Ready for the Fight

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In a rare Oval Office interview, President Obama discusses his job, the opposition and the coming campaign

By Jann S. Wenner
Apr 30, 2012

WE ARRIVED AT THE WHITE HOUSE on Easter Monday, the South Lawn overrun by children and their parents enjoying the annual Easter Egg Roll. This was the fourth time in the past four years that we had sat down for an extensive interview with Barack Obama, but the tenor and timing were markedly different than the previous conversations. This time he was focused on the campaign, his thinking dominated by the upcoming battle for a second term.

The president was more somber than in our past interviews – and less inclined to depart from the handful of themes he had been concentrating on in recent weeks. He avoided discussing Mitt Romney, even when asked a direct question, and focused primarily on the very real constraints he operates under as president, from the intransigence of Congress to the dilemma of America’s anti-drug laws. He also seemed intent on summing up the arguments he’ll soon be taking out on the campaign trail, making clear that he plans to run on his remarkable record of accomplishments: extending health insurance to 32 million Americans, staving off a major economic collapse, rescuing the auto industry, reforming student loans, ending discrimination against gay soldiers, pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden, and passing one of the largest middle-class tax cuts in history.

The hour-long discussion was the longest and most substantive interview the president has granted in over a year. When executive editor Eric Bates and I joined him in the Oval Office, he began by signaling his staff to push back his schedule. “Just call Secretary Clinton’s office and tell her we’re going to be about 10 minutes late,” he said.

“Twenty minutes,” I suggested.

“Fifteen,” he said with mock sternness.

Later, after the interview ended, we found Hillary sitting in a small chair, scrunched between the desk of Obama’s secretary and the door to the Oval Office. The two former rivals now seem completely at ease with each other. Clinton joked about the popularity of the fake Tumblr site Texts From Hillary Clinton, and Obama began to air-thumb an imaginary text. “See, I’m hip,” he said with a laugh.

The president even made light of his campaign-season caution. Having complimented me during our last interview on my brightly colored socks, he instantly guessed the gift we had brought him: two pairs of socks, one salmon with pink squares, the other with black and pink stripes. “These are nice,” the president said. Then he considered the color scheme. “These may be second-term socks.”

Let’s talk about the campaign. Given all we’ve heard about and learned during the GOP primaries, what’s your take on the state of the Republican Party, and what do you think they stand for?

First of all, I think it’s important to distinguish between Republican politicians and people around the country who consider themselves Republicans. I don’t think there’s been a huge change in the country. If you talk to a lot of Republicans, they’d like to see us balance the budget, but in a balanced way. A lot of them are concerned about jobs and economic growth and favor market-based solutions, but they don’t think we should be getting rid of every regulation on the books. There are a lot of Republican voters out there who are frustrated with Wall Street and think that they acted irresponsibly and should be held to account, so they don’t want to roll back regulations on Wall Street.

But what’s happened, I think, in the Republican caucus in Congress, and what clearly happened with respect to Republican candidates, was a shift to an agenda that is far out of the mainstream – and, in fact, is contrary to a lot of Republican precepts. I said recently that Ronald Reagan couldn’t get through a Republican primary today, and I genuinely think that’s true. You have every candidate onstage during one of the primary debates rejecting a deficit-reduction plan that involved $10 in cuts for every $1 of revenue increases. You have a Republican front-runner who rejects the Dream Act, which would help young people who, through no fault of their own, are undocumented, but who have, for all intents and purposes, been raised as Americans. You’ve got a Republican Congress whose centerpiece, when it comes to economic development, is getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Doesn’t all of that kind of talk and behavior during the primaries define the party and what they stand for?

I think it’s fair to say that this has become the way that the Republican political class and activists define themselves. Think about John McCain, who obviously I have profound differences with. Here’s a guy who not only believed in climate change, but co-sponsored a cap-and-trade bill that got 43 votes in the Senate just a few years ago, somebody who thought banning torture was the right thing to do, somebody who co-sponsored immigration reform with Ted Kennedy. That’s the most recent Republican candidate, and that gives you some sense of how profoundly that party has shifted.

