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.