort to dig us out of this massive hole. Probably the moment in which I realized that the Republican leadership intended to take a different tack was actually as we were shaping the stimulus bill, and I vividly remember having prepared a basic proposal that had a variety of components. We had tax cuts; we had funding for the states so that teachers wouldn’t be laid off and firefighters and so forth; we had an infrastructure component. We felt, I think, that as an opening proposal, it was ambitious but needed and that we would begin negotiations with the Republicans and they would show us things that they thought also needed to happen. On the drive up to Capitol Hill to meet with the House Republican Caucus, John Boehner released a press statement saying that they were opposed to the stimulus. At that point we didn’t even actually have a stimulus bill drawn up, and we hadn’t meant to talk about it. And I think we realized at that point what proved to be the case in that first year and that second year was a calculation based on what turned out to be pretty smart politics but really bad for the country: If they cooperated with me, then that would validate our efforts. If they were able to maintain uniform opposition to whatever I proposed, that would send a signal to the public of gridlock, dysfunction, and that would help them win seats in the midterms. It was that second strategy that they pursued with great discipline. It established the dynamic for not just my presidency but for a much sharper party-line approach to managing both the House and the Senate that I think is going to have consequences for years to come.
It’s been documented that Republicans held meetings before your inauguration in which they decided on this strategy. When did you find out that they had had these meetings?
Well, I didn’t find out about those until McConnell made that statement, and then some stories trickled in about some dinners with Gingrich and others, but as I said before, by that time, their strategy was apparent. There are two other elements that I think contributed to the Republican approach: The first was that even where their leadership wanted to cooperate, the tenor of the Republican base had shifted in a way that made it very difficult for them to cooperate without paying a price internally. Probably the best signifier of that — and I remember this vividly — was when Chicago had the bid for the 2016 Olympics. A very effective committee had flown to Copenhagen to make their presentation, and Michelle had gone with them, and I got a call, I think before the thing had ended but on fairly short notice, that everybody thought that if I flew out there we had a good chance of getting it and it might be worth essentially just taking a one-day trip. So we fly out there. Subsequently, I think we’ve learned that IOC’s decisions are similar to FIFA’s decisions: a little bit cooked. We didn’t even make the first cut, despite the fact that, by all the objective metrics, the American bid was the best. On the flight back, we already know that we haven’t got it, and when I land it turns out that there was big cheering by Rush Limbaugh and various Republican factions that America had lost the Olympic bid. It was really strange, but at that point, Limbaugh had been much clearer about wanting to see me fail and had, I think, communicated that very clearly to his listeners. Fox News’ coverage had already started to drift in that direction, and what you realized during the course of the first six, eight, ten months of the administration was that the attitudes, the moods that I think Sarah Palin had captured during the election increasingly were representative of the Republican activist base, its core. It might not have been representative of Republicans across the country, but it meant that John Boehner or Mitch McConnell had to worry about that mood inside their party that felt that, No, we shouldn’t cooperate with Obama, we shouldn’t cooperate with Democrats; that it represents compromise, weakness, and that the broader character of America is at stake, regardless of whatever policy arguments might be made. As a consequence, there were times that I would meet with Mitch McConnell and he would say to me very bluntly, “Look, I’m doing you a favor if I do any deal with you, so it should be entirely on my terms because it hurts me just being seen photographed with you.” During the health-care debate, you know, there was a point in time where, after having had multiple negotiations with [Iowa senator Chuck] Grassley, who was the ranking member alongside my current Chinese ambassador, [Max] Baucus, in exasperation I finally just said to Grassley, “Is there any form of health-care reform that you can support?” and he shrugged and looked a little sheepish and said, “Probably not.”
When was that? The fall?
Well, it probably would be late summer, late July possibly. But what you saw was just a series of moments as opposed to one big moment where Republican leadership felt their politics, both in terms of recapturing the majority in Congress but also protecting themselves from what would become the tea-party wing of the party, prevented them, in their minds, from working with this administration in any kind of constructive way. And that led to us having to work with very narrow majorities on just about every issue, and, to some extent, that shaped how policy was made. When I hear people say, for example, that the stimulus should have been bigger, I constantly have to remind people that I had to give Susan Collins; Arlen Specter, who was then a Republican; Ben Nelson; and Joe Lieberman — I had to get those votes to get any stimulus, which meant that the fact that we ended up getting the largest stimulus program in American history was no mean feat. Trying to take it over the trillion-dollar mark was going to be challenging even if it was good policy. Same thing with the public option [for health-care reform]. Even though we had very solid majorities in the House, the ceiling for what we could do was our decent, but, with the filibuster, constantly threatened majority in the Senate. That was complicated by the fact that, if you’ll recall, [Al] Franken hadn’t been seated yet, so that gave us even less room to maneuver.
