On Friday, CBS's Early Show previewed President Obama's upcoming 60 Minutes interview by showing a clip of the softest moment of the exchange and skipping over a series of more challenging questions from correspondent Steve Kroft.
While the preview featured Kroft sympathetically asking the President if he hadn't "sold his successes well enough," the 60 Minutes correspondent began the interview by questioning Obama's policies: "At your news conference, you seemed unwilling to accept the idea that this was a rejection, in any way, of your agenda and your policies. Is this a defeat, a reflection on your leadership?" Obama responded by lamenting: "And people looked at that and they said, 'boy, this feels as if there's a huge expansion of government,' and-" Kroft interjected: "Well, it was a huge expansion of government."
Kroft continued to press Obama on getting the message from the election: "The Republicans say the voters sent you a very clear message that they want a smaller, less costly, more accountable government. Is that the message that you received?" The President replied: "I think that, first and foremost, they want jobs and economic growth in this country." Kroft followed up: "Are you saying, then, that the idea of smaller, less costly, more accountable government was not what you think the voters were saying?"
Kroft did mix in a number of softballs as well: "You ran as somebody who was going to come to Washington and change it, and in the end, as some of your predecessors, it ended up changing you to a certain extent. You haven't given up?...Do you think you were naive?...You've mentioned a couple of times the emergency that you faced when you came into office, and you've mentioned continually the unemployment problem and the economy. This emergency, is it over?...Do you get discouraged? Are you discouraged now?"
Ultimately, Kroft insisted that Obama would "have to" move to the center: "But the political landscape has changed. I mean, how do you plan to govern? President Clinton found himself in a very, very similar circumstance, and he reacted by pivoting to the middle, and was successful at it. Is that what you're going to do? You have to, don't you?"
Near the end of the first part of interview Kroft gave the President some cover, taking shots at Republicans: "Boehner and Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell oppose any new spending, have vowed to repeal or decimate health care reform, and slash more than $100 billion from next year's budget. Tea party activists are demanding even deeper cuts." He asked Obama: "How seriously do you take the tea party, and will it make the task of finding common ground with the Republican Party more difficult?"
Kroft went on to wonder about the President's opinion McConnell and Boehner: "You, I would say, don't have a very close relationship with Mr. McConnell, Senator McConnell, and Congressman Boehner. What do you think of these guys?" In part, Obama explained: "Whenever we've had conversations here at the White House or over on Capitol Hill, they've always been cordial." Kroft added: "It's just in the newspapers that they've been less than cordial."
Here is a full transcript of the first part of the interview that aired on November 7:
STEVE KROFT: President Obama is on a trade mission in India tonight, following a long flight and an even longer week, which saw him lose his Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and nearly lose it in the Senate. Although his name wasn't on the ballot, his performance in office was certainly a factor in the outcome. Late on Thursday afternoon, two years to the date after his election as the 44th president, we sat down with him in the Oval Office and the mood was different. We talked about Tuesday's vote, the economy, and where he goes from here. The Republicans have said that this was a referendum on you and the Democratic Party. Do you agree with that?
BARACK OBAMA: I think, first and foremost, it was a referendum on the economy, and the party in power was held responsible for an economy that is still underperforming and where a lot of folks are still hurting.
KROFT: At your news conference, you seemed unwilling to accept the idea that this was a rejection, in any way, of your agenda and your policies. Is this a defeat, a reflection on your leadership?
OBAMA: I think that what happened over the course of two years was that we had to take a series of big emergency steps quickly, and most of them in the first six months of my administration. Each of them had a big price tag. And people looked at that and they said, 'boy, this feels as if there's a huge expansion of government,' and-
KROFT: Well, it was a huge expansion of government.
OBAMA: What I didn't effectively, I think, drive home is that we were taking these steps not because of some theory that we wanted to expand government. It was because we had an emergency situation, and we wanted to make sure the economy didn't go off a cliff. I think the Republicans were able to paint my governing philosophy as a classic, traditional, big-government liberal. And that's not something that the American people want.
KROFT: The Republicans say the voters sent you a very clear message that they want a smaller, less costly, more accountable government. Is that the message that you received?
OBAMA: I think that, first and foremost, they want jobs and economic growth in this country.
