Interview: Obama on Partisanship and Getting Things Done in Washington

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White House correspondent Michael Scherer spoke with President Obama aboard Air Force One on Aug. 21 for the Sept. 10 issue of TIME, now available online to subscribers. (Also in the magazine: David Von Drehle on Joe Biden’s art of overstatement.) A complete transcript follows.

Cover Photograph by Callie Shell for TIME

MICHAEL SCHERER: What is your message for the independent voter who supported you from Ohio or Iowa in 2008 because he thought you could change the tone in Washington, change politics? Did you do something wrong? And why will the next four years be different?
BARACK OBAMA: The message I have for them is no different than the message I have for the rest of the country, which is, I ran for office to not only deal with a looming economic crisis but also reverse a decade in which middle-class families had seen their security erode.

And everything I’ve done — most of the time in cooperation with Congress, but sometimes working around Congress — has been geared toward that central goal of making sure that we have a strong, vibrant, growing middle class and we got ladders of opportunity for people who are willing to work hard to get into the middle class.

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That’s what the Recovery Act was about. That’s what saving the auto industry was about. That’s what health care was about. And for those who were hoping that Washington would be more focused on dealing with the problems that everyday Americans face, as opposed to party politics, I’m one of those people.

And I still believe that that’s what the American people are looking for: solving problems. What I’ve tried to do is to take ideas from everyone — Democrats and Republicans — that I thought would make a difference in the lives of working families. That’s why the Recovery Act — a third of it was tax cuts, traditionally an idea Republicans supported. That’s why our health care bill relies on private insurance and why it looks so much like Governor Romney’s health care bill.

So what I’m trying to do is to take the best ideas from either party, with one criteria, one filter, and that is: Is this helping to grow the middle class, build the middle class and create ladders of opportunity for people? And hopefully, voters recognize that not only has that been my priority over the last four years, but it’s going to be my priority over the next four years.

So on a couple of those examples — on stimulus, on health care reform and then on the debt ceiling — at each of those points, you express surprise and frustration that Republicans haven’t come further along with you. Has that changed the way you approach them? In the lame duck next year, you’re going to be dealing with probably one body, at least, of Congress controlled by Republicans. How are you going to approach them differently after the election? If voters are looking for a change in the stalemate, what do you see as the thing that changes the dynamic that we’ve had at least since 2008?
Well, one of the good things about this election is it’s going to give voters a very clear choice. I want to keep taxes low for 98% of Americans — everybody making under $250,000. Governor Romney wants to cut taxes by another $5 trillion, including for the wealthiest Americans, and to pay for it, potentially tax middle-class folks to the tune of about $2,000.

I want to continue to invest in things like wind energy. Governor Romney wants to continue $4 billion worth of subsidies to the oil companies. I want to implement the health care reform and balance our budget in sensible ways, making sure that we’re eliminating waste and fraud from Medicare but making sure it’s still a guarantee for seniors. Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan want to set up a voucher plan.

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So given how stark the choices are, I do think that should I be fortunate enough to have another four years, the American people will have made a decision. And hopefully, that will impact how Republicans think about these problems.

I will continue to reach out to them and work with them wherever I can. And I think it’s important to note that even in the two years that Republicans have controlled the House, we’ve gotten a lot of stuff done. We have passed a payroll tax cut that affected almost every American. We’ve helped veterans get hired as they come home. We’ve gotten two major trade deals that open up markets and are contributing to us doubling exports.

So even in a pretty sour political circumstance, we’ve been able to get some things accomplished. And I believe that in a second term, where Mitch McConnell’s imperative of making me a one-term President is no longer relevant, they recognize that what the American people are looking for is for us to get things done.

And I will continue to insist to my Democratic colleagues that not all good ideas just come from Democrats and that if we’re going to reduce our deficit in a serious way, we are going to have to cut some spending even on some programs that I like. If we’re going to be serious about energy independence, then we can’t just have a knee-jerk opposition to the incredible resources that we have in our country. We’ve got to have an all-of-the-above strategy that develops oil and gas and clean coal along with wind and solar.

