The best questions in Washington don’t always come from the press. Sometimes they come from young voices who have not been jaded by years of politics. Every year he has been in office, President Barack Obama has maintained a tradition of meeting and talking with the White House interns. This year the cameras captured the questions they asked and President Obama’s candid answers.
The interns wanted to know how he remains optimistic, his legacy with the African American community, and on when to compromise.
After that he gives them some advice. He says being president is the result of lucky breaks, which you can’t always control. But being useful is something that you can control.
Video and transcript
You can watch the entire video above, or watch a video of each individual question and answer below.
Obama’s Secret to being optimistic
Intern: And so, we’ve heard a lot in the past speaker’s series that we’ve had with all the amazing stuff about your relentless optimism.
Barack Obama: I am a relentless optimist.
Intern: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that. How you remain optimistic or maybe you’re not but people still think that you are.
Obama: Ah. (laughter) Some of this is temperamental. I — people just have different temperaments and I tend to be a pretty happy guy. (laughter) I’m pretty sure this is cause I was born in Hawaii. (laughter) And so I spent most of my early years in really pleasant weather all the time. Splashing in waves and things. So that helped.
As I get older. And certainly in this job, what helps me a lot is taking the long view on things. I think so much pessimism and so much stress arises out of looking at things in this very narrow here and now. But the day to day sort of ups and downs and swings, it’s like the weather. Mean, you’re okay you get an umbrella sometime. Sometimes you take off your jacket. But if you can keep your eye on the long Buick, not only does that relieve stress, but it also allows you to make better decisions.
The things that last, the things that are important usually have to do with how do you behave. How did you treat other people. Did you work as hard as you could have. Did you do your best. The things that you have control over. When I’m on my deathbed, the things I will remember will be walking a four-year-old Malia to the park. I’m not going to remember some headline, I think that’s helpful. But that’s just me. It’s mostly the Hawaii thing. (laughter)
Obama’s Legacy: White Kids Will Assume Blacks Can Be President
Intern: What kind of legacy would to leave in the African American community?
Obama: It’s hard for me to say what I’ve meant to the African American community — I can say what Michelle’s meant to the African American community. (laughter) Michelle’s the bomb. (laughter)
What concretely I can say is that the work this administration has done has made a difference in the lives of people who are struggling and those folks are disproportionately people of color. So whether it’s the affordable care act and making sure people have health care or its expanding Pell grants or it’s programs to deal with low-income communities to help them rebuild and provide better job training. In each of those areas, there are a lot of people who are better off than their lives would have been because of the concrete actions that we took.
There’s a second category of issues that have to do with government action and are specifically related to civil rights, voting rights. We now have an outstanding civil rights division in the Justice Department that is actively filing suits and winning lawsuits to make sure people have the right to vote. To make sure that discriminatory practices are rooted out. That’s another category.
I’ve put in that same category the work we have been doing around criminal justice reform. And reshaping how we do commutations and how we are working with law enforcement around best practices for policing. All right so that’s a whole category of issues.
And then there’s just the cultural and physiological issues and it’s interesting and I think the impact may be not just with black kids taken for granted that somebody who looks like them can be president. But their white peers take it for granted that somebody that doesn’t look like them can be president.
All of you are young enough that in some ways, it’s plausible to you maybe that race relations have gotten worse. But actually it’s a testimony to how much better they’ve gotten. That this shocks you. Evidence that there may be racial bias in our criminal justice system. You’re hurt. Whereas, 25, 30 years ago, that was a given. So sometimes progress involves improvement but then raising expectations. Things are a lot better but now our expectations are a lot higher. You know, we got a long way to go when it comes to racial issues.
You know, history can go backwards as well as forwards. But the overall trajectory I think is positive and the caution I have for this cohort — because there probably is some self-selection going on. You if you guys are interning here with Obama, then you’re probably — you got certain, you are more likely to have certain political views. (laughter) So I just want to caution all of you to make sure that in wanting to improve race relations, you don’t become so rigid and sensitive in terms of your own views that instead of opening up dialogue, you harden lines and divisions. All right, guys turn. Yes sir, over here.
How Obama Decides When To Compromise
Intern: How do you deal with knowing when to compromise and how have you learned how to compromise and kind a more or less stick to your guns’?
Obama: Maybe my rule of thumb is if the issue we’re working on — I’ve got a particular objective and the compromise thwarts that objective then that’s a bad compromise. If the compromise makes things better, but just not as good as I think they need to be, then my instinct is that’s a good compromise.
And probably the best example of this is the debate we had around healthcare.
Once we get the structure in place, it’s like a starter home and it would be nice if we had granite countertops in the kitchen but we can’t afford those yet. There’s no porch. But it beats sleeping outside. But I think I’ve been proven right on this. Because I’ve got 20 million people with health insurance that haven’t had it before.
Now it’s far from our ideal, but every single step in social progress in this country has started with a starter home. The political process is in this country incremental. Democracy of our sort require reform as a general proposition and not revolution. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with better. Because you hold out for the best and that means that whoever was going to help my better doesn’t have health care that year. Or, isn’t getting as much help on going to college as they otherwise would have.
All right, well you guys have been great. I always say this to all of you, even though it’s boilerplate I’m going to repeat it.
Don’t get bored, don’t get cynical. You guys are the most privileged people at the most prosperous, secure period in human history. And so, no griping and no moping. The possibilities of what you can do are enormous.
Luck Needed To Become President (Or Steve Jobs)
And that doesn’t mean — becoming president involves a lot of luck. Becoming Steve Jobs or Quentin Tarantino — that requires — there are certain amount of breaks that you get. It’s not because you are so much better than anybody else. And being (inaudible) because you are better than everybody else. But a lot of times it’s just happen stance or things worked out.
But being useful and having a satisfying life and making a contribution? That is entirely within your control. Orient yourself towards having an impact and making a difference. And you will. And you’ll be happy doing it.
All right? What have I got here? (laughter) You’ve just been waiting for this. Ah, this is so nice. Look at this. And like glitter on the sides? (laughter) You got help didn’t you. Your parents helped you. (laughter) It’s just like the science projects. This is so nice. Well thank you everybody.
Intern: Yeah. Happy birthday almost.
Obama: All right. Almost. Good luck everybody, you’re going to do great.