After more than a year in office and one of the more divisive legislative battles in American history, President Barack Obama has a new respect not just for his predecessor, President George W. Bush, but for every man who has occupied the Oval Office.
“Having sat in the Oval Office as president, I am much more sympathetic to all presidents generally,” Obama told TODAY’s Matt Lauer in a wide-ranging interview that aired Tuesday. “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.”
The president spoke in the wake of the passage of the health care reform bill that has been a centerpiece of his presidency, and having just returned from a surprise visit to Afghanistan, his first since assuming office.
Obama talked about the need for more rapid progress in Afghanistan on the part of President Hamid Karzai. Obama also talked about America’s relationship with Israel and addressed the deep political divide that has given birth to the Tea Party movement.
He also talked about his faith, including addressing why the Obamas have not settled on a regular church to attend, and his family. On a lighter note, he said ruefully that his NCAA basketball tournament brackets are “completely blown up,” but offered an excuse, saying, “It is a sign that I was paying a singular focus on health care.”
Health care reform passed without a single Republican vote and has deeply divided the country, helping to fuel the Tea Party movement that has embraced some of Obama’s harshest critics.
The political polarization of America has been going on for some time, Obama said.
“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,” Obama said. “Frankly, it gets spun up in part because of how the media covers politics, in the 24/7 news cycle, cable chatter and talk radio and the Internet and the blogs, all of which try to feed the most extreme sides of any issue instead of trying to narrow differences and solve problems.”
The president said he believes the problem can be solved, but on health care, he said, “I am frustrated that Republicans who I think had an opportunity to help shape this bill declined that opportunity.”
He said that the bill that he signed contained many elements that were in the health care reform bill that Republican Mitt Romney supported and signed when he was governor of Massachusetts.
“What’s interesting is that if you actually break down the specifics of the bill, you will see that this, historically, has had a lot of Republican support,” Obama said. “I think what happened is that they made a calculation, which if you are thinking in terms of short-term politics, you can see the argument. Their attitude is, look, if we stop this bill and we stop this president here, then that will give us a lot of political benefit in November. What I’ve tried to say throughout is, I will continue to reach out to Republicans. I will continue to incorporate their ideas even when they don’t vote for the ideas that I’ve presented. But what I’m not going to be dissuaded from is us going ahead taking on these big challenges that are critical in terms of America’s long-term economic health.”
Afghanistan and IsraelLauer asked Obama why he waited so long to make his first visit to Afghanistan. The president said that he hadn’t wanted to go during that country’s presidential election or during the shakedown period after the vote to avoid the appearance of trying to influence the election.
While acknowledging progress by Karzai in reducing corruption and cracking down on the drug trade, Obama said he is not happy with the pace of reform.
“It’s an important time for President Karzai. He has made some important steps in the right direction, improving governance, reducing corruption. But there’s a long way to go,” Obama said. “I think that progress is too slow. And what we’ve been trying to emphasize is the fierce urgency of now. My hope is that President Karzai can recognize the incredible opportunity he has to be the father of a modern Afghanistan.”
Obama’s administration has clashed recently with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements in East Jerusalem. The president said that despite recent ill will, the United States and Israel remain firm allies.
“I think the underlying relationship is solid as a rock. So my commitment, my personal commitment, to Israel’s security is unwavering, and I think that there is broad bipartisan consensus on that. This is a disagreement among friends about how to move forward,” he said. “I think Prime Minister Netanyahu intellectually understands that he has got to take some bold steps. I think politically he feels it. But it’s not just on the Israeli side. I’ve been very clear that the Palestinians have to take steps.”
The Tea PartyMoving back to domestic topics, Obama took a measured view of the Tea Party movement that has focused its anger on him and his administration. He took care to distinguish between the people who question his citizenship and who are convinced he’s a socialist and those who are simply concerned about the future of a country going through economic turmoil.
“There's a part of the Tea Party that actually did exist before I was elected … where there’s some folks who just weren’t sure whether I was born in the United States, whether I was a socialist. Then I think that there’s 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 I think those are folks who have legitimate concerns. And my hope is that as we move forward and we’re tackling things like the deficit, imposing a freeze on domestic spending, taking steps that show we are sincere about dealing with our long-term problems, that some of that group will dissipate.”
It has not been an easy year, but, the president said, tough decisions on the part of his administration are making a difference.
“One of the things that I take pride in is that we took on a lot of tough decisions last year. But because we took those tough decisions, you now have a financial system that is stable, a stock market that’s recovered a lot of its value, which has a direct impact not just on folks on Wall Street but people with 401(k)'s and retirement accounts who have a little more security than they did.”
The president said he remains concerned that many of the 8 million jobs lost in the recession are gone forever. “What I’m concerned about is, how do we start reemploying a whole bunch of folks who jobs aren’t there anymore?” he said.
Obama said he would continue to attempt to work with Republicans and to end the divisive culture on Capitol Hill.
“I think what’s important is that you 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 that they want what’s best for America even if we disagree on the particular approach,” the president told Lauer.
“When you look at the issues that are still out there, you still have to have an energy policy in this country that reduces our dependence on foreign oil, we still have a broken immigration system, still have financial regulatory reform. And on each of these issues I’m going to actively seek Republican support.”
Family mattersTurning to personal matters, Lauer asked the president why he has yet to choose a regular church to attend.
“We’ve decided for now not to join a single church. The reason is because Michelle and I have realized we are very disruptive to services,” Obama replied. “We occasionally go across the street to St. John’s, which is a church that a lot of presidents traditionally have gone to. We love the chapel up in Camp David. It’s probably our favorite place to worship because it’s just family up at Camp David. There’s a wonderful chaplain up there who does just a great job. So usually when we go to Camp David we go to church on Sundays there.”
Obama also revealed that he avails himself of modern technology in his spiritual life.“I get a daily devotional on my BlackBerry, which is a wonderful thing,” Obama said.
He said he is most happy about how his girls, Malia and Sasha, have settled into life in the White House and have maintained their bearings.
“The happiest thing about the past year and a half has been the girls’ adjustment. They have just been terrific,” he said with parental pride. “They’re doing well in school. They're not as constrained. They can wander around. Their Secret Service protection is a lot more low-key. And so, they’ve got soccer, they’ve got basketball. They go to sleepovers at their friends’ houses.”
And, they have sleepovers at their house.
“Sometimes I’ve got 12 little girls screaming on the third floor of the White House,” Obama said.
“I get a little worried about them when they’re teenagers, because I think that’s the time when you’re already embarrassed about your parents. And then imagine if your dad's in the newspaper every day and people are calling him an idiot. So I feel a little worried about that. On the other hand, Malia and Sasha have turned out to be unbelievably well-adjusted kids. The thing that’s most important to me is that they’re so respectful of everybody and haven’t gotten any airs. I attribute that directly to Michelle because she wouldn’t put up with any of that stuff.”
Turning to sports...Finally, Lauer asked the president about his NCAA Tournament brackets, which he had picked live on ESPN two weeks ago. For a time, Obama’s picks were leading the nation, but since then, every one of his Final Four teams has been knocked out of the competition. Lauer asked who he likes among the survivors — Duke, West Virginia, Michigan State and Butler.
“I’m not going to pick now,” Obama said.
“You have to pick now,” Lauer told him.
After some more back-and-forth, Obama finally relented.
“I think the winner of West Virginia-Duke will end up winning the championship,” he said.