The dynamic you’re describing sounds like what we saw played out in the 2016 Republican primaries. Do you see a straight line between what you saw at the beginning of 2009 and—
Absolutely. I see a straight line from the announcement of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee to what we see today in Donald Trump, the emergence of the Freedom Caucus, the tea party, and the shift in the center of gravity for the Republican Party. Whether that changes, I think, will depend in part on the outcome of this election, but it’s also going to depend on the degree of self-reflection inside the Republican Party. There have been at least a couple of other times that I’ve said confidently that the fever is going to have to break, but it just seems to get worse.
It also is why, I think, for Democrats, it’s important for us to understand that whether or not we are able to achieve certain policy objectives is going to be primarily dependent on how many votes we’ve got in each chamber and our ability to move public opinion. And it is not, these days, going to be as dependent on classic deal-making between Democrats and Republicans, or that we won’t move enough to the center on fiscal policy or my — not just me, but subsequent presidents — playing enough golf or drinking enough Scotch with members. I have very cordial relations with a lot of the Republican members. We can have really great conversations and arrive at a meeting of the minds on a range of policy issues, but if they think they’re going to lose seats or that they’re going to lose their own seat because the social media has declared that they sold out the Republican Party, then they won’t do it. That dynamic, I think, is going to be harder and harder to change because of the balkanization of the media, because of political gerrymandering. It is evident that Republicans pay a price for that narrowing of their perspective in presidential elections, but for the individual member of Congress in a 60 percent Republican district in Oklahoma or Arkansas or anyplace in the country, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that all his constituencies or her constituencies are watching Fox News and listening to Rush, and they’re going to pay a price if they’re seen as being too cozy with a Democratic president.
So it’s January 27, 2009, and you hear Boehner say he is against the stimulus. I’ve heard complaints from Republicans about what you’re like in these meetings. They say you’re didactic and you lecture. In a situation like that, are you trying to discuss Keynesian theory and saying, “Do you believe in stimulus?” At what level is the discussion held?
You know, the truth of the matter is, it’s hard for me to characterize myself. You’re probably better off talking to some staff members who sit in on these meetings. I think one way of measuring my approach is that when I was in the Illinois Legislature, I famously got along with the Republicans there when I was in the minority and the majority, so much so that I was actually using some of my Republican colleagues in ads when I started running for president. And when I was in the Senate, I had good relations across the aisle. The notion that somehow I show up here and I become Saul Alinsky or Lenin in meetings with Republicans probably doesn’t ring true. Look, typically what would happen, certainly at the outset, it would be that I would say, “We’ve got a big problem: We’re losing 800,000 jobs a month. Every economist I’ve talked to, including Republican economists, thinks that we need to do a big stimulus, and I’m willing to work with you to figure out how this package looks.” And typically, what you’d get would be, “Well, Mr. President, I’m not sure that this big spending approach is the right one, and families are tightening their belts right now, and I don’t hear a lot of my constituents saying that they want a bunch of big bureaucracies taking their hard-earned tax money and wasting it on a bunch of make-work projects around the country. So we think that government’s got to do that same thing that families do.” So you kind of hit that ideological wall. I’m sure that after about four or five of those sessions, at some point, I might say, “Look, guys, we have a history here dating back to the Great Depression,” and I might at that point try to introduce some strong policy arguments. What I can say unequivocally is that there has never been a time in which I did not say, “Look, you tell me how you want to do this. Give me a sense of how you want to approach it.” And I think consistently there’s been resistance — and you don’t have to take my word for it. You can look at the public record, for example with respect to the alternative to Obamacare that we’re still waiting on seven years later. I think if you talk to somebody like a John Boehner, what he’ll acknowledge is that I’m pretty good at maintaining both my calm and my good humor in these meetings. I get along well with John, and Mitch [McConnell] is a little bit more close to the vest. It’s convenient for them to present those personal interactions as the basis for why these things don’t happen, but the problem hasn’t been personal interactions. The conversations I have privately with Republicans are always very different than the public presentations that are made of them.