Given all that, what do you think the general election is going to look like, and what do you think of Mitt Romney?

I think the general election will be as sharp a contrast between the two parties as we’ve seen in a generation. You have a Republican Party, and a presumptive Republican nominee, that believes in drastically rolling back environmental regulations, that believes in drastically rolling back collective-bargaining rights, that believes in an approach to deficit reduction in which taxes are cut further for the wealthiest Americans, and spending cuts are entirely borne by things like education or basic research or care for the vulnerable. All this will be presumably written into their platform and reflected in their convention. I don’t think that their nominee is going to be able to suddenly say, “Everything I’ve said for the last six months, I didn’t mean.” I’m assuming that he meant it. When you’re running for president, people are paying attention to what you’re saying.

How does that shape the tone and tenor of the debate that’s going to take place during the campaign?

I actually think it will be a useful debate, and one that I look forward to. I think that the American people are going to be listening very intently to who’s got a vision for how we move this country -forward.

Their vision is that if there’s a sliver of folks doing well at the top who are unencumbered by any regulatory restraints whatsoever, that the nation will grow and prosperity will trickle down. The challenge that they’re going to have is: We tried it. From 2000 to 2008, that was the agenda. It wasn’t like we have to engage in some theoretical debate – we’ve got evidence of how it worked out. It did not work out well, and I think the American people understand that.

Now, the burden on me is going to be to describe for the American people how the progress we’ve made over the past three years, if sustained, will actually lead to the kind of economic security that they’re looking for. There’s understandable skepticism, because things are still tough out there. You still have an unemployment rate that’s way too high, you have folks whose homes are underwater because the housing bubble burst, people are still feeling the pinch from high gas prices. The fact of the matter is that times are still tough for too many people, and the recovery is still not as robust as we’d like, and that’s what will make it a close election. It’s not because the other side has a particularly persuasive theory in terms of how they’re going to move this country forward.

In working with the Republicans in this term, it seems clear that the traditional rules of give-and-take politics have changed – that the Republicans have been playing a “lose-lose” game with you. What’s your relationship with the GOP leadership at this point? A little frosty?

It’s not frosty. This isn’t personal. When John Boehner and I sit down, I enjoy a conversation with him. I don’t think he’s a bad person. I think he’s patriotic. I think that the Republicans up on the Hill care about this country, but they have a very ideologically rigid view of how to move this country forward, and a lot of how they approach issues is defined by “Will this help us defeat the president?” as opposed to “Will this move the country forward?”

Is there any way to break through that obstructionism by Republicans?

My hope is that if the American people send a message to them that’s consistent with the fact that Congress is polling at 13 per cent right now, and they suffer some losses in this next election, that there’s going to be some self-reflection going on – that it might break the fever. They might say to themselves, “You know what, we’ve lost our way here. We need to refocus on trying to get things done for the American people.”

Frankly, I know that there are good, decent Republicans on Capitol Hill who, in a different environment, would welcome the capacity to work with me. But right now, in an atmosphere in which folks like Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist are defining what it means to be a true conservative, they are lying low. My hope is that after this next election, they’ll feel a little more liberated to go out and say, “Let’s redirect the Republican Party back to those traditions in which a Dwight Eisenhower can build an interstate highway system.”

Do you think racial politics and race relations in America are any different now than when you first took office?

Look, race has been one of the fault lines in American culture and American politics from the start. I never bought into the notion that by electing me, somehow we were entering into a post-racial period. On the other hand, I’ve seen in my own lifetime how racial attitudes have changed and improved, and anybody who suggests that they haven’t isn’t paying attention or is trying to make a rhetorical point. Because we all see it every day, and me being in this Oval Office is a testimony to -changes that have been taking place.