So my expectation is that there will be some popping of the blister after this election, because it will have been such a stark choice. Where Republicans refuse to cooperate on things that I know are good for the American people, I will continue to look for ways to do it administratively and work around Congress. And a good example of that is, for example, making sure that homeowners around the country can take advantage of these historically low rates and refinance.

There’s no reason Congress can’t move forward and at almost no cost to the federal government really boost the housing market and our economy. But if Congress won’t do it, we’ll keep on looking for ways to get that done without legislation.

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In 2011, as part of the grand bargain that didn’t work, you put a lot on the table that was uncomfortable for Democrats — changes to Medicare, changes to Social Security, cuts to Medicaid. For your Democrats who are supporting you now, should they expect you to go no further than that in the second term? What is your message to them about what you’re willing to put on the table to get a deal with Republicans on entitlements?
My message to Democrats is the same message I’ve got to Republicans and independents, and that is, I want a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines additional revenue, particularly from folks like me who can afford it, with prudent cuts on both the discretionary side and the mandatory side but that still allows us to make investments in the things we need to grow.

And that means I’m prepared to look at reforms in Medicaid. I’m prepared to look at smart reforms on Medicare. But there are things I won’t do, and this is part of the debate we’re having in this election. I do not think it is a good idea to set up Medicare as a voucher system in which seniors are spending up to $6,000 more out of pocket. That was the original proposal Congressman Ryan put forward. And there is still a strong impulse I think among some Republicans for that kind of approach.

I’m not going to slash Medicaid to the point where disabled kids or seniors who are in nursing homes are basically uncared for. We’re not going to violate the basic bargain that Social Security represents.

Now, the good news is, if you’re willing to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires, then you can make modest reforms on entitlements, reduce some additional discretionary spending, achieve deficit reduction and still preserve Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid in ways that people can count on. The only reason that you would have to go further than that is if there’s no revenue whatsoever. And that’s a major argument that we’re having with the Republicans.

Look, they love to paint me as this Big Government, tax-and-spend liberal. The truth is that growth in the federal government is slower than at any time since Dwight Eisenhower. Taxes are lower than at any time since Dwight Eisenhower. The tax reforms I’m calling for would simply take us back to the tax rates under Bill Clinton for people above $250,000, which means taxes will still be lower under me than they were under either Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan.

We’re not looking for anything radical here. And frankly, the country doesn’t need radical changes. What it needs is some commonsense solutions that stay focused on helping middle-class families.

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You said one of the mistakes you see in the first term was not telling that story better. What does it mean to tell the story better in the next four years?
Well, what I meant by that is that we were in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, so we had to just do stuff fast. And sometimes it wasn’t popular. And we didn’t have the luxury of six months to explain exactly what we were doing with the Recovery Act, which was basically a jobs act and making-sure-middle-class-families-didn’t-fall-into-poverty act.

And there were all kinds of things we could do to have explained that effectively, but we didn’t have time. The auto bailout — now a lot of people are coming around and saying that was the right thing to do. But at the time, I think it polled at 10%. And we didn’t have time to worry about that. We had a million jobs at stake in places like Ohio and Michigan, and we needed to make sure that we acted quickly.

So moving forward, what I want to make sure the American people understand is that investments in education, investments in basic science and research, an all-of-the-above American energy strategy, in making college more affordable, in rebuilding our infrastructure, our roads and our bridges and our ports and our airports — all those things that help make us grow are compatible with fiscal discipline as long as everybody is doing their fair share.

And that’s a story I’m doing my best to tell during the campaign. That’s a story I will continue to try to tell, if I’m fortunate enough to have a second term, in Inaugurations, in States of the Union. I want to make sure that people understand that I’ve got a focus on growing this economy, not growing the public sector, but doing enough to ensure that we’ve got the best workers in the world, we’ve got the best technology in the world and we’re competitive in the 21st century.

