President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama took a break from politics as usual to return to the city they call home and sit down for a landmark interview.
"Air Force One has landed in Chicago!" Oprah says. "I am so honored that in these remaining days of The Oprah Show, they chose to be here."
"We're thrilled to be here," President Obama says. "It's always nice to find an excuse to come home."
President and Mrs. Obama and their two daughters, 9-year-old Sasha and 12-year-old Malia, may live in the most famous house in America—the White House—but they still call Chicago home. "[It's the] greatest city in the world," the president says.
"Two weeks ago, a huge debate was initiated around where our budget needs to go," the president explains. "During the course of this major debate, where I gave a big speech and the Republicans voted on their proposal, the biggest news was this birth certificate thing."
At that point, President Obama told his team that even though it's not something the state of Hawaii usually does and, despite the fact that both Republican and Democratic officials had confirmed Hawaii as his birthplace, it was time to put in a special request for the original document to be released. Now, he hopes the country and the media can focus on more pressing issues.
"My general point is this: We are living in a very serious time, and America has huge potential and opportunity to seize the 21st century," President Obama says. "We're only going to get there, though, if we have a serious conversation about the things that matter to people—jobs and gas prices, and how do we bring down the deficit? How do we deal with all the changes going on around the world? We can't be distracted by sideshows and, as I said at my press conference, carnival barkers who are going around trying to get attention."
The president says that part of the reason why there are often "sideshows" and similar distractions in politics is because the line between politics and entertainment has been blurred.
President Obama: Reality TV is seeping into how we think about our politics. When I am reading letters at night about families who are at risk of losing their homes, or describing what it's like when you send out 16 résumés and you're not getting a response back, and you're trying to figure out how to pay your bills, it's not reality TV. That's real. And that's what we have to spend some time about.
Oprah: During the civil rights movement, there was this wonderful documentary called Eyes on the Prize. We talked often about keeping our eyes on the prize. Do you think that the American people have lost a sense of what the prize is and, therefore, lost our focus?
President Obama: I don't think that the American people have lost their sense of what the prize is. But in terms of our collective political conversation, I think we get distracted all the time.
Mrs. Obama: The thing that I always loved about my husband is that he's always been the person that can keep his eye on the prize in the midst of some craziness. And I think that's what makes him a special leader. ... Those are the decisions that he's been making every single day.
With the president's lengthy to-do list of domestic initiatives and international responsibilities, Oprah asks him how he manages everything that's on his plate. The president says it's important to remember that he doesn't do it alone. "There are a bunch of people in our government who are every day thinking, 'How do we do a good job on behalf of our customers, the American people?'," he says. "That inspires me."
President Obama also says he tries to focus on long-term targets while implementing short-term solutions—and addressing immediate issues such as high gas prices.
President Obama: Right now, gas prices are on everybody's mind. Now that's a short-term problem for ordinary families.
Oprah: $4.59 [per gallon]!
President Obama: Unbelievable. ... There are families across the country who have to drive 50 miles to get to their job, and they just see that money bleeding away from them. So, this is a good example of where we have to think short-term: How can we provide folks [with] immediate relief? But what I also have to think about is long term. How do we make sure that we start investing in electric cars? If China is able to build high-speed rail, why can't we?
Oprah: Why can't we? Is it is the way we think about it? Do we need to change the way we think about it?
President Obama: Countries are like people: We get into habits. Remember, our slogan was "Change we can believe in." Everybody liked that slogan. [But] it turns out, change is a little harder than people maybe anticipated.
Oprah: People liked the idea, but when it comes time to actually do it...
President Obama: It's hard to change some of our habits.
Less than a week before his Oprah Show appearance, President Obama held a town hall meeting hosted by Facebook, answering questions from users of the social networking site. During the town hall, the president said these are the most tumultuous times he's witnessed in his lifetime.
"What do you think defines this as the most tumultuous?" Oprah asks.
"What's happening is that there are these big global changes, and the world is more integrated because of technology—we know what's happening on the other side of the world instantly," he begins.
