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

And going from the sublime to the ridiculous here, but I — and Michael’s story looks both backwards and forwards. And I ran into, during the campaign, a fellow who used to work for you who is now the mayor of a major American city, and I said to him, what happened to the President in the first debate? And Rahm said, he had a Hawaii moment. (Laughter.) And I said, what doesthat mean? And he was gone. What does that mean?

What he was probably referring to — he and I, when we were in the Oval Office sometimes, and the banks looked like they were melting down and the Afghan war is raging, and the auto industry is on the verge of collapse, and we’d sit here at the end of the day and we’d have little fantasies about us taking our families and just moving to Hawaii and opening up a t-shirt shack on the North Shore, and we’d just sell t-shirts and maybe smoothies, and sit there and watch the waves. So that might have been the reference he was making.

Look, the truth is, is that during the course of a campaign, there’s never been any candidate, including certainly me in 2008, who doesn’t have moments where you just — you don’t deliver your A-game. I think a testimony to what a great job our team did in running this campaign is we didn’t have a lot of those moments. Part of the reason why the first debate actually has become this sort of legend in the minds of political pundits is we just didn’t screw up a lot this time. It was really a well-run campaign. We didn’t make a lot of mistakes. So that was the one identifiable mistake, and it got magnified, I think, as a consequence.

But part of it also just has to do with the fact that that particular format has never been a strength of mine. Idon’t approach most interactions with people trying to insult them or show how stupid they are. And that’s how you score points in those things. It’s a very artificial construct. It’s theater. And I think there are times — and this was true back in ’08 — where I find it sort of hard to engage in those theatrics because I’m thinking we’ve got really important issues, and what we say should be based in facts, and there should be the capacity to check whether what you’re saying now corresponds with what you said two weeks ago. And that’s just not the format.

But the bottom line is that I didn’t communicate effectively with the American people in that debate what was atstake, and so it was important for me to remind myself that as artificial as that format may be, whenever I’ve got 60 to 70 million people watching, I’ve got to make sure that they understand what is at stake. And I think in the second and third debate, and certainly throughout the campaign, the American people did understand eventually, ultimately, that what was at stake here was the kind of America we want.

Are we satisfied with an American that is becoming more unequal, in which the combination of globalization and technology are creating a wider and wider divide between a few who do extraordinarily well and the majority of people who see their prospects diminish? Or do webelieve in an America in which our prosperity is broad-based and everybody is getting the tools they need to succeed? Do we believe in an America that says some folks are more American than others, or more worthy than others or more valued than others? Or do we believe in an America where that Declaration means what it says: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men — (women, gays, straights, blacks, whites, disabled, not disabled) — that all people are created equal, endowed by our Creator withcertain unalienable rights. That was a decision that we had to make.

In our foreign policy, do we believe that sort of a garrison state and that our leadership is dependent on bluster and bullying other countries to bend to our will, or do we think that our leadership is driven in part by our values and our ideals? And even if that makes things more difficult for us sometimes, that’s a more lasting kind of leadership.

So there are a set of questions that, as petty and trivial and frustrating, farcical as the campaign could seem sometimes, surfaced — the American people made up their minds. But I think the choice that they made was less about me and more about them, more about who they saw themselves to be. And in that sense, 2012 may havebeen more satisfying a win than 2008 — because 2008 was all fun and exciting and — (laughter) — at least that’s how people remember it. And it seemed like lightning in a bottle and all these forces converged. So I think it was easy to think that maybe 2008 was the anomaly, and I think 2012 was an indication that no, this is not an anomaly.

We’ve gone through a very difficult time. The American people have rightly been frustrated at the pace of change, and the economy is still struggling, and this President we elected is imperfect, and yet, despite all that, this is who we want to be. That’s a good thing. All right?

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