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

On Dec. 12, President Barack Obama spoke with TIME managing editor Richard Stengel, White House correspondent Michael Scherer and executive editor Radhika Jones about Lincoln, marijuana, the Middle East and Hawaii moments. The full conversation follows.

TIME: So we’ll start right in. In fact, we’re going to go so far ahead. If we were sitting here four years from now and you were looking back on what your legacy is as a two-term Democratic President — we know what Ronald Reagan did and we know what FDR did  what would you want people to say about your two terms?

THE PRESIDENT: I think what I’d want people to say is that having come in at a time when our economy was on the brink of collapse, when we had gone through a decade in which middle-class families were doing worse and worse, and the ladders of opportunity into the middle class for people who were willing to work hard had begun to deteriorate; at a time when, internationally, we were embroiled in two wars but our leadership around the world was being questioned, that we had steered this ship of state so that we once again had an economy that worked for everybody; that we had laid the foundation for broad-based prosperity; and that internationally we had created the framework for continued American leadership in the world throughout the 21st century, while recognizing that the world is changing and that we should encourage the kind of growth and development in other parts of the world, but over the long term will be good for us and good for the world.

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So I think about this eight-year project as one in which domestically on education, on energy, on tax policy, on manufacturing, on research and science we have gotten our — we’ve shaken off some ongoing problems that have hampered our growth, we have reasserted the idea that if you work hard in this country, you can make it. And that we’ve also accommodated all the demographic changes, andcultural and technological changes that are taking place, and been able to marry those with some of the old-fashioned virtues of hard work and discipline and responsibility — all in a way that allows us to succeed and to thrive, and not just for a few at the top, but for the many.

I had a question about one part of the exit polls — that one of the things that came out comparing 2012 to 2008 is that numbers saying they think the government should be doing more versus the government is already doing too much dropped a bit. I mean, there’s a different feeling. And what you just laid out, a lot of that is the government doing more to bring fairness to the economy — a fair shot, fair share. How do you interpret that result?

Well, I’m not arguing for government to do more; I’m arguing for government to do more of the right thing. So I haven’t been arguing for greater government spending per se. I think it makes sense for us to spend less on wars and more on research and development. In sectors like energy, I haven’t been arguing for more spending per se; I’ve been arguing that it doesn’t make sense for us to spend $4 billion subsidizing an oil industry that’s mature and very profitable. We should be using that money to finance clean energy of the future.

So some of this is how do we prioritize what government does in a way that fills the holes, the gaps that the market may not be able to address and that creates platforms and toolkits for individuals to succeed.

And I think that’s true within government operations. We’ve spent a lot of time over the last several years having every agency go back and look at what are the existing regulations on the books. And if the regulations don’t work, let’s get rid of them.

On the other hand, given the better science and knowledge that we have now, there may be some new regulations that do make sense. And, certainly, when it comes to the financial industry or the health care industry, I think we learned a lesson from 2007 and 2008 that a lack of smart regulation can be just as damaging as too much regulation.

I wanted to ask you, Mr. President, about the film Lincoln. We know that you gathered a group to see it here. And for me watching that movie, it was as if I had spent three hours with Lincoln. And I wondered how — it was a very emotional experience. And I wondered how you felt watching that movie. What was it like for you to spend that time with Lincoln?

Well, first of all, Daniel Day-Lewis was sitting next to me, or right behind me. (Laughter.) And so, even after the movie, I felt like I was still hanging out with Lincoln. He was masterful in that role. I think it’s well publicized that Lincoln is my favorite President, and so to see an intimate depiction of him in his work and the challenges that faced him even in a relatively compressed period of time was incredibly powerful.

I think it’s generally a good idea for any President not to compare himself to Lincoln. (Laughter.) And so the magnitude of his challenges and the magnitude of his gifts are of a different scope and scale of any subsequent President.

I do think that there are lessons to be drawn. Part of what Lincoln teaches us is that to pursue the highest ideals and a deeply moral cause requires you also engage and get your hands dirty. And there are trade-offs and there are compromises. And what made him such a remarkable individual, as well as a remarkable President, was his capacity to balance the idea that there are some eternal truths with the fact that we live in the here and now, and the here and now is messy and difficult. And anything we do is going to be somewhat imperfect. And so what we try to do is just tack in the right direction.

And you do understand that as President of the United States, the amount of power you have is overstated in some ways, but what you do have the capacity to do is to set a direction. And you recognize you’re not going to arrive with — you’ll never arrive at that promised land, and whatever seeds you plant now may bear fruit many years later.

So being able to project across a very long timeline while still being focused on the immediate tug and pull of politics I think is a useful lesson, and an accurate portrayal of how I think about my work day to day.

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