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I’ve heard two messages about the way politics works. One is, you’ve said — and your staff will say — variations of the line that if you get the policy right, the politics follows. You’ve also said a number of times, usually in fundraisers, that when people get angry or anxious, that rationality and science and reason doesn’t always carry the day. So now you’re four years in, which is winning out? How do you see it? They seem to be conflicting.
I don’t think they’re conflicting. I believe that if you do the right thing, then public opinion will eventually follow. But public opinion doesn’t always match up precisely with the election cycle, right?

So I genuinely believe that five years from now, folks will look back and say, I’m really glad that my 23-year-old can stay on my plan for health insurance. I’m really glad that we’ve closed the doughnut hole, so prescription drugs are cheaper for me. I’m really glad that I’ve got a pre-existing condition and I can still buy affordable health care through the exchanges that have been set up in the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.

But that is when the thing is set up that people [will] realize they still have a choice of doctors and this hasn’t been a government takeover of health care — all the uncertainty has been taken out of it. And I’ve got an election in less than three months, not five years from now.

One thing I’ve learned as President — I’ve learned many things, but one thing that’s been confirmed for me is that when you’re sitting in this office, the weight of the office, the realization of how many people rely on you, the conversations you have with folks who are struggling, the sacrifices you see of soldiers who are coming home after losing a leg or worse in a war, requires you to make the very best decisions you can and set aside for a moment what it means for you politically.

And I don’t think I’m unique in that. I genuinely think, despite my strong disagreements with him, that George W. Bush felt the same way. And I know Bill Clinton felt the same way. I know George H.W. Bush felt the same way.

And so, what I wake up determined to accomplish every single day is making the best decisions I can, knowing that not everything we do is going to work, because part of the other challenge that you face as President is the problems that reach your desk are the ones that nobody else had good answers to. If there were easy solutions, somebody else would have solved it before it hit your desk. There’s some tension, there’s some conflict, there’s uncertainty, there’s two paths or five paths that might be taken and you’re not 100% sure that every single one of them are going to work.

And the only thing, then, to guide you is what you genuinely think is going to be best for the country. Because if you start trying to guess what’s going to be most politically advantageous or you try to game all that stuff out, you’ll get lost very quickly.

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I assume you’ve done a pretty close study of your opponent, Mitt Romney. I know you admire him for his family and for the work he did on health care in Massachusetts. But I wonder if you could point to a couple of other things in his record and things he has accomplished that you actually admire.
Well, you took away a couple.

I did. I took away the two good ones.
He strikes me as somebody who is very disciplined. And I think that that is a quality that obviously contributed to his success as a private-equity guy. I think he takes his faith very seriously. And as somebody who takes my Christian faith seriously, I appreciate that he seems to walk the walk and not just be talking the talk when it comes to his participation in his church.

But the fundamental difference between Governor Romney and myself, aside from some of our life experiences, I think is really a matter of how do you grow an economy that is strong and healthy over the long term. And when you look at the history of this country, when we’ve done best it’s been when everybody did well — when the middle class was strong, when wages and incomes were keeping up with the cost of living, when the doors of opportunity were widening, when we were giving more people a quality education, when as a country we were willing to make investments in things like science and research that any individual enterprise wouldn’t find profitable. That’s when we do well.

When we do badly is when we have a philosophy in which everybody is on their own and a few people are doing very well, and they amass more and more economic power, political power, and ordinary folks start feeling left behind. That skews not only our economy, but it also skews our politics.

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So the most obvious example is the contrast between the 1920s leading into the Great Depression vs. the postwar era of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. And we’ve seen a repeat of that — the growth we had under Bill Clinton vs. a lack of growth that we had under George W. Bush.

This isn’t a matter of who is more patriotic or who is more empathetic toward people or who is nicer. It’s a hardheaded assessment of what makes our economy grow. And the facts are on my side in this argument. The question is whether, while we’re still digging ourselves out of this hole that we found ourselves in, the facts will win the day.