When I travel around the country, a lot of people remark on how inspiring seeing an African-American president or an African-American first lady must be to black boys and girls, how it must raise their sense of what’s possible in their own lives. That’s hugely important – but you shouldn’t also underestimate the fact that there are a whole bunch of little white girls and white boys all across the country who just take it for granted that there’s an African-American president. That’s the president they’re growing up with, and that’s changing attitudes.

My view on race has always been that it’s complicated. It’s not just a matter of head – it’s a matter of heart. It’s about interactions. What happens in the workplace, in schools, on sports fields, and through music and culture shapes racial attitudes as much as any legislation that’s passed. I do believe that we’re making slow and steady progress. When I talk to Malia and Sasha, the world they’re growing up with, with their friends, is just very different from the world that you and I grew up with.

You’ve shied away from demanding marriage equality for all. Are you at least willing to say that you support it on a personal level?

I’m not going to make news in this publication. I’ve made clear that the issue of fairness and justice and equality for the LGBT community is very important to me. And I haven’t just talked about it, I’ve acted on it. You’ll recall that the last time you and I had an interview, we were getting beat up about “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the LGBT community. There was skepticism: “Why’s it taking so long? Why doesn’t he just do it through executive order?” I described very specifically the process we were going to go through to make sure that there was a buy-in from the military, up and down the chain of command, so that it would be executed in an effective way. And lo and behold, here we are, and it got done.

Ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been the dog that didn’t bark. You haven’t read a single story about problems in our military as a consequence of the ending of the policy. So whether it’s on that, or changing the AIDS travel ban, or hospital visitation rights, or a whole slew of regulations that have made sure that federal workers are treated fairly in the workplace, we’ve shown the commitment that I have to these issues. And we’re going to keep on working in very practical ways to make sure that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are treated as what they are – full-fledged members of the American family.

Let me ask you about the War on Drugs. You vowed in 2008, when you were running for election, that you would not “use Justice Department resources to try and circumvent state laws about medical marijuana.” Yet we just ran a story that shows your administration is launching more raids on medical pot than the Bush administration did. What’s up with that?

Here’s what’s up: What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana – and the reason is, because it’s against federal law. I can’t nullify congressional law. I can’t ask the Justice Department to say, “Ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books.” What I can say is, “Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage.” As a consequence, there haven’t been prosecutions of users of marijuana for medical purposes.

The only tension that’s come up – and this gets hyped up a lot – is a murky area where you have large-scale, commercial operations that may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users. In that situation, we put the Justice Department in a very difficult place if we’re telling them, “This is supposed to be against the law, but we want you to turn the other way.” That’s not something we’re going to do.

I do think it’s important and useful to have a broader debate about our drug laws. One of the things we’ve done over the past three years was to make a sensible change when it came to the disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. We’ve had a discussion about how to focus on treatment, taking a public-health approach to drugs and lessening the overwhelming emphasis on criminal laws as a tool to deal with this issue. I think that’s an appropriate debate that we should have.

Occupy Wall Street seems to have influenced your rhetoric. Has it had a deeper impact on your thinking about America?

You know, I think that Occupy Wall Street was just one vivid expression of a broader anxiety that has been around in the United States for at least a decade or more. People have a sense the game is rigged, so just a few people can do well, and everybody else is left to scramble to get by.

The free market is the greatest generator of wealth in history. I’m a firm believer in the free market, and the capacity of Americans to start a business, pursue their dreams and strike it rich. But when you look at the history of how we became an economic superpower, that rugged individualism and private--sector dynamism was always coupled with government creating a platform so that every-body could succeed, so that consumers weren’t taken advantage of, so that the byproducts of capitalism, like pollution or worker injuries, were regulated. Creating that social safety net has not made us weaker – it’s made us stronger. It liberated people to say, “I can move to another state, but if I don’t find a job right away, my kids aren’t going to go hungry. I can start a business, but if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to be able to land on my feet.” Making those kinds of commitments to each other – to create safety nets, to invest in infrastructure and schools and basic -research – is just like our collective investment in national security or fire departments or -police. It has facilitated the kind of risk-taking that has made our economy so dynamic. This is what it means for us to live in a thriving, modern democracy.

