Setting the Stage for a Second Term

Obama speaks on Dec. 12 with TIME’s Rick Stengel, Radhika Jones and Michael Scherer about Lincoln, marijuana, the Middle East and Hawaii moments

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Callie Shell / Aurora for TIME

Time interviews President Obama in the Oval Office on Dec. 12, 2012. From left: Rick Stengel, White House press secretary Jay Carney, White House spokesman Bobby Whithorne, Radhika Jones and Michael Scherer

So in talking about creating that next world for our children, if, again, we look four years ahead and you look outside of the boundaries of the U.S., where do you see there will be some improvement — in the Middle East, in Africa? What are the places that keep you up at night now and you hope, I’m going to make these places better four years from now?

Well, you look at the pivot we’ve tried to make towards Asia, which I think has been very successful over the last four years. We’ve strengthened our presence, we’ve strengthened our diplomatic engagement. We are helping to shape and frame what the Asia Pacific region will look like. That’s critically important because that’s where the growth and population and increasing center of gravity is going to be. And there is a genuine desire for American leadership in that region. It has to be a leadership that recognizes that China is going to continue to rise, and we should hope for China’s success. A stable China that over time is transitioning to a more open, democratic society would be really good for us economically and politically, and from a security standpoint. India — same thing.

The trip I took to Burma — here’s a country that has basically been on lockdown for 40 years. And to see the possibility, at least, that 20 years from now 55 million people suddenly can vote, can assemble, can speak freely, have opened themselves up to the world, can catch up with what’s happening in places like Thailand and Indonesia and Malaysia and Singapore — 55 million people suddenly being free is a big deal, and American leadership can be a part of that.

Now, the Middle East is going through its own transformation. And I am — maybe by nature — just cautiously optimistic about us being able to see a Middle East that is — and North Africa — that is freer, more open, and more economically successful. But I think we’re going to go through a transition period that’s bumpy. We see it in Egypt. Obviously, there are tragic convulsions in Syria.

The trend line, though, is going to be one in which the Middle East has to catch up with the 21st century; that young people there are going to expect to have a say in their future. Because of their access to technology and information, they’re going to be exposed to the broader world, and they’re not going to want to be locked out of that. They’re going to want to be integrated into the world economy because they’ll recognize that that’s where opportunity and wealth is going to come from, from participating in an open market system.

And there’s going to be backlash, and there are going to be moments where we go backwards rather than forwards in that region. And it is going to be important for the U.S. to remain vigilant during this tumultuous time because the retrograde extremist forces in thatregion will continue to try to target the United States, and we’re going to have to make sure that we can protect American citizens.

So there will be a significant military component and counterterrorism intelligence component to our policies there. On the other hand, there’s no going backwards. And I think the idea that somehow that we’d be better off, that there was some mechanism whereby we could cling to the old models of a handful of autocrats that we are cutting deals with and we look the other way if they’re repressing their people, I think that model is going to necessarily erode over time.

The other big piece of this is that the transformation and energy could have a huge geopolitical consequence. The United States is going to be a net exporter of energy because of new technologies and what we’re doing with natural gas and oil. We’ve, during my first four years, reduced our dependence on foreign oil each and every year; we’re now down to under 50 percent. We can maintain those trendlines. And that, I think, gives us more freedom of movement to speak to the kind of Middle East that we want to see and the world we want to see.

I’ve heard talk of you keeping a diary but never heard you talk about it. Are you keeping a diary?

I will tell you that in the first four years, I was not as diligent as I should have been. There’s all kinds of stuff that I’ve forgotten that I’m going to have to ask other people about. There are stretches that are a blur. So I have not been as religious about keeping a diary over the last four years as I was when I was a younger man. And I’ll have some catching up to do over the next four years.

But what was the purpose of a diary?

Well, I don’t have as much time to write as I used to, but in my life, writing has been an important exercise to clarify what I believe, what I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are; that there’s — that the process of converting a jumble of thoughts into coherent sentences makes you ask tougher questions.

And going back to Lincoln, probably part of the reason he’s my favorite President is he’s also one of the best writers in American history. But you see the power of his writing evolve and shape what his policies are. He has to work through things. How does he think about slavery? How does he think about union? How does hethink about the Constitution? How does he think about the role of popular opinion? All these things are just completely formed at the start of his political career.

The Lincoln who is a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois isn’t the same Lincoln as the one who addresses Gettysburg. For that matter, the Lincoln who’s elected President is not the same as the Lincoln who delivers the second inaugural. They’re different people. And part of it has to do with his ability to filter these extraordinary debates and these conflicting forces into some coherent vision of what America is and should be. I’m also not as good a writer as him — (laughter) — to state the obvious.

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