And that goes back to the point I made earlier: They’re looking at Charlie Crist down in Florida. One hug [from me] and he was toast. Chris Christie couldn’t get his presidential race launched — it was basically over before it started — because he was too friendly and cooperative with me in accepting federal aid for a state that had been devastated by a hurricane. They’re imagining the potential problems that arise, so it’s pretty hard for them to publicly say, “Obama’s a perfectly reasonable guy, but we just can’t work with him because our base thinks he’s the Antichrist.” It’s a lot easier for them to say, “Oh, the guy’s not listening to us,” or, “He’s uncompromising.” I understand that, it’s not something that has bothered me personally. In fact, sometimes I tease them about it behind the scenes; I’ll tell them, “Look, if you need some help, me attacking you or you know …” And the times where we have gotten things done, it has been very important for me to, frankly, help them try to manage their base. An example where it didn’t work in the end, but where I displayed, I think, great strategic patience, was on comprehensive immigration reform. We deliberately stayed behind the scenes for a very long time so that the Republicans who were working in the Senate could do their business with their Democratic counterparts. There have been times where we finally got a budget resolution where we might have been staffing it and advising it — and I’m talking to Harry Reid and I’m talking to Nancy Pelosi publicly — and we’re quiet and letting them negotiate with their counterparts in Congress because if it looks like they’re negotiating with me, it doesn’t help.
Which gets us to a crucial moment on the path to passing the Affordable Care Act. In January 2010, as a congressional vote loomed, there was a special election in Massachusetts to replace Ted Kennedy, and a Republican, Scott Brown, won. Most people said, “It’s done.” So the night of the election, you’re seeing the election results come in — are you getting phone calls from Democrats?
Well, the first thing that’s happening is I’m talking to Rahm [Emanuel, then chief of staff], and Jim Messina [then deputy chief of staff] and saying, “Okay, explain to me how this happened.” It was at that point that I learned that our candidate, Martha Coakley, had asked, rhetorically, “What should I do, stand in front of Fenway and shake hands with voters?,” and we figured that wasn’t a good bellwether of how things might go.
So you heard about that quote on Election Night?
Well, it might have been the day before, or a couple of days before. But the point was that there is no doubt that we did not stay on top of that the way we needed to. By the time I flew in to do an event, it was already clear that there were going to be problems there. It did underscore, by the way, for me, I think, a failing in my first year, and that is the sort of perverse faith in good policy leading to good politics. I’ll cut myself some slack — we had a lot to do, and every day we were thinking, Are the banks going to collapse? Is the auto industry going to collapse? Will layoffs accelerate? We just didn’t pay a lot of attention to politics that first year, and the loss in Massachusetts reminded me of what any good president and any good elected official needs to understand: You’ve got to pay attention to public opinion, and you have to be able to communicate those ideas. But it happened, and the question then was, What’s next?
The most important phone call I made after that was to Nancy Pelosi, because the question I posed to her and to Harry Reid was, “Are you guys still game? Because if you guys are still game, we’ll find a way. But I can’t do it unless Democrats are willing to take what are going to be some tough votes.” Now, part of my argument to them was, you’ve already paid the price politically, it’s not as if a failed health-care effort would be helpful in midterm elections, it’s better to go ahead and push through and then show that we had gotten something done that was really important to the American people. I give Nancy and Harry and a whole lot of Democrats enormous credit. It was one of those moments where a lot of people did the right thing even though the politics of it were bad. And I’ve said to the Democratic caucus when I’ve met with them in subsequent years that their willingness to go ahead and walk the plank to get the Affordable Care Act done is one of the reasons that I continue to be proud of the Democratic Party. For all its warts and all the mistakes that any political party makes — catering to the interest groups that help get people elected — the truth is that the ACA vote showed that when push came to shove and people had to do something they thought was right, even if it was not going to be helpful to their reelection, the majority of Democrats were willing to do it. And certainly Nancy and Harry were willing to do it. We saw that again later on some tough budget votes, and the Iran deal, and I give them enormous credit for that. So once Nancy said, “I’m game,” then it was really just, at that point, a set of tactical questions: What legislative mechanisms could we use to advance legislation that was 90 to 95 percent done but still had 5 percent of stuff that if we had gone through a regular process could have been cleaned up but that ultimately was still going to deliver real help to millions of people across the country?
