DiscoverThe Axe Files with David AxelrodEp. 108 - President Barack Obama

Ep. 108 - President Barack Obama

Update: 2016-12-26
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President Barack Obama sits down with David Axelrod to discuss their shared history together, how President Obama managed to stay grounded during turbulent moments of his childhood and adolescence, why the Obama presidency struggled to overcome the partisan politics in Washington, and what’s in store for the President when he leaves office on January 20th.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at today the the the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the the first met Brock Obama when he returned to Chicago from law school to run a voter registration drive and while I didn't realize at that moment where history would take him I was taken by him as someone who really cared about public service was committed to devoting his life to it and together we had an incredible journey now is the new year approaches the days are ticking down on the Obama administration and so I want by the White House to sit down with my old friend and reflect on the road he's traveled the the So Mr. Prez actually came over to help you pack but I really appreciate you dropping by this is a great surprise them with you you know I was over the Kennedy Center of the other night for the Kennedy Center Awards and when you walked in there was this thunderous and lengthy ovation and lotsa tears and you know me so you know that I was among those who are tears who's tearing up and I was but then I was thinking what are you thinking and has is beginning to hit you that this is coming to an end or from a couple of points number one you're the last guy I would have helped me pack cars but space is orderly Mrs is is not to be the last kind offer to help us for number one for number two they're plotting Michelle's dress which was sparked by its neck again knowing that I tell you what has started to hit me is that the collection of unbelievable talent and vision and dedication in my team people are gathered around some of whom have been with me for this entire ride some of whom I got to know later many of whom came of age in this job so I've seen them start in these really Junior jobs and now are running huge operations and married and how their babies are crawling on the floor of the Oval Office it's a family on Iraq so far nobody's name the capital upset about that but knowing that that phase is coming to an end I will stay my friends for life some of them all collaborate with like you on various things in the future but to have them all in one place to see how well they worked together and held it has been just enormous privilege and so I have been getting more about that we had our senior staff dinner you remember these ass and I got her jail over class yeah I got through about four minutes and start to get a hanky out what you really do that much I'd just to mock me for doing well it's interesting that there are two things that can get me teary one is talking about my daughter's ass for seeing my daughter's ass and the second is my team you remember after two thousand and twelve one I went over to the campaign office nice all those kids who had been working and is the same kind of emotion that stirs up this deep gratitude for their devotion and I think appreciation that even though from their perspective I'm the one inspiring them in fact all I'm doing is drawing from their energy they're the ones inspiring me I'm reflecting back what's inside of them which is just a lotta goodness and a lot of parts and idealism and so well that they were here or what they would tell you is right back at you because you're the one who I mean everything has been organized around you or your energy in your sensibilities and you know we talked about this when you see when we talk about you running for president in two thousand and six and seven and I said to you we haven't had a campaign that really spoke to the ideals of young people and aspirations for the future since Robert Kennedy and that campaign stirred people in a way that very few have and we did that you did that and you know only you could have done that and so the point is it feels like the band is breakable and it really has been a team effort it's been a really big band for just a horn section the mall and one of the things that I tell people appreciate is that that spark that thing that we took a flyer on in two thousand and seven two thousand and eight it didn't always manifest itself in the day to day grind of governing but the truth is it's never died out and I would continue to see it everyday in what happened here in the West Wing in the East Wing in the White House that the idealism and the dedication stayed with the staff and got us through some really hard times and so I do take a lot of pride in the fact that overall this place never got cynical over the eight years there were times where we were aggravated were times where we are frustrated the race gallows humor but we never had that fire snuffed out and that is a point of pride for me because what that tells me is there's a whole generation of people who worked in this administration we're going to keep on doin' stuff in the future I don't think they come away from this feeling like a government service doesn't work why taxes is terror the result of the election actually has stirred what I think is an encouraging reaction which is you know the stuff matters we can't walk away we can wet walkway for that let me take you back because what are saying about last night as I was about this conversation was how remarkable your personal journey has been a surrogate to jump on the train and we had this trip together but you know I think back to I was love that story about after you lost your congressional race by what the narrow margin of thirty points in the mail but what you think it was literally called like two minutes after the polls was yeah was good to have to waste the whole evening know but I had to rush to get that second I thought I was going to have half an hour I put my town tell a story about going to L A for the Democratic convention and trying to rent a car this is the sixteen years ago this was sixteen years ago so so I've just got fucked in a congressional race and the truth is that it was a great experience for me it ended up being a building block for subsequent races taught me alot but look losing is never fun the one thing I always explain to people is although I I've I'm proud that I have tried conduct myself in office to do what I think is right rather than what is popular I always tell people Don't underestimate the public humiliation of losing in politics it's unlike what most people experience as adults the sense of rejection and so mopey about things and as you know David cars were close friends in the show was never that wild about me going into politics and got I've got two little kids were pretty broke are at least at that point we had one little kid one on the way and a friend of mine says look you gotta get back on the horse here you're kind of down in the dumps why don't you go to the Democratic National Convention in L A Will Cherry a Yale be among folks were excited about politics and you can you can stay with me a nice I said OK I'll go for the weekend I fly out there on whatever connecting flight that was the cheapest and get to the rental car place and present my credit card and credit cards rejected no more money so aftermath of the camera so I have to make a couple of calls to the engineers somehow reading this car and I get to the hotel to hotel where my friend is ready to go and we go over the convention and they give me the past that is basically only allows you to