One of the major arguments we’ll be having in this election season is a contrasting vision that says not just that government is part of the problem, but essentially that government is the entire problem. These guys, they don’t just want to roll back the New Deal – in some cases, they want to go back even further.

In regard to Wall Street, people are watching how the Justice Department has treated big players in the financial crisis, like Goldman Sachs, and saying, “Nobody’s been put on trial.” Other than some con men like Bernie Madoff and some insider trading, there hasn’t been a single criminal prosecution of any of the individuals who actually made the decisions that wrecked the global economy. Despite all the fraud and manipulation, why is nobody on trial?

First of all, we’re a nation of laws. So in some cases, really irresponsible practices that hurt a lot of people might not have been technically against the law. They might have been the wrong thing to do, but prosecutors are required to actually build cases based on what the law is. That’s part of the reason we’ve passed Wall Street reform: to make much clearer what is prohibited and what is not, to set up rules and regulations that say, “You can’t do this, and if you do do it, there are going to be consequences.”

Now, that isn’t to say that there may not be more wrongdoing out there. One of the things people have not been clear about, for example, is this recent housing settlement. It was based on banks violating civil laws with those auto-penning of foreclosures, and it was narrowly drawn so that banks have to put up billions of dollars to help families who have been affected, but it still leaves in place the possibility of prosecution. It doesn’t provide any criminal immunity whatsoever. We’ve set up a task force not just with the federal government, but with state attorney generals, that as we speak are actively going through all the records, issuing subpoenas. They will, on the basis of law, make determinations as to whether there are prosecutions out there.

So you think there’s still a possibility of criminal prosecution.

I think there’s still possibilities of criminal prosecutions. But what I’ve instructed the attorney general to do is to follow the evidence and follow the law. That’s how our system works.

What is very relevant, I think, is that you have a Republican Congress, and Republican candidates for president, who have actively stated that they want to roll back the financial regulations that have been put in place. They want to eliminate the Consumer Financial Protection -Bureau, which is one more example of how they have drifted off of what had traditionally been bipartisan ideas. The notion that we would roll back an agency whose sole purpose is to make sure that consumers of financial products aren’t defrauded, aren’t tricked, aren’t duped, and that will somehow make our economy stronger – after everything we’ve been through, that makes absolutely no sense.

James Hansen, NASA’s leading climate scientist, has said this about the Keystone pipeline: that if the pipeline goes through and we burn tar sands in Canada, it’s “game over” for the planet. What’s your reaction to that statement?

James Hansen is a scientist who has done an enormous amount not only to understand climate change, but also to help publicize the issue. I have the utmost respect for scientists. But it’s important to understand that Canada is going to be moving forward with tar sands, regardless of what we do. That’s their national policy, they’re pursuing it. With respect to Keystone, my goal has been to have an honest process, and I have adamantly objected to Congress trying to circumvent a process that was well-established not just under Democratic administrations, but also under Republican administrations.

The reason that Keystone got so much attention is not because that particular pipeline is a make-or-break issue for climate change, but because those who have looked at the science of climate change are scared and concerned about a general lack of sufficient movement to deal with the problem. Frankly, I’m deeply concerned that internationally, we have not made as much progress as we need to make. Within the constraints of this Congress, we’ve tried to do a whole range of things, administratively, that are making a difference – doubling fuel-efficiency standards on cars is going to take a whole lot of carbon out of our atmosphere. We’re going to continue to push on energy efficiency, and renewable energy standards, and the promotion of green energy. But there is no doubt that we have a lot more work to do.

Part of the challenge over these past three years has been that people’s number-one priority is finding a job and paying the mortgage and dealing with high gas prices. In that environment, it’s been easy for the other side to pour millions of dollars into a campaign to debunk climate-change science. I suspect that over the next six months, this is going to be a debate that will become part of the campaign, and I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way. That there’s a way to do it that is entirely compatible with strong economic growth and job creation – that taking steps, for example, to retrofit buildings all across America with existing technologies will reduce our power usage by 15 or 20 per cent. That’s an achievable goal, and we should be getting started now.

