Because everyone else has been talking about his actions, we thought it might be nice to catalogue the times Obama defined the presidency, his use of power and the limitations of his office. Although the opinions of Obama seem to waver with every tweet, the president's summary of his job description has remained pretty consistent over the years (regardless of whether you agree with it), especially when he sits down for a long-ranging interview with a reporter -- something he does not enjoy doing often.
Another thing these interviews remind you: The president probably hasn't listened to many of these complaints anyway. The president's views of cable news are repeated in these interviews at a rate that almost surpasses the pace at which cable news puts forth its views of Obama. Not really, but if Obama wanted to make it so, he could do more interviews. Just a thought.
If you look – the history is that I have issued fewer executive actions than most of my predecessors, by a long shot. The difference is the response of Congress. And specifically the response of some of the Republicans. But if you ask historians, take a look at the track records of the modern presidency, I’ve actually been very restrained. And I’ve been very restrained with respect to immigration. I bent over backward and will continue to do everything I can to get Congress to work. Because that’s my preference.
He pointed out that the failure of Congress to pass legislation on climate change and immigration left his administration with little guidance on how to proceed on those issues. When there is gridlock in Congress, “the executive branch has to make a whole series of decisions,” Obama said. “That, in turn, puts more burden on the Court to interpret whether the executive actions are within the authority of the President and whether they’re interpreting statutes properly. All of which I think further politicizes the courts.”
“One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate more as President is you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history,” he later told me. “You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable. But you can move things forward. And sometimes the things that start small may turn out to be fairly significant. . . . Despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
And one of the great things about America is — sometimes, we get worried that we’re losing traction and the sky is falling. And back in the ’80s, Japan was about to take over and then China and obviously, before that, the Soviet Union, and we usually come out OK because we change and we adapt. I just want everybody to remember that we’re in a very strong position to compete, as long as our political system functions. It doesn’t have to be outstanding — this is sort of like Winston Churchill, two cheers for democracy — and you know, it — it — it’s always going to be messy, but it’s got to function better than it has.
"Everybody has got plenty of advice. Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in 'The American President.' And I know Michael is here tonight. Michael, what’s your secret, man? Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy? Might that have something to do with it?"
I continue to believe that whenever we can codify something through legislation, it is on firmer ground. It's not going to be reversed by a future president. It is something that will be long lasting and sturdier and more stable. . . . But what I do see is that there are certain issues where a judicious use of executive power can move the argument forward or solve problems that are of immediate enough import that we can't afford not to do it.
“I want to play that game again,” I said. “Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president.” This was the third time I’d put the question to him, in one form or another. The first time, a month earlier in this same cabin, he’d had a lot of trouble getting his mind around the idea that I, not he, was president. He’d started by saying something he knew to be dull and expected but that — he insisted — was nevertheless perfectly true. “Here is what I would tell you,” he’d said. “I would say that your first and principal task is to think about the hopes and dreams the American people invested in you. Everything you are doing has to be viewed through this prism. . . . Then he added that the world thinks he spends a lot more time worrying about political angles than he actually does. . . . There are several aspects of his job that seem obvious to him but strike me as so deeply weird that I can’t help but bring them up. For example, he has the oddest relationship to the news of any human being on the planet. Wherever it starts out, it quickly finds him and forces him to make some decision about it: whether to respond to it, and shape it, or to leave it be. As the news speeds up, so must our president’s response to it, and then, on top of it all, the news to which he must respond is often about him.On the leather sofa beside me were the five newspapers that are laid out for him every time he travels. “In every one of those someone is saying something nasty about you,” I said to him. “You turn on the television and you could find people being even nastier. If I’m president, I’m thinking, I’ll just walk around pissed off all the time, looking for someone to punch.” . . . “One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama. That’s not you. Whether it is good or bad, it is not you. I learned that on the campaign.” Then he added, “You have to filter stuff, but you can’t filter it so much you live in this fantasyland.”
Now what I've said to them is, "That deal remains on the table. My offer to cooperate on a whole range of issues remains on the table. But I can't wait, because the American people can't wait. They need help right now." And so what we've done, since this debt ceiling debacle, is to look at every single thing I can do through executive actions to go ahead and help provide some relief to middle-class families. . . . We're just gonna keep on looking for specific things that we can do without Congressional cooperation. Every opportunity that I see for us to be able to actually get something done, I will seize.
Now, the one thing that I will say — which I anticipated and can be tough — is the fact that in a big, messy democracy like this, everything takes time. And we’re not a culture that’s built on patience. When we go through difficult periods, people tend to forget the previous difficult periods that we went through. And we say to ourselves, why haven’t we fixed it yet? And the way that our media is structured means that that impatience is amplified every minute of every hour of every day.But something that I have learned over the last couple of years is that I have to make decisions based on the long view. And I have to suppress my own desire for a short-term fix if I’m going to be able to lead the country effectively over the long term.Look, history never precisely repeats itself. But there is a pattern in American presidencies — at least modern presidencies. You come in with excitement and fanfare. The other party initially, having been beaten, says it wants to cooperate with you. You start implementing your program as you promised during the campaign. The other party pushes back very hard. It causes a lot of consternation and drama in Washington. . . . And what you hope is that over time, despite all the rhetoric, people start seeing concrete benefits from what you’re doing and what was a valley goes back into a peak.Now what you also hope is that sort of the ups and downs, the highs and lows start evening out a little bit so that people don’t have unrealistic expectations about how quickly we can move on big issues in a democracy but people don’t also plunge into despair when it takes more than six months to transform the world.