So at the time, the vast majority of the news coverage presumed that the legislative path was over because you’d lost 60 votes, and most reporters were not aware of the mechanism that you would use, which was to have the House pass the Senate bill, thus making it law, and work out any differences through a separate budget reconciliation bill that would not be subject to a filibuster. When did you start thinking that it was the path you were going to use?
The truth is that once we knew that the Massachusetts election might be difficult, and that was probably a couple weeks ahead of time, then we started doing some contingency planning. That was something that I had to learn fairly early on in the process, although we had learned it to some degree in the campaign: You have to have a plan B. You always have to be very quiet about your plan B, because you don’t want it to sabotage your plan A — and sometimes people are looking for an out and want plan B. But we had begun to look at what other paths might be possible, and this one presented itself. It still required really deft work by Nancy and Harry and our legislative teams, but we knew at that point that it was possible, and once we had that path, then it was really just a matter of working Congress. It’s interesting, in 2011, when the left had really gotten irritated with me because of the budget negotiations, there was always this contrast between Obama and LBJ, who really worked Congress. But I tell you, those two weeks, that was full LBJ. I think [White House photographer] Pete Souza has a picture series of every meeting and phone call that I was making during the course of that, which is actually pretty fun to see. Basically, every day for the following two weeks, we were working Democrats, because at that point there was no prospect of us getting any Republicans. Although I devoted an enormous amount of time with Olympia Snowe, the one person who, to her credit, took a tough vote to get ACA out of committee before then deciding that she couldn’t support the broader effort.
In those conversations, what proportion of them are focused on you making a moral case for the bill, saying, “You have to take a risk with your job because this is the right thing to do,” and what percentage is “No, no, no, we have the numbers saying this won’t hurt you. It will hurt you a little; it could help you”?
I would say 80 percent moral case, because the numbers weren’t with us. Look, Scott Brown had just won, poll numbers were rotten, people were angry. The folks who I will always consider the real heroes of the ACA were the legislators, mostly younger and in swing districts, who had been from either the ’06 wave or the ’08 wave. They had tough races and were just a great bunch of guys. With them it was an entirely moral case: What’s the point of being here if not this?
So they were saying, “I’d rather keep having a job,” and you were saying, “But think of the folks who are going to be helped.”
Right, but to their credit they were not the ones that I had to make the hardest sale to. The toughest sales were the folks who were least at risk. Or I won’t say least at risk, because, for example, the black caucus was there, and the Latino caucus and the progressive caucus. But a lot of times it was these young guys who had the most to lose, had the toughest races, a guy like Tom Perriello in Virginia, who were the first ones to say, “This is why I wanted to get elected, I want to help people and I think it’s the right thing to do.” And they almost all lost their seats.
The toughest were people who were not at the threshold of losing their seats?
Yeah, because then it was transactional, then it was “I’d like this, I need that.” And one of the things that’s changed from the Johnson era obviously is I don’t have a postmaster job. Shoot, not just Johnson’s age — Lincoln’s age. Good-government reforms have hamstrung an administration, which I think is for the most part for the best. But it means that what you’re really saying to them is, “This is the right thing to do and I’ll come to your fund-raiser in Podunk and I will make sure that I’ve got your back.” In some cases there were some substantive issues that we had to work really hard on. [Former congressman] Bart Stupak was a very sincere, pro-life legislator and a Democrat, a really good man who worked really hard with me to try to get to yes and ended up getting there, working along with Sister Carol [Keehan], the head of the Catholic hospitals, despite strong opposition from the Catholic bishops. So in some cases there really were legitimate difficulties, substantive issues that had to be worked through.
The BP Oil Spill
Was this your first Katrina?