"And that's a good thing," Oprah says.
"That's a good thing," the President agrees. "But what it also means is that if there is a problem in one place, it can move around the globe very rapidly. So what happens in Libya suddenly affects oil prices here. What happens because of a subprime loan in California can cause Iceland to be bankrupt."
"Have you been disappointed at how difficult it is to get things done?" Oprah asks.
"It can be painful to watch," Mrs. Obama says. "But, Barack was in the Senate for many years, and I think he had a taste for how challenging it is when you work in a democracy—and that's one of the beauties of our country. We have a democracy. ... I always tease people, 'Barack's not a dictator, and that's a good thing.' ... It requires congressional cooperation and a whole range of cooperative actions that make our country great. But it makes the process difficult and slower than I think most people would like."
In early April 2011, President Obama officially announced that he will seek re-election in 2012—a decision the Obamas made together as a family.
"Michelle has always had veto power over these kinds of decisions," the president says.
"I should use it more!" Mrs. Obama jokes.
"Was there ever a doubt that you would [run for re-election]?" Oprah asks.
Mrs. Obama answers, "This is an honor and it's a duty. We take this responsibility very seriously, and if there are things that we can continue to do—and I think this president has a lot more to get done—then we let the American people decide."
As with any election, partisan politics can sometimes distract both voters and nominees from the real issues. Yet, President Obama says he hopes for a respectful race in 2012. "What I want to do is make sure that it doesn't get personal and that the focus is where the focus should be, which is how to make the lives of the American people better," he says.
The president also says that he believes that improving Americans' lives is the intent of the Republican party as well. What the parties disagree on, he says, is how to do that. "I think it's very important to understand that we can disagree without questioning each other's intentions or patriotism," he says.
"Or citizenship," Mrs. Obama says.
Part of being president and first lady and working to improve the lives of the American people, the Obamas say, is remaining connected to citizens across the United States—something that can be challenging while moving under the watchful eye of the Secret Service. The Obamas say it often feels like they live in a bubble.
"How, when you're living in the bubble, do you remain connected to ordinary people?" Oprah asks.
"There are a couple of things," the president says. "I get letters from constituents across the country every night, and I make sure to read them, and I respond to as many as I can. The stories folks tell are just incredibly powerful."
"The other thing that's important is that we get out," Mrs. Obama says. "For me, I've tried to really get out in my new community—Washington, D.C. I always tell my staff that I want to sit down with people. When I'm at a military facility, I don't want to just tour and get a [photograph]. I want to sit down off camera, talk to women, talk to our service members. Those conversations help fuel you."
While being the president and first lady comes with plenty of benefits, the first family has had to make some sacrifices as well. "There's no doubt that the toughest thing about the job is that you can't do anything outside the White House grounds that is spontaneous," President Obama says. "You can't get in the car and go for a drive. You can't drive. You can't take a walk. ... The single thing that I miss most is I used to be able to take Sasha and Malia over to the park and swing them on a swing and decide afterwards we might go get some ice cream or stop by a book store, and those kind of moments that are so precious. You forget how precious they are until you can't do them anymore."
President Obama says he did take his daughters trick-or-treating back when he was still running for president.
"I hadn't won the nomination yet, but I wore a mask and nobody knew who I was. It was a lot of fun," he says. "Every once in a while, I'd take the mask off and go 'boo!' to the kids."
The Obamas have been married for 18 years, and they say they've learned a lot during their years together. "It has to be a true partnership, and you have to really, really like and respect the person that you're married to because it's a hard road," Mrs. Obama says. "There are highs and lows. But if, in the end, you can look him in the eye and say, 'I like you' ... I stopped believing in love at first sight. I think you go through that wonderful love stage, but when it gets hard, you need a little bit more."
President Obama says his wife and two daughters are the people who make it possible for him to deal with the pressures of being president.