KROFT: Are you saying, then, that the idea of smaller, less costly, more accountable government was not what you think the voters were saying?
OBAMA: No, no, no. I – there is no doubt that folks are concerned about debt and deficits. And I think that is absolutely a priority. And by the way, that's a concern that I had before I was even sworn in.
KROFT: You lost a lot of your base on Tuesday. A lot of the people that helped elect you two years ago voted for Republicans, women, senior citizens, independents. Young people and African-Americans did not turn out in large numbers. How do you explain that?
OBAMA: Well, as I said, I think that folks are frustrated with what they've seen over the last two years. You know, one of the challenges we had was that we'd lost four million jobs in the six months before I was sworn in. We lost 750,000 jobs the month I was sworn in; 600,000 the month after that; 600,000 the month after that. So what you had was the economy continuing to get worse in the first several months of my administration, before any of our economic policies had a chance to be put into place. Appropriately, I'm held accountable for that.
KROFT: You ran as somebody who was going to come to Washington and change it, and in the end, as some of your predecessors, it ended up changing you to a certain extent.
OBAMA: You know, yeah, I'm not-
KROFT: You haven't given up?
OBAMA: Exactly. I think it's fair to say it hasn't changed me in terms of my ideals. But I think that in terms of how I operated on a day-to-day basis, when you've got a series of choices to make, I think that there are times where we said, 'let's just get it done,' instead of worrying about how we're getting it done. And I think that's a problem. I'm paying a political price for that.
KROFT: Well, to a certain extent, the tea party and some of the Republicans ran on the same message or much of the same message that you ran on two years ago, which is, 'we're going to change Washington' and now, you are Washington.
OBAMA: Well, that's one of the dangers of assuming power. And, you know, when you're campaigning, I think you're liberated to say things without thinking about 'okay, how am I going to actually practically implement this.'
KROFT: Do you think you were naive?
OBAMA: No, I don't think I was naive. I just think that these things are hard to do. You know, this is a big country, and democracy is an inherently messy business. And Congress is an institution that has a whole lot of traditions, some of them that aren't, you know, all that healthy. And there are a lot of special interests who've got a lot of power. It's a hard, long slog to push up against that. But I think you make a good point, Steve, which is that you now have a lot of Republicans who ran as outsiders who are coming in. And my hope is that we may be in a position now where the two sides meet and agree on some things that need to be changed.
KROFT: The President is talking about earmarks, billions of dollars in political pork dispensed each year by congressional leadership. The tea party and conservative Republicans want to end the practice, and President Obama is now ready to help them, even though he tolerated earmarks to pass key legislation. He says it was just one of his regrets. Are there things that you wish you could do over, pull back?
OBAMA: Oh, I think there are things every day that I think about doing better. I mean, I think that one of the areas that a lot of folks have focused on, obviously, is the health care bill, because after we took a whole series of these emergency measures to save the economy – the stimulus, the steps to shore up the banking system, the auto bailout – I think there were some that argued, 'well, you should just stop and let people digest all these changes, and so you shouldn't take on something as big as health care.' And I'll be honest with you, Steve, at the time, we knew that it probably wasn't great politics.
KROFT: You were told that by your aides.
OBAMA: Absolutely. And the reason is there's a reason why our health care system hasn't been reformed over the last several decades, why every president talks about it and it never happens, that's because it's hard. It's a huge, big, complicated system. I made the decision to go ahead and do it, and it proved as costly politically as we expected – probably actually a little more costly than we expected politically.
KROFT: In what ways?
OBAMA: Well, partly because I couldn't get the kind of cooperation from Republicans that I had hoped for. We thought that if we shaped a bill that wasn't that different from bills that had previously been introduced by Republicans – including a Republican governor in Massachusetts who's now running for president – that we would be able to find some common ground there. And we just couldn't, and that was costly, partly because it created the kind of partisanship and bickering that really turn people off.
KROFT: You've mentioned a couple of times the emergency that you faced when you came into office, and you've mentioned continually the unemployment problem and the economy. This emergency, is it over?