I’ve had about 20 since then, right? It turned out to be the thing that — let me start that sentence over. The BP oil spill was the first event that taught me about a particular news cycle where there’s a real problem that can and will be solved but that garners, for whatever reason, 24/7 attention. And there’s this sense of doom that gets ramped up and that we have to work through. It was the first time where we learned how to work through that noise. Objectively, if you look back, we managed what was the largest environmental disaster in American history — at least in the continental United States — better than or as well as any administration ever has. But in the midst of it there was this sense that things were completely out of control. The gap between the perception and the reality of what we were doing was stark.
We were on top of this thing from the start. When it happened, we assigned all our best people from all our agencies to start working on it. We immediately organized our Coast Guard, our military, Small Business Administration, Department of Energy, to help fishermen who had lost their livelihoods, small businesses that were seeing their summer business evaporate, even as we were just trying to plug this darn hole. What made it unique was that, to my chagrin and surprise, nobody had ever seen anything like this before. And we literally had to invent a way to solve it. It came in very handy that I had a Nobel Prize–winning physicist as my Energy secretary. And he literally designed a little cap that essentially served as the specs for the construction of a mechanism to close the darn hole. But that took three months. What you realized was the degree to which what the camera down there is showing, the plume of oil coming out — we started having gallows humor about the pelican, that it seemed like they had one pelican that they showed over and over again, covered in oil. It just was draining — or maybe the better analogy is “leaking” — political capital every single day. To some degree, you couldn’t change that narrative until the hole was closed.
I went down there when it first happened. And it didn’t get a lot of coverage, because people didn’t realize how bad it was, even though the press pool was with me. And about two weeks later, when it hadn’t been closed yet, James Carville, I remember, gets on TV and starts shouting about “Why isn’t the president down here?” And poor [then–press secretary Robert] Gibbs was trying to remind everybody, “Well, the president was just down there two weeks ago when you guys weren’t paying attention.”
Too early. We hadn’t timed it right with respect to the photo op. But in all seriousness, a year later, when we were able to say not only had we shut down the leak but I had personally, in the Roosevelt Room, negotiated a $20 billion settlement from BP without any litigation, so that everybody was paid off and there was money left over, which is pretty unprecedented; that we had a fund to help restore tourism so that the following summer the Gulf actually had a banner tourist year; that we had structured a restoration process that made a big chunk of the affected area much more resilient than it had been before — when we looked back on the work that we had done, we could do so with pride. And that, I think, gave both me and my team confidence when you’d have subsequent challenges like this. Ebola being a classic example, where again I would argue that that was probably the most effective public-health response internationally maybe in history. We certainly saved hundreds of thousands of lives. We constructed the architecture to respond to what could have been a real crisis and were able to prevent Americans from being infected or dying without instituting some of the crazier proposals that were being put out there, to ban people from coming into the country. We had probably learned by that point that managing the press as best you can was important. Maybe the press had learned by that point that most of the time we knew what we were doing, so that it also changed the nature of the coverage. I think it was harder by the tenth “Obama Katrina” to argue that it was an “Obama Katrina.”
You think that you rebutted the presumption of incompetence that was attached to the oil spill?
Absolutely, until [the launch of] healthcare.gov, which was entirely on us. I think our hard-won reputation for good management took a well-deserved blow. That was dropping your left and getting socked in the jaw. Although even there we learned some lessons and, as a consequence, I think, have really reinvigorated our whole digital shop here. But the general point is that staying focused and disciplined in moments where people are most likely — and certainly the press is most likely — to panic has overall served us well. It doesn’t always serve us well in the short term. It does serve us well in the long term, and that’s a culture that we’ve been able to build here. There are times where I know that that’s perceived as Spock-like or cold or overly rational. What I think people don’t always appreciate is I go and visit these folks who are affected by these issues, and they break my heart. And I’m grieving and thinking about them all the time. It’s not a lack of emotion. It’s an understanding that the single most important thing I can do for them is to get this right. And I think for the most part we’ve been able to do that. Part of it also, by the way, is to do with making sure you’ve got the right people from the start. I was just down in Louisiana dealing with the flooding there with [FEMA director] Craig Fugate. There’s an example of, whether you want to attribute it to luck or good management, I’ve got the best guy — on earth, maybe — handling natural disasters. He is just an outstanding public servant. Our insistence on having people who know what they’re doing, and my insistence to my team and the White House that we start with “What’s the right thing to do?” and then we figure out the politics or the optics after we’ve figured that out, is something I don’t apologize for.