"When I come home, no matter what I'm dealing with, I know that I've got people there who not only do I love, but whose company I just enjoy and who will bring me down to the level of basic humanity and humor. They will knock you down a peg and make sure that I'm not taking myself too seriously, even if I'm taking the work seriously," he says. "Not only has [Mrs. Obama] been a great first lady, but she is just my rock, and I count on her in so many ways every single day."
It can be hard to imagine that someone you know could be the president of the United States, and Mrs. Obama says the magnitude of the position isn't lost on her. "I think growing up like we did, no matter what your parents told you, we never thought you could be president. No, no way," she says. "It was up until election night that I was like, 'Really? You actually pulled this off?'"
Now, Mrs. Obama says millions of children who see themselves in President Obama will dream a little bigger. "[That's] one of the beautiful things that we will get from this presidency," she says.
Still, Mrs. Obama says she never wondered if her husband could do the job. "I knew he was ready for this," she says.
On top of his many duties as leader of the free world, President Obama has taken on a second job since moving to Washington, D.C.: basketball coach. "I was a consultant and assistant basketball coach to Sasha's team this year," he says. "Reggie Love, who played at Duke, my assistant, we decided to have some clinics for the girls, and so every Sunday we would bring Sasha and her teammates—Joe Biden's granddaughter Maisy is a terrific basketball player—we'd bring them together, and we'd have these clinics and these drills."
On a few occasions, when the regular coaches couldn't make it to a game, Reggie and President Obama filled in as coaches. "Oh, it was nerve-wracking," the president says.
The Obamas say they try to give their daughters as "normal" an upbringing as possible for children living in the White House. Given Sasha and Malia's level of privilege, Mrs. Obama says she tries to instill a sense of responsibility in her daughters.
"You go back to the basics. I hear my parents and his mom's voices ringing in our heads. 'Turn off the TV. You have chores to do in this house.' You have to get creative in the White House giving kids chores, because they don't understand. 'Why do I have to make my bed?'” Mrs. Obama says. "When you're in that situation, we have real discussions about responsibility and, you know, not taking anything for granted and not having a bunch of grown-ups doing stuff for you when you're completely capable of doing it yourself."
One of Malia's new chores, Mrs. Obama says, is going to be doing laundry. "Grandma still does her own laundry at the White House so she's going to be in charge of laundry duty," she says. "[Malia] has to learn how to do that. I don't want her to be 15, 16 and be that kid: 'I've never done laundry before.' I would cringe if she became that kid."
If he is elected to a second term, President Obama says he hopes to leave a legacy that inspires hope in Americans.
"I think this is the greatest country on earth, but I want everybody to feel in their own lives, day to day, that opportunity is right there in front of them," he says.
Getting that message out there can be difficult in a divisive capital. "Our politics are too splintered. It trivializes important issues," President Obama says. "I have not been able to change Washington's tone as much as I wanted. I thought I could, and probably was overly optimistic. I still think I can—it just takes more time."
Especially amid divisive politics and the often turbulent tone of Washington, holding the office of the President calls for having thick skin—there will always be detractors throwing stones. President Obama credits his upbringing for his calm, even temperament.
"I had a lot of changes when I was young. You know, father not in the home, moving around quite a bit, oftentimes being an outsider in a place where there weren't a lot of African-Americans, or having an unusual name," he says. "Some of it, though, I also think just has to do with the fact that as I get older, it's easier to keep things in perspective."
For the rest of his term, President Obama says he hopes to better communicate his vision for the country with the citizens. "I think that in the first two years we were so busy just trying to solve problems that sometimes I forgot that part of leadership is being able to tell a story about where we're going and what we're doing," he says. "We did that very well during the campaign. We projected a vision of where America needs to go, and then we got into the governance of it. ... Sometimes we forgot to be in a conversation with the American people where we said, 'You know, this is why we're doing it. This is where we need to go.'"
While President and Mrs. Obama have changed the country in innumerable ways, President Obama says that over 25 seasons, Oprah has too. "You've got a big heart, and you share it with people. Nobody knows how to connect better than you do," he says. "We are just blessed and grateful to have you in our lives."