You came into office as a young president with no military experience. Can you tell us a bit about your experience with overseeing the Pentagon and how you’ve grown as commander in chief, how your leadership style has evolved?

I came in without having served in the military, but feeling a great reverence for our military, and in awe of the sacrifices that our men and women in uniform make every single day. In the first year, the Pentagon had grown accustomed to basically setting the terms – not just tactics, but also strategy. There was some sense that we had a lot of hammers, so everything was a nail. In part because of really good work by Bob Gates, who I kept on as secretary of defense, and in part because of me really trying to engage and listen to the Joint Chiefs and have a frank and open and honest discussion, even when we had strong disagreements, they developed a sense that I care about our military – but that I very much believe in civilian control of our military, and that military decisions are in service of strategies and broader conceptions of diplomacy that are made here in this White House. And so I can say, with a lot of confidence, that at this point the relationship between me and the Pentagon is very good. I think they know I care about them and I respect them, and I think they respect me and listen to what I say. They understand that I’m the commander in chief.

The bin Laden raid was just one very dramatic expression of a very effective and constructive relationship that’s developed, and our drawdown in Iraq is another good example. Iraq, obviously, still has challenges. I came in and I promised that I would end the war in Iraq in a responsible way, and we executed that plan. It wasn’t as fast as some people would have liked. It was probably faster than some folks in the Pentagon would have liked. But we were able to arrive at an approach that has resulted in handing over to the Iraqis a country, a democracy, that allows them now to determine their own fate, and we’re going through that same process now with respect to Afghanistan.

Let me ask you about the Middle East in general. Outside of Iraq, there seems to be more turmoil than ever – in Syria, Israel, Iran. What’s your take on the region and the strategic challenges it poses?

What we’ve seen over the past year and a half is as significant a set of changes as we’ve seen since the Berlin Wall fell. I think the jury’s still out in terms of how it unfolds. On the one hand, I’m very proud that we stood with the people of Tunisia when they aspired to democracy. I’m very proud of the fact that we stood with the people of Egypt and said that it would be unacceptable, from our perspective, to see all those tens of thousands of people in Tahrir Square subjected to violence, and that it was time to transition to democracy. I believe we did the right thing with respect to Libya, in a very surgical way, avoiding a potential massacre.

But what is also true is that these are countries that don’t have deep democratic traditions. Because of repression, in part, the only organizing principle in these societies is religious, and there are sectarian divisions that date back hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years. As these transitions take place, democracy can easily turn to demagoguery, to civil strife. So it is going to be a bumpy road, and a challenging time. I think the American approach has to be to uphold core principles of universal rights, freedom and democracy. We’re also going to have to show some humility, in the sense that we’re not going to be able to completely impose our own vision on these countries.

How do you strike that balance?

What I’ve made very clear to the entire region is we have some core interests that we’re going to protect, making sure that we don’t have terrorists who are launching attacks against U.S. persons or interests for our homeland, and that’s something that we’re going to continue to pursue. We’re going to make sure that friends of ours in a region like Israel aren’t vulner-able to attack. But when we look back 20 or 30 years from now, we want to make sure that we were on the side of freedom and equality and justice. We’re not going to always get it perfectly right, and there are going to be times when we’re frustrated, because for all our good intentions, people still use anti-Americanism as an easy political tool to get the streets riled up.

The biggest worry I have in the region is actually economic. When you think about those young people in Tahrir Square, more than anything what they want is the same thing that people all around the world want. They want opportunity, they want the ability to get an education, get a job, raise a family. But this huge youth bulge that has taken place in North Africa and the Middle East demands that the region integrate itself with the world economy, to upgrade the skills of its population – including half its population of women, who too often are locked out of any participation in the economy. They have to start making things and designing things and selling things other than oil. If they don’t move fast enough on that front, then that will make the project that much more difficult.

What about the two biggest concerns at the moment, Syria and Iran?