You shook Raúl Castro’s hand at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. What role did that play in the strategic decision to pursue that opening with Cuba?
It played no role in my strategic decision to change our relationship with Cuba. It played a role in, apparently, Cuba’s perception of our seriousness. Remember, my first so-called gaffe as a presidential candidate was saying I would meet with the Castros or anybody else if I thought it served American interests, and I was roundly condemned as being naïve. I still remember right after that debate, as the critiques were coming in, getting on a conference call with my entire communications team and saying, “Do not budge. I meant what I said. If you guys need guidance on why I said what I said, I’m happy to provide it to you. But this was not a gaffe. I meant it.”
So I’d come in with the premise that not being in a dialogue with somebody is not punishment to them and oftentimes leads them into a position where they can ignore our position and hurts us in building international coalitions to pressure countries that are doing bad things. In my first term, I had already altered some of the policies around remittances and travel by Cuban-Americans, and that had already had an impact. And I had, I think, shown that I could hold my own in the Cuban-American community with a stance that said, “If you’ve tried to do something for 50 years and it doesn’t work, you should try something else,” particularly among the younger generation of Cuban-Americans.
Second term comes and I went through an exercise with my National Security team saying, “Here are the things we know we have to do: counterterrorism, Iran. Where are there opportunities to think big?” And examining relations with Cuba was near the top of the list. So I had already assigned our team to start exploring what that might look like and how we might structure it.
Mandela dies, and I’m asked to speak. And frankly, I’m not sure we had even prepped for Castro being on the stage. It wasn’t the most rigidly organized event that I’ve ever attended. I think that who was on the stage and who was speaking might have even been fluid when we were flying out there. And then it started late and it was pouring rain and security issues were a challenge. By the time we get there, it’s already pretty messy. And everybody’s just concerned about getting me onstage and getting me speaking. And so the handshake with Castro was actually pretty spontaneous. I walk up and there’s this older guy and I say, “Oh, I think that’s Raúl Castro.” But I’m going through this phalanx of leaders who are on the stage. I think Prime Minister Singh of India was there, and a number of other folks. For me not to shake his hand, I think, would have been an inappropriate gesture at a funeral.
Was part of you weighing the pros and cons?
Not really. Here’s been a general rule of my presidency: I think normal human responses, basic courtesy, is not checked at the door when you become president. And I’d already shaken hands with Hugo Chávez when I was at my first Summit of the Americas.
But that was used against you.
Yeah, but I didn’t care, because what we discovered subsequently, which was my working theory when I came in, was that Chávez thrived on being elevated as this major enemy of the United States. And if you treated him as he was, which was an authoritarian of a country that wasn’t working economically or politically and who couldn’t really project much beyond rhetoric and posed no threat to the United States, then he would shrink. So it might have hurt me because Republicans were hollering in D.C., but it certainly didn’t hurt me in the region. And it proved, in fact, to disarm him in a way that would allow us to work much more closely with the Cubans or with the Mexicans or the Brazilians or the Chileans or others who try to straddle some of the traditional left-right splits in Latin America. So bottom line is: I shook his hand. I didn’t consider it to be some momentous gesture. It was me shaking the hand of an older man who was sitting on the stage when I was doing a eulogy. But the Cubans responded in a way that maybe I didn’t expect. At that point, we had already begun to have some contact with the Cuban government and were thinking about what might happen. They interpreted that handshake, and my willingness to do that on the world stage, as a signal of greater seriousness. And so it did, I think, facilitate the series of negotiations that then took place. The Vatican was very helpful. And it led to the ultimate policy announcement that we made.
On September 30, 2011, a drone strike killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni terrorist who was also an American citizen. It was understood here in the States as a surprisingly hawkish move, which reminded me of a moment in your 2008 foreign-policy debate with John McCain when he attacked you for saying you would violate Pakistani sovereignty. The dynamic of the campaign up until then was that you were perhaps not tough enough on terrorism and that he was the hawk. Suddenly, you had switched places — and prefigured what your policy would turn out to be. Did you see that as a trap that he would walk into during the debate?
