Sitting with three of his former colleagues from the Illinois state senate — one Republican and two Democrats — the president argued that neither citizens nor politicians can see the other side clearly because of ideological "filters."
"And I think part of what prevents people from then knowing the person is that there are all these bugs on the windshield, essentially. There’s this huge filter through which you are seen," he said. "And the same is true on the Republican side. So I’ve gotten to know George W. Bush quite well. I disagree with him on all kinds of stuff, obviously, but he’s a good man. And the fact that there are a bunch of Democrats who, when he was president, would characterize him in some of the harshest terms was in part because all they could see was what they’re seeing on a TV screen" and other media.
While one of the state lawmakers said many Americans were biased against him because he's black, Obama said "those things cut both ways."
"Look, I’ve always said this, that I have no doubt that there are people who voted against me because of race ... or didn’t approve of my agenda because of race," he said. "I also suspect there were a bunch of people who were excited and voted for me, or I got political benefits because of the notion of the first African American president."
Even as he took some responsibility for the nation's growing ideological divide, he blamed most of it on "structural problems." He noted that there were people he was friends with while serving in the U.S. Senate — "some of the same people now who can’t take a picture with me. It wasn’t like I changed."
"But what happens is that the biggest incentive of every member of Congress is to get reelected. It shouldn’t be the case, but that’s the overriding motivation that people have," Obama said. "And they’re operating, fearful that somehow lurking over the corner is something that’s going to lead them to lose. And if, within their respective parties, you reaching out across the aisle or doing bipartisan work is going to put them in a riskier situation, then they shy away from it. And over time, you start getting further and further separation."
Asked whether he is at fault for pushing ahead with his landmark health-care bill without securing the votes of a single Republican, he said he couldn't divulge all the details now but would do so once he's left office.
"Well, this will be a long history that will be told," he said. "And the good thing about being president is you get to write your own book."
He recounted there was one Republican lawmaker he negotiated with, whom he declined to identify, but who ultimately concluded there was no way he could cooperate with the White House.
"And he just finally turned to me — I was sitting in the Oval Office — and he said, you know what, Mr. President, I got to admit there’s no change that allows me to vote for this thing," Obama said.
Regardless of these conflicts, Obama said, he was confident that Americans would look more charitably upon his presidency once he leaves office.
"My hope is, is that I help create a tone for the next president," he said. "I suspect that when I’m done being president, suddenly people will start saying, 'Oh, that guy, he wasn’t a bad guy.' "