O: What's the single best thing you think you've done as president?
BO: The single most important thing I did was avert a depression, which is one of those things that you don't put on a bumper sticker when so many folks are still having a tough time and we're nowhere near where we need to be. But sometimes people forget how severe the crisis was back in March 2009 and how we were in a whole new territory when it came to the financial system collapsing. Being able to guide us through that was important because if that doesn't work, nothing else works. Legislatively, the thing I'm most proud of is healthcare, and I will continue to be most proud of it because not only do we have 30 million people who are going to get healthcare, we've got six million young people who are able to stay on their parents' plan until they're 26. I constantly get letters from young people who say, "If it hadn't been for that, I wouldn't have gone to get a checkup. The doctor found a tumor, it got caught early, I'm getting treated, I'm gonna have a full life." And look, it exacted a big political cost, it was tough and controversial, but I very much believe it was the right thing to do. And when you meet families who have been impacted by this, it's gratifying because that's something that outlives you—that goes beyond the presidency and hopefully my own life.
O: Even if the political cost were that you lose this election, would healthcare still have been worth it?
BO: Yes. But I actually think that if I were to lose the election, it would not be because of healthcare; it would be because the economy is still at a place with a lot of folks out of work and the housing market just beginning barely to come back, and people feeling pretty worn out over what they had to go through, not only over the past four years but the decade before that, where their incomes and their wages weren't going up. They were working harder but not seeing much of a benefit.
O: Okay, so you passed landmark healthcare legislation, you averted a depression, and yet there are many people in your base who are not as excited now as they were in 2008 when you were just a senator from Illinois. Why do you think that is? What could you or should you have done differently?
BO: Well, I think it's important to know that the vast majority of people who were excited in 2008 are still really enthusiastic. We've got more volunteers now than ever, and they're engaged, they're motivated, they're not paying attention to the ups and downs of polls or Washington. I think that where we have seen slippage would be among voters who were always voting primarily with their pocketbook. A lot of them are still struggling. And if you're still struggling and your house is $100,000 underwater, and you lost your job or have to take a pay cut—those folks are still frustrated. One thing you learn in this job is that even if something's not your fault, you're still responsible. And that's how it should be. So I've got this campaign to persuade those voters that yes, we're not where we need to be, but I'm fighting every single day on your behalf to make your lives better. I'm on your side, and I've got a concrete plan and a vision for how, over time, we can solve these problems that weren't created overnight and won't be solved overnight. I guess the last thing I would say is that I do think there were a lot of people who hoped I could change Washington culture and the polarization.
O: I was just going to ask about that.
BO: I regret that the response of the Republican Party after my election was not "We're in a big crisis, let's all get together and move forward," but rather "Let's obstruct and make a tough economy entirely the president's albatross." I would like to have seen more cooperation. Are there things I could have done at the margins that might have changed some attitudes among Republicans? It's hard sometimes to know whether they were amenable to change. A great example is, right after I came into office and we knew we were going to have to pass some sort of stimulus package to stop the free fall in job losses, I scheduled a meeting with the House Republican caucus to present my ideas and to hear from them. And as I was driving up to Capitol Hill, a news release was sent out saying they were opposed. But they hadn't heard yet what, exactly, we were planning to do—we hadn't had that conversation.
Next: Michelle and Barack discuss the harsh world of politics