I don’t think we were that strategic. Here’s one thing that I am always surprised by: the degree to which people don’t just take me at my word. If you go back and you read speeches I made when I was running for the U.S. Senate in 2003, or if you go back further and you look at statements I made when I was on the Harvard Law Review, my worldview is pretty consistent. And I generally try to do what I say I’m gonna do. So it was always my belief that Iraq was a mistake. It was never my belief that it was a mistake for us to try to entirely dismantle Al Qaeda. I had been very clear about the fact that one of the reasons Iraq was such a strategic mistake was because it took our attention away from finishing the job in Afghanistan. And I never made the claim that I was a pacifist. The speech where I announced my opposition to Iraq, the key tagline was “I’m not opposed to all war. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” I was very explicit about the fact that there are times where we need to deploy our military to protect American interests and the American people. But we should be wise and restrained in how we use that power. And so when this topic came up, it wasn’t that complicated for me. In fairness to John McCain and also some of the other candidates in my own party at the time, their general argument was “Maybe you do it, but you don’t signal it,” right? You don’t tell people that that’s what we’re doing. And that was part of conventional wisdom here in Washington. My view was that, when I’m running to be the commander-in-chief, certainly it was important to tell the American people my core values and my core policies — that once I was president, I’m sure there would be some institutional constraints in terms of how I talk about issues, but basically in that debate I said to people what I thought.
What was more interesting to me, starting with that debate, but it’s a theme that’s continued throughout my presidency, was the degree to which Republican critics could be on every side of every issue, depending on what decisions I had made. So if I was initiating military action, then the criticism was “This was irresponsible” or “Why’d you do it this way?” If I didn’t, “You’re weak.” So much so that at a certain point the whole foreign-policy debate in this town got so scrambled that in some ways it was liberating for me. You start realizing at a certain point, well, folks aren’t even trying to be consistent. They’re not even trying to be fair-minded in their assessments or recommendations. In which case the best thing for me to do is to try to figure out what the right thing to do is and just do it, and worry later about how Washington is grading me.
That was a valuable lesson. It was a valuable lesson in two ways. One, because it taught me to trust my judgment. Two, it taught me that I had to be self-critical and build a structure for effective, constructive criticism of decisions I might make, and make sure all viewpoints were heard, because frankly, I just couldn’t trust the noise out there. And if you examined a bunch of the decisions that we made subsequently, whether it was the decision to be part of the international coalition to stop Gaddafi from killing his own people or the decision to go after bin Laden, but most prominently I think the decisions around Syria after Assad used chemical weapons — in these various decisions, part of what I tried to institutionalize is a really rigorous process internally. But also an insistence than I’m not going to simply accept whatever the playbook was here in Washington, in part because it was often incoherent.
You take the case of Syria, which has been chewed over a lot. But it continues to puzzle me, the degree to which people seem to forget that we actually got the chemical weapons out of Syria. The notion seems to be that, “Well, you should have blown something up, even if that didn’t mean that you got chemical weapons out.” There continues to be, I think, a lack of examination of the fact that my decision was not to let Assad do whatever he wanted. My decision was to see if we could broker a deal without a strike to get those chemical weapons out, and to go to Congress to ask for authorization, because nowhere has Congress been more incoherent than when it comes to the powers I have. You had people, I think, like Marco Rubio, who was complaining about us not doing anything, and when I said, “I’m gonna present to Congress,” suddenly he said, “Well, I’m gonna vote against it.” Maybe it was Ted Cruz. Maybe both. They’re all over the map. The primary principle—and this is not true for all of them, but for many of them—was “Just make sure that we don’t get blamed for whatever decision you make.”
Going back to the broader issue though, consistent with this idea of trying to institutionalize rigorous debate and an attitude of aiming before you shoot, the subsequent power that we developed to carry out drone strikes and the legitimate concerns that people had about what this means for presidential power and military power, particularly when at the start it was primarily covert, that’s what led me to declassify our actions against Alawi. That’s what led to the policy I announced at National Defense University to start constructing greater transparency, an internal mechanism to scrub decisions. And that work has continued over the course of years now, such that this year, for example, after a lot of interagency wrestling, we were able to start our estimates of civilians who may have been killed by some of these actions. And that’s a legacy that I care a lot about. It’s not a legacy that is gonna score a lot of political points. It’s imperfect, because there genuinely are some institutional restraints. We can’t advertise everything that we’re doing without inhibiting our effectiveness in protecting the American people. But by the time I leave here, the American people are going to have a better sense of what their president is doing. Their president is going to have to be more accountable than he or she otherwise would have been. The world, I think, will have a better sense of what we’re trying to do and what we stand for. And I think all of that will serve the American people well in the future.
