TODAY   |  March 30, 2010

Obama takes on Tea Party and political divide

In an exclusive interview with TODAY’s Matt Lauer, President Obama describes the conservative movement as a “loose amalgam of forces” and says that Democrats and Republicans “can disagree without being disagreeable.”

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> the new sienna on youtube.

>>> we're back at 8:18 with more of our exclusive interview with the president. barack obama has been in office for 14 months. while he's had his share of accomplishments, including the passage of health care reform , some would argue the vitriol in washington has only gotten worse during his administration . we sat here a year ago, super bowl sunday, and at that time we were talking about hope and change. you were going to change the dialogue and tone in this country . you said, matt, it takes time. we have to build trust with the republicans before the tone can change. things now are worse.

>> if you look at historically what happens is, a party that's out of power oftentimes in those first few years of being out of power end up reacting very negatively. their base ends up being very agitated. and it may take the next election or the next presidential election before things settle down. i think what's important is that we recognize, a, we can disagree without being disagreeable. b, that all of us, republicans and democrats , have a responsibility as leaders to set the tone , to not exaggerate what the other side is trying to do, to not suggest that they're bad people , to assume they want what's best for america even though we disagree on a particular approach. my hope is that the republican leadership will take that tone. certainly that's the tone that i want to take. i think when you look at the issues that are still out there, we still have to have an energy policy in this country that reduces our dependence on foreign oil . we've still got a broken immigration system . we still have financial regulatory reform . a major issue that i've been talking about now for several years where we've got to figure out how to prevent the same kind of situation where a few reckless banks can bring down an entire economy and on each of these issues, i'm going to actively seek republican support, but there are going to be areas where we disagree and i will continue to maintain a tone where if they've got good ideas , i'll take them. but if we continue to disagree, we'll fight it out on the floor of the senate.

>> do any of the democrats deserve any of the blame for the tone in washington right now?

>> there's no doubt that democrats are known to play the same game which is to exaggerate the faults of the other side. there are times republicans do things i don't like, but my working assumption is that they are doing what they think is best for the country . and i think there have been times where democrats don't confer that same benefit of the doubt on to the republicans , and i think that's a tone that all of us should take.

>> when i look at the division right now, i was thinking president bush in preparing for this interview. i remember he came to office saying i want to be the uniter. by the end of his second term people were calling him the opposite, calling him a divider. i'm sure president bush would argue the country was divided because le to tackle very difficult issues and make tough choices. having been through what you've now been through with health care reform , do you now have a different opinion of the job george bush did in this office?

>> i think that having sat in the oval office as president, i am much more sympathetic to all presidents generally, because what is true is that there are big, tough decisions that you make, and you know that unless you try to avoid those problems, whatever you decide is going to make some people happy and some people unhappy. i think there are some things that george bush has done that were smart and the right thing to do. i've said that before. i do think that we now have a pattern of polarization, not just with george bush but also previous to george bush with bill clinton , where the political culture gets so wound up. frankly, matt, it gets spun up partly because of the way the media covers politics these days and the 24/7 news cycle and the cable chatter and talk radio and internet and blogs, all of which try to feed the most extreme sides of any issue, instead of trying to narrow differences and solve problems. there's something about the political culture here in washington that is a chronic problem. i haven't solved it yet. my hope though --

>> is solvable?

>> i do think it is solvable. when i go around the country and i talk to folks, they don't think in ideological terms. they don't think in terms of republican/democrat. they think in terms of is this good for my family? will it help my kid go to college ? will this help me keep a good job that pays my rent or mortgage ? if we can demonstrate as an administration that regardless of whatever the day to day news cycle is saying, we stay focused on the big picture and families and the results are good, i think that will show that it is possible to be principled and stick to your convictions and not worry about the polls and ultimately be rewarded politically. nothing succeeds like success in this town. if other politicians watch and it turns out that taking a commonsense approach to problems works, suddenly, lo and behold you might see more of that.

>> let me ask you about the tea party . this movement, this organization, didn't exist before you were president. now they're in the headlines almost every day. some say they are a legitimate movement. others think they are a fringe group . where do you fall?

>> you know, i think it is a still loose amalgam of forces. there's a part of the tea party movement that actually did exist before i was elected. we saw some of it leading up to my election. there's some folks who just weren't sure whether i was born in the united states , whether i was a socialist, right? so there's that segment of it, which i think is just dug in ideologically. that strain has existed in american politics for a long time. then i think that there is a broader circle around that core group of people who are legitimately concerned about the deficit , who are legitimately concerned that the federal government may be taking on too much, and last year, a bunch of the emergency measures we had to take in terms of dealing with the bank crisis, bailing out the auto industry , fed that sense that things were out of control. i think those are folks who have legitimate concerns, and so i wouldn't paint in broad bush and say that everybody who's involved or have gone to a tea party rally or a meeting are somehow on the fringe. some of them i think have some mainstream legitimate concerns and my hope is that as we move forward and we're tackling things like the deficit and imposing a freeze on domestic spending and taking steps that show we're sincere about dealing with our long-term problems, that some of that group will dissipate. there's still going to be a group at their core that question my legitimacy or question the democratic party generally or question people who they consider to be against them in some way and that group we're probably not going to convince.

>> president obama at the white house on monday.

>>> just ahead, giada cooks up