Despite Election Defeat, Obama Sees Room To Push His Agenda

Dec 29, 2014
Originally published on December 30, 2014 3:06 pm

President Obama has begun his administration's final phase the way he began several other chapters of his presidency: seeking to recover from disaster.

Obama has moved vigorously since his party lost the Senate in November. Without consulting Congress, he's offering legal status to millions of immigrants. He's restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. Above all, he's striving to show he will not be a lame duck.

The president took our questions the day before he left Washington for the holidays. The 40-minute, year-ending interview offered clues to his final two years in the Oval Office, which is where we met. NPR is publishing the conversation in three parts — starting with Obama's efforts to govern alongside (though not necessarily along with) a Republican Congress.

Something has changed since the campaign season, when Obama was delaying action on immigration, fearing political damage. That led to our first question: Why execute these maneuvers now?

Obama added that it's fair to think of him as a president who thinks he has done what he had to do, and now is free to focus on what he wants to do.

But Obama is not entirely "liberated": He can't finish what he started alone. He'll need acts of Congress to complete immigration reform, or to lift the Cuba embargo. That barely begins the lengthy list of issues on which the president would like the help of lawmakers if he could get it.

For six years, the GOP has been criticized for reflexively obstructing Obama, and the president has been criticized for keeping his distance from lawmakers. Could the president possibly do anything to improve the situation?

Translation: I won't change anything specific, but hope my opponents' interests compel them to change.

At the same time, Obama acknowledged that parts of the Republican Party never will agree with him on an issue that is central to the final part of his presidency: immigration.

In the same part of our conversation, Obama repeated that he thinks the issue is up to Republicans.

Does his executive action "spur them to work once again with Democrats," he asks, or does it "solidify what I do think is a nativist trend in parts of the Republican Party?

"And if it's the latter, then probably we're not going to get much more progress done and it'll be a major debate in the next presidential election."

I came away with a sense of a president who is willing to work with Congress, in theory. But he no longer seems willing to wait for lawmakers to see the world as he does.

This is the first of three parts of our year-end conversation with President Obama. In tomorrow's second part, we begin with a question: Is America more racially divided than it was before President Obama took office?

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just before leaving Washington for the holidays, President Obama welcomed us into the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Have a seat.

INSKEEP: Thank you.

And he seemed unusually relaxed when we pulled up chairs for a 40 minute talk by the Oval Office fireplace. He spoke of regaining the political initiative after a crushing defeat for his party. Democrats lost the Senate in November. Then the president took two major steps without Congress; he changed U.S. immigration policy, and he restored diplomatic relations with Cuba.

One of those might've been difficult to do before the election. The other surely would've been difficult to do before the election, which makes me wonder, is there some way in which that election just past has liberated you?

OBAMA: I don't think it's been liberating. Keep in mind that all these issues are ones that we've been working on for some time.

INSKEEP: The Cuba policy, for example, changed after more than a year of secret negotiations.

OBAMA: With respect to immigration reform, obviously I've been working on that for six years. And...

INSKEEP: But this was the moment when you could do those things.

OBAMA: Yeah, well, I do - here's what I do think is true that I have spent six years now in this office. We have dealt with the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression. We have dealt with international turmoil that we haven't seen in a lot of years. And I said at the beginning of this year that 2014 would be a breakthrough year. And it was a bumpy path. But at the end of 2014, I could look back and say, we are as well positioned today as we have been in quite some time economically, that American leadership is more needed around the world than ever before. And that is liberating in the sense that a lot of the work that we've done is now beginning to bear fruit, and it gives me an opportunity then to start focusing on some of the other hard challenges that I didn't always have the time or the capacity to get to earlier in my presidency.

INSKEEP: Can I think of you as shifting from things you had to do to things you more want to do?

OBAMA: I think that's fair.

INSKEEP: The president's final two years in office could be as contentious as his first six. Republicans will control all of Congress, and a presidential campaign looms. Republicans are criticized for reflexively opposing the president. The president has been criticized for keeping his distance from Congress. Still, he is thinking of what he can do with his remaining time.