When you hear critics on the left express what they don’t like about your presidency, the word drone might come up more than anything. Is that something you anticipated from the beginning?No, and you know, I … I mean this sincerely: I’m glad the left pushes me on this. I’ve said to my staff and I’ve said to my joint chiefs, I’ve said in the Situation Room: I don’t ever want to get to the point where we’re that comfortable with killing. It’s not why I wanted to be president, to kill people. I want to educate kids and give people health care and help feed the hungry and alleviate poverty. So do I think that the critiques are fair or fully informed? Not always. Sometimes they are. Much of the time they’re not. To give you the most basic example: People, I think, don’t always recognize the degree to which the civilian-casualty rate, or the rate at which innocents are killed, in these precision strikes is significantly lower than what happens in a conventional war. One of the places where this came up actually, interestingly enough, is [the raid to capture Osama] bin Laden. We had the option — which was the less risky option — of just firing a missile into that compound. I made the decision not to do so primarily because I thought it was important, if in fact it was him, that we be able to identify him. But depending on how you define innocents, a couple people in that compound that were not bin Laden and might be considered innocent, including one of his wives, they were killed. As a percentage, that could be counted as collateral damage that might have been higher than if we had just taken a shot when we knew that the compound was relatively empty.
What I will say, though, is that the critique of drones has been important, because it has ensured that you don’t have this institutional comfort and inertia with what looks like a pretty antiseptic way of disposing of enemies. I will say that what prompted a lot of the internal reforms we put in place had less to do with what the left or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or other organizations were saying and had more to do with me looking at sort of the way in which the number of drone strikes was going up and the routineness with which, early in my presidency, you were seeing both DOD and CIA and our intelligence teams think about this. And it troubled me, because I think you could see, over the horizon, a situation in which, without Congress showing much interest in restraining actions with authorizations that were written really broadly, you end up with a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.
But I will say that having these nonprofits continue to question and protest ensured that, having made that initial decision, we kept on going and that it got pushed all the way through. And it’s not — as I announced when we released our best estimates of the civilian casualties — it’s not a perfect solution. I think America will continue to have work to do in finding this balance between not elevating every terrorist attack into a full-blown war but not either leaving ourselves exposed to attacks or, alternatively, pretending as if we can just take shots wherever we want, whenever we want, and not be answerable to anybody. What I’ve tried to do is to move the needle in the right direction, to set some trends in the right direction. But there’s gonna be a lot more work to do.
I’ll make this last point. On all the issues we’ve discussed, but certainly on these issues of war and peace, the need for a more effective Congress and the desirability of legislation as the best solution to most of these problems remains.
You’re talking not just about drone strikes.
I’m talking about across the board. In my mind the [Affordable Care Act] has been a huge success, but it’s got real problems. They’re eminently fixable problems in terms of strengthening the marketplace, improving the subsidies so more folks can get it, making sure everybody has Medicaid who was qualified under the original legislation, doing more on the cost containment. But you hit a point where if Congress just is not willing to make any constructive modifications and it’s all political football, then you’re getting a suboptimal solution. I can work really hard — and we have — in striking the right balance around NSA issues and how we balance privacy versus the need to collect intelligence and engage in counterterrorism. But it was really helpful when, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, we got the USA Freedom Act done. That embedded certain reforms and reflected a strong consensus. And so I have ended up taking a lot of executive actions that I’m very proud of, because they are solving real problems and were well within my legal authority to do. But I haven’t lost my preference for good old-fashioned debate, bills, and the democratic process. If there’s one wish that I have for future presidents, it’s not an imperial presidency, it is a functional, sensible majority-and-opposition being able to make decisions based on facts and policy and compromise. That would have been my preference for the majority of my presidency. It was an option that wasn’t always available. But I hope the American people continue to understand that that’s how the system should work.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
*A version of this article appears in the October 3, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.