Coming out of 2008, there was talk from you and from some of your staff that you could bring [your campaign’s] sort of grassroots movement, the organization, to Washington. And 2009 ended up being very much an inside-Washington mirror. [The year] 2012 is different. But if you’re able to get a second term, have you thought about ways of doing what the sort of promise of 2008 was that was never achieved in terms of bringing larger numbers of people to have a voice in the political process?
I’ve given that a lot of thought. And I do think that we had the best of intentions in 2009 and 2010. Again, we had to move very quickly, which meant that our biggest concern was how do we get 60 votes right now to get this done.

We won’t be in that same kind of crisis, putting-out-the-fire mentality, in 2013–2014. There are a handful of big issues that we’re going to have to deal with. We’ve got to get our fiscal house in order. And so, one way or another, before midyear of 2013, we will have solved that problem. Either Mitt Romney will have won, and he and members of the Republican Congress will have pushed through their tax cuts and all the cuts that they are proposing, and people will be able to assess whether that worked. Or we’re going to have a balanced approach that I’ve proposed.

I think we can get immigration reform done. The time is right for it. We used to have bipartisan support for it. That will continue to be a top priority for me.

I think there’s a lot more progress that we can make on the energy front, not only developing traditional sources of energy — the natural-gas boom, I think, could have huge impact on our energy independence as well as geopolitical implications, making us less reliant on other countries for energy. But also the work that we need to do to become more energy efficient — building on the doubling of fuel-efficiency standards on cars — I want to make sure that we’re increasing energy efficiency in buildings and schools and hospitals, which could put people back to work and save us money in the long run.

We still need to rebuild our infrastructure. And I think there’s still a lot we can do to reform our government — the whole government reorganization, streamlining it to eliminate paperwork, make government more customer-friendly — have one-stop shopping for businesses that want to export that need a credit line, that need technical assistance. All those things, I think, we can make government as consumer-friendly as an Apple store and Amazon.

All those things are areas where, historically at least, we’ve been able to bridge some of these partisan divides. And they’re not particularly ideological. But for me to get those accomplished, I do think I’m going to need to bring in the voices of the American people much more systematically, much more regularly.

Finding the right mechanisms to do that is something that we’re going to spend a lot of time thinking about. Obviously, the Internet and the digital age helps. We’ve been able to do that on our campaign. We now need to translate that more to how our government works. But I think the American people are ready for it.

The one thing I feel very strongly about, as I travel around the country, is that as anxious as people feel about the recession we’ve just gone through and the challenges that we’re getting from around the world, Americans are really tough, resilient and decent, and they’ve got good instincts. The more they are actively participating in this process, the better off we’re going to be.

I think that one other big argument I’ve gotten with Republicans is, they like to paint government as something alien and foreign and part of the problem, and if we can just shrink it and neuter it — or as Grover Norquist once said, Drown it in a tub, essentially — that somehow we’re going to be better off. That’s not how the founders conceived of our government. America is based on the idea of self-government, a government of and by and for the people — not of and by and for the lobbyists, not of and by and for the members of Congress, [but] of and by and for the people. And anything I can do to enhance that and to reconnect people with that idea will, I think, lead to better outcomes.

One impediment to that is what we’ve seen in this campaign with money and politics and Citizens United. And so one conversation I think we’re going to have to have with the entire country after this election is, Do we want a situation in which undisclosed donors writing $10 million checks have such disproportionate influence over the course of this country? And if not, what can we do to change it?

Did you make a mistake by not embracing Citizens United earlier or sort of embracing it?
First of all, I’ve never embraced it. What I’ve said is, we can’t unilaterally disarm. I make no apologies for thinking that it’s bad for our democracy when you’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars being spent by shadow groups that aren’t accountable to anybody and aren’t even disclosing.

Within the parameters of the rules that are being played right now, we’ve tried to make sure that we are disclosing everybody who is contributing to us, our bundlers. We still don’t take money from lobbyists. We don’t take money from PACs.

But look, we’re in an environment right now where money is as prominent as it’s ever been in our politics. And that’s never been my idea of politics. That’s never what has motivated me. I think the American people consider this a big problem, and I hopefully will be able to work with them to find some solutions in a second term.

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