OBAMA: Now I have the ability to focus on some long-term projects, including making sure that everybody is benefiting from this growth and not just some. And on the international front, even as we're managing ISIL and trying to roll them back and ultimately defeat them, even as we've been executing the drawdown in Afghanistan in a responsible way, the moves like the Cuba diplomatic initiative are ones that I want to make sure I continue to pursue partly because frankly a - it's easier for a president to do at the end of his term than a new president coming in.

INSKEEP: You were able to start Cuba without Congress - able to start on immigration without Congress. Each of those issues cannot be fully resolved without Congress. Is there anything that you personally intend to do differently in your approach to Congress in hopes of getting better results in your final two years than you have on some occasions in the past?

OBAMA: I can always do better in every aspect of my job, and congressional relations isn't exempt from that. I think the circumstances will have changed, though. I'm obviously frustrated with the results of the midterm election. I think we had a great record for members of Congress to run on. And I don't think we - myself and the Democratic Party - made as good of a case as we should have. And, you know, as a consequence, we had really low voter turnout, and the results were bad.

On the other hand, now you've got Republicans in a position where it's not enough for them simply to grind the wheels of Congress to a halt and then blame me. They are going to be in a position in which they have to show that they can responsibly govern, given that they have significant majorities in both chambers. And what I've said repeatedly is that I want to work with them. I want to get things done. I don't have another election to run. There are going to be areas where we agree, and I'm going to be as aggressive as I can be in getting legislation passed that I think help move the economy forward and help middle-class families.

There are going to be some areas where we disagree. And, you know, I haven't used the veto pen very often since I've been in office, partly because legislation that I objected to was typically blocked in the Senate even after the House took over - Republicans took over the House. Now I suspect there are going to be some times where I forgot to pull that pen out, and I'm going to defend gains that we've made in health care. I'm going to defend gains that we've made on environment and clean air and clean water. But what I'm hopeful about - and we saw this so far at least in the lame duck - is a recognition by both Speaker Boehner and Mitch McConnell that people are looking to them to get things done and that the fact that we disagree on one thing shouldn't prohibit us from getting progress on the areas where there's some overlap.

INSKEEP: Well, let me figure out if there's overlap on immigration. In an interview in August, you described the Republican Party as being captive to nativist elements of the party.

OBAMA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: What did you mean by that, and can you work with people who you think of in that way?

OBAMA: Well, on immigration, I probably can't. Steve King and I fundamentally disagree on immigration.

INSKEEP: Yeah...

OBAMA: If your view is that immigrants are either fundamentally bad to the country or that we actually have the option of deporting 11 million immigrants, regardless of the disruptions, regardless of the cost and that that is who we are as Americans, I reject that.

On the other hand, I think there are a lot of Republicans who recognize that not only do we need to fix a broken immigration system, strengthen our borders and streamline the legal immigration system, but that we have to show realism, practicality and insist on accountability from those who are here illegally and that the best way to do that is to provide them a path to get legal - paying a fine, submitting to background checks and so forth. I think the Republican Party contains a lot of legislators who recognize that, and we know that because those folks voted for a comprehensive bill in the Senate that in many ways was more generous than I was able to offer through executive action.

So the question then becomes, by me having taken these actions, does that spur those voices in the Republican Party who think - genuinely believe immigration is good for our country - does it spur them to work once again with Democrats in my administration to get a reasonable piece of legislation done? Or does it simply solidify what I do think is a nativist trend in parts of the Republican Party? And if it's the latter, then probably we're not going to get much more progress done, and it'll be a major debate in the next presidential election.

INSKEEP: I think that if a Republican lawmaker was sitting here, he might say, wait a minute, I'm not captive to nativist elements. I have actual concerns, and you're not addressing them.

OBAMA: Well, the problem is, what are those concerns, and how is it that I'm not addressing them? If the concern is border security, we've got more resources, more border police, more money being spent at our borders than any time in the last 30, 40 years. If the concern is the flow of illegal workers into the country, that flow is about half of what it was and is lower than any time since the 1970s. So, you know, you have to describe specifically what are the concerns that you've got.

INSKEEP: That is some of our talk with President Obama recorded just before the holidays at the White House. It's the final word you are likely to hear from the president in 2014. It was an interview on video, which you can see at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.