The ongoing massacre of civilians in Syria is an example where the international community has to speak out forcefully. There are no easy answers in terms of us putting a stop to these killings, but we have to apply every bit of pressure we can to effectuate a peaceful, or at least more peaceful, transition to a legitimate government inside of Syria.

As for Iran, I came into office in 2009 saying, “Let’s see if we can end 30 years of mistrust between the United States and Iran.” That outstretched hand was rebuffed, in part, because Iran embarked on repression of its own people after the elections in 2009, and they continue to pursue a nuclear program that nobody in the international community believes is simply for peaceful purposes. So we have another round of talks taking place between Iran and the P5-plus-1 – we just announced them today. There is a window of opportunity to resolve this issue diplomatically, and that is my fervent preference. There’s no reason why Iran shouldn’t be able to rejoin the community of nations and prosper. They have incredibly talented and sophisticated people there. But this continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons capability continues to be a major challenge, and it’s going to be consuming a lot of my time and energy over the next several months.

You’ve been in office three years now. What’s the world’s hardest job like on a day-to-day basis?

Like every other job, you have good days and bad days. Like every other job, if you’re willing to be self-critical and you’re putting your all into it, you get better at it over time. I think I’m a better president now than when I first came into office. I think that my team is more efficient and can see around corners better than we could when we first came into office. As several people have pointed out to me who have been in previous administrations, this is a hard job, period. It’s a really hard job when you’re in the middle of the worst financial crisis in your lifetime, and two wars at the same time, and major challenges involving terrorism and climate change.

And everybody telling you how bad you’re doing every day.

You end up having a very thick skin. I entered here with a thick skin, and now my skin is even thicker. Part of what you understand is that you are a person, but you’re also a symbol. If things are going wrong, then people are looking to you to fix them. And sometimes, if you’re just frustrated in your efforts, you’re going to be the object of their frustration. You don’t take it personally – you just recognize that it goes with the office and the desk and Marine One and all the other aspects of being president.

I heard you liked the TV show “Homeland.”

I did, it was a great show.

In the show, a drone strike destroys a madrassa and provokes an assassination attempt on the vice president of the United States. What did you enjoy about it?

What I liked was just real complicated characters. Obviously, there’s a lot of overdramatization of what our days are like around here day to day, and how our national security apparatus works. But the characters involved are not simple, black-and-white characters. It’s a terrific psychological study, and that’s what I enjoy about it.

What other TV shows or movies or music have you been enjoying?

I haven’t had a chance to see a lot of movies lately. I think the last movie I saw was The Descendants, which was fun, because it was going home. I saw Clooney the other day, and I joked to him that those were all my old haunting grounds. It actually captured that part of Hawaii that’s not just rainbows and sunsets.

What do you read regularly to keep you informed or provide you with perspectives beyond the inner circle of your advisers?

[Laughs] Other than Rolling Stone?

That goes without saying.

I don’t watch a lot of TV news. I don’t watch cable at all. I like The Daily Show, so sometimes if I’m home late at night, I’ll catch snippets of that. I think Jon Stewart’s brilliant. It’s amazing to me the degree to which he’s able to cut through a bunch of the nonsense – for young people in particular, where I think he ends up having more credibility than a lot of more conventional news programs do.

I spend a lot of time just reading reports, studies, briefing books, intelligence assessments.

Newspapers?

I’ll thumb through all the major papers in the morning. I’ll read the Times and Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, just to catch up.

Do you read Paul Krugman?

I read all of the New York Times columnists. Krugman’s obviously one of the smartest economic reporters out there, but I also read some of the conservative columnists, just to get a sense of where those arguments are going. There are a handful of blogs, Andrew Sullivan’s on the Daily Beast being an example, that combine thoughtful analysis with a sampling of lots of essays that are out there. The New Yorker and The Atlantic still do terrific work. Every once in a while, I sneak in a novel or a nonfiction book.

I thought you were going to say “Playboy.”

No [laughs].