OBAMA: Not for the people who are out of work. I think that the way to think about it is, the dangers of a second big recession are now much reduced. The danger of us tipping into a great depression – I think most economists would say – is not there on the horizon. What is a danger is that we stay stuck in a new normal where unemployment rates stay high. People who have jobs see their incomes go up, businesses make big profits, but they've learned to do more with less, and so they don't hire. And as a consequence, we keep on seeing growth that is just too slow to bring back the 8 million jobs that were lost. That is a danger. So that's something that I've spent a lot of time thinking about.
KROFT: Do you get discouraged? Are you discouraged now?
OBAMA: I do get discouraged. I mean, there are times where I thought the economy would've gotten better by now. One of the things I think you understand as president is, you're held responsible for everything. But you don't always have control of everything, especially an economy this big. There are limited tools to encourage the kind of job growth that we need. I am constantly reminded that we have been through worse times than these, and we've always come out on top. And I'm positive that the same thing is going to happen this time.
KROFT: You spent nearly a trillion dollars on the stimulus package. Short-term interest rates are zero, practically zero, and still the unemployment rate is 9.6%. What can you do to create jobs that hasn't already been done?
OBAMA: Some of this is going to be just a matter of the economy healing. There are some things we can do to accelerate growth. We've got a couple of trillion dollars' worth of infrastructure improvements that need to be made around the country. I mean, there are construction crews all across the country that are dying for work, and companies that are willing to take a very small profit in order to get work done. And so for us to say 'now is the time for us to rebuild this country and equip ourselves for the 21st century,' that's something that could make a real difference. But-
KROFT: But the Republicans aren't interested in spending on infrastructure right now. They don't want stimulus programs.
OBAMA: Well, you know, again, historically, rebuilding our infrastructure is something that has garnered Democratic and Republican support. I want to have a conversation with them and see if that's still the case.
KROFT: But the political landscape has changed. I mean, how do you plan to govern? President Clinton found himself in a very, very similar circumstance, and he reacted by pivoting to the middle, and was successful at it. Is that what you're going to do?
OBAMA: Well, I-
KROFT: You have to, don't you?
OBAMA: What I'm going to do is, I'm going to reach out to Republicans and I'm going to say, 'what can we work on together?'
KROFT: Haven't you tried that?
OBAMA: Well, I have, but I'm going to keep on trying.
KROFT: But so far, the Republicans aren't showing much interest. No sooner than President Obama had left on his trip to Asia, Republican Congressman John Boehner, the next Speaker of the House, questioned whether the President had gotten the voters' message. Boehner and Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell oppose any new spending, have vowed to repeal or decimate health care reform, and slash more than $100 billion from next year's budget. Tea party activists are demanding even deeper cuts. The tea party, according to the exit polls, four out of ten voters on Tuesday said they supported the movement. How seriously do you take the tea party, and will it make the task of finding common ground with the Republican Party more difficult?
OBAMA: It'll be interesting to see how it evolves. We have a long tradition in this country of a desire for limited government, of the suspicion of the federal government, of a concern that government spends too much money. You know, I mean, that's as American as apple pie. But you're still confronted with the fact that the vast majority of the federal budget are things that people really think are important, like Social Security and Medicare and defense. I mean, we're going to have to, you know, tackle some big issues like entitlements that, you know, when you listen to the tea party or you listen to Republican candidates, they promise we're not going to touch. Those are the choices that I think Republicans and tea party members are going to have to confront in a serious way.
KROFT: You, I would say, don't have a very close relationship with Mr. McConnell, Senator McConnell, and Congressman Boehner. What do you think of these guys?
OBAMA: Both John and Mitch are very smart. They're capable. They have been able to, I think, organize the Republican caucus very effectively in opposition to a lot of the things that we tried to do over the last two years, and that takes real political skill. My assumption is that we're going to be able to work together. And whenever we've had conversations here at the White House or over on Capitol Hill, they've always been cordial.
KROFT: It's just in the newspapers that they've been less than cordial.
OBAMA: Well, you look at during election season, I think the rhetoric flies. And by the way, I've been guilty of that. It's not just them. Part of my promise to the American people when I was elected was to maintain the kind of tone that says we can disagree without being disagreeable. And I think over the course of two years, there have been times where I've slipped on that commitment.