Most people, when you ask them to sing in public, get kind of nervous about it – they don’t really want to do it. But you got up there at the Apollo Theater and nailed Al Green. What was going through your head when they asked you to do it? Did you know you were going to nail it?

The truth is, here’s exactly what happened. It was my fifth event of the day. It’s about 10:30 at night, and we go up to the Apollo. I wanted to hear Al Green. The guys who were working the soundboard in the back, a couple of real good guys, they say, “Oh, man, you missed the Reverend, but he was terrific, he was in rare form.” So I was frustrated by that. Since I was on my fifth event and had been yakking away for several hours on all kinds of policy stuff, I just kind of broke into a rendition of “Let’s Stay Together.” And they’re like, “Oh, so the president, you can sing, man. You should do that onstage.” [Senior adviser] Valerie Jarrett was with us, and she was like [whispers, making a slashing motion across his throat], “No, no. . . . ” I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that. You don’t think I can do that onstage?” I looked at [press secretary] Jay Carney, and he was tired too, and he said, “Yeah, go for it.” So I went up there and we did it.

I can sing. I wasn’t worried about being able to hit those notes.

We’ve talked in the past about how you’ve met Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney here in the White House. Now you’ve met Mick Jagger. Tell us a bit about that.

The performances were terrific that night. But what was really fun about it was the rehearsal the day before. Part of what I really enjoy watching, any time I see these rehearsals, is how generous the big-name guys are with all the musicians involved. Once they get onstage, they don’t have the entourage, all the trappings – they’re just one more musician, and they’re up there, practicing. I saw that when McCartney was here, I saw that when Stevie [Wonder] was here, Herbie Hancock. Mick was the same way. It was really nice to watch him just try to work through these numbers with the house band and a couple of guys who were with him who were obviously far less famous and about half his age, or maybe even less than half his age. But he was treating them with respect and caring about the music.

The next day, the evening of the performance, Mick gets up there and says, “Part of what makes this night special is I remember when me and the rest of the Stones traveled to Chess Records.” They’re in the middle of the South Side of Chicago, and they’re probably the first Englishmen that most of these folks have ever met, like Howlin’ Wolf and the rest of the crew at Chess and B.B. King, who was performing that night. Mick said how much he appreciated their generosity – teaching the Stones what they knew about music, even though these kids were like something arriving from another planet. The sense of him wanting to do that same thing, that it all comes full circle.

He told me that the night before, you came down to the rehearsal and hung out quite a bit.

Yeah, I was down there for probably about 45 minutes. It was great fun, just watching them work through stuff. And he had unbelievable energy. I tell you, that guy, when he performed the next night, he was as energized as he’s ever been.

Did you know you were going on to sing “Sweet Home Chicago” that night?

I was actually trying to avoid singing. The only problem with my Apollo performance is that everywhere I go now, somebody wants me to sing. My whole point is that the fewer the performances, the higher the ticket price, so you don’t want to overdo it.

It must help to get a break, though, given how stressful and demanding the job is.

You generally don’t hear in the press about what goes right, but you do hear it from the people who were impacted by it. I tell you, not a day passes where somewhere, somehow, I don’t hear about something we’ve done that’s really touched somebody directly. Somebody writes and says, “I’m 25 years old, and because of health care reform, I was able to stay on my parents’ plan and ended up getting a checkup, and it turned out that I had a tumor and it was caught early, and I just want you to know that treatment is going well, and I really think this health care bill saved my life.” Or you’re in a rope line and somebody says, “I know you’ve been criticized because a lot of folks have had their homes foreclosed on, but your housing program actually helped me stay in my home, and it’s made all the difference in the world.”

There’s an incredible generosity and recognition from people that these are tough times. It reminds you of what an incredible privilege it is to occupy this office. You’re touching people on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes you don’t even know it.

My hair is grayer, and obviously you get dinged up and bruised in this job. But my confidence in the American people is stronger than it was when I came into office, and my determination to do right by them and make sure that every morning, I wake up trying to figure out, “How do I improve their prospects?” That determination burns brighter than it did back in 2008.


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