be in the halls like the ring around the auditorium didn't actually allow you to see anything but you could wander around and this for years before he does he know yes and and I think they did my friend would try to get me into some of the after parties at a convention of the bouncers be standing there saying Who's this guy doesn't have the right of this writing have a cheering up if nt i felt as if I was a third wheel in this whole thing so I end up leaving early and we should live in the car and and that was a stage when I was really questioning whether I should continue in politics you have to mention that because I remember when you call me in two thousand and two to see or think you're in for the Senate and you said you know I've talked to Michelle about this I've got one race left in me for a no win it then I'm going to go out and make a livin' and forget about this so that's how close you came to being out of politics or was it was it was an interesting moment and since this is your podcast I might as well give you credit I think in our conversation you were initially and sensibly skeptical about a black and the Obama getting elected and I was yes but you overcame your skepticism and and I saw a possible path the one thing that the congressional race had done is confirm in my mind two things number one even though predominately black district I'd been beaten badly by a well established after American politician is interesting when I went out campaigning people were actually pretty encouraging what they'd say is you seem like a great young man and you're going to great things is just it's not your turn yet so what that told me was actually bad I have strong support me after Merck knew just not in this particular race the second thing as you'll recall in that congressional race there was a chunk of the city of the congressional district Beverly Morgan Park where there was a sizable Irish population and I did really well today and I connected well and told me that in a big field in the U S Senate race that I might have a chance to win so but it is if you won a congressional race we would be sitting in the Roosevelt Room things things work out but but but I do always think about the fact that in the two thousand convention could basically get in the hall or I could get into the on the floor and nobody knew my name four years later from doing the keynote speech and it was as if I was so much smarter four years later than I had been in two thousand it speaks a little bit to the randomness of politics and the part of the reasons that I think I've stayed sane in what has been this remarkable journey and you know me a long time and I think you'd confirm that I'm pretty much the same guys I was when we started this thing part of the reason greater part of the reason for Bulgaria is part of the reason for that I think is because you know success came late to me notoriety came late and that it made me that to the extent that I had been successful it wasn't about me it was about certain forces out there and me hitching my wagon to a broader spirit and a broader set of trends and a broader set of traditions and so when we came up with the phrase Yes We Can which again to give you credit I was little skeptical of the phyllo simplistic when we first started like a logo either at the different life I was a loser like a Pepsi logo it seems like you said seems like a more iconic than the apples or insignia so glad we straightened this out I've gotten everything I wanted this bus was good but what Yes we can describe and I really meant was that this was not simply about me that this was about us yes and I think that was well understood and that was what was so energizing about it so i wun ask u talk about your sanity of them I want to know nuts ok and this is the true theres most politicians you talked about how hard losing his most politicians have some sort of wound I find especially a higher level that something happened in their childhood and they the app probation of the crowds and the affirmation that comes with being elected if you remember this conversation I had when you came to my office right you got back from Hawaii are about to make the decision to run you come in unannounced and we talked for a long time and I told you I'm not sure pathological enough to run and what I meant by that was I didn't think you had that sort of pathological need that so many people who run for president do and I don't know why that is because your dad abandons you basically when you were two years old and your mom I know she's very loving but you are separated from her for long periods of time and if you were just looking at those facts you say yeah this guy's going to be real needy person why are you why didn't you turn out that way look I don't know it's hard to get outside yourself completely and evaluate all the factors that contribute to your character some of it is just temperament now that we've been parents and your grandpa he started noticing there is the essence of each kid that barring really severe trauma expresses itself that's who they are and so there is something in me obviously that is pretty calm and generally pretty happy and pretty buoyant but did you feel did you feel I mean this is a weird question to ask because your president but did you feel loved as a kid I know you and why was it your grandparents my mom she was eccentric in many ways she was a hippie right in the show should insist on shaving her legs but she she was somebody who was was hungry for adventure and skeptical of convention but she loved the heck out of her kids and both my sister and I are two sisters is to pastor this year for all the ups and downs of our lives there was never a moment where I didn't feel as if I was special but I was not just this spectacular gift to the world and that's what you want your mom's forced to give to you so even even when you when she was overseas and you're with your grandparents she communicated her and I never doubted her love and commitment from for me and she was so young when she had me she was eighteen right so in some ways by the time I was twelve thirteen she's interacting with me almost like a friend as well as parent out there when you get a lot and necessarily handle that well it's not serve or recipe for ideal parenting but what I did learn was that unconditional love makes up for an awful lot and I got that for now part of part of going back to the question about politics you never feared losing I've never been like it you're competitive I I've I've I've you know you know what was David and I think has has remained true is it's not that I didn't fear losing its that I feared more being dishonest or being a jerk for losing respect for myself I fear that more than lose those things that you thought were important in order to win exactly the story I tell about myself didn't allow me to say all let's for myself here for expediency and healed and so at the end of the day I think that part of sustaining my sanity through this thing was having gone through enough growing up and community organizing and not being in the spotlight and having had this weird fifteen minutes of success at Harvard and a big girl already lar but then going back into the state legislature were operating in obscurity him and those ups and downs meant that by the time I was elected to the Senate and suddenly as you pointed out to the convention shout out of a cannon into this unreal world by that time I was pretty fully formed had a pretty good sense of who I was had a good sense of what was important and what wasn't and what I was also married a woman who was not going to put up with any foolishness in the show I can't underestimate the degree to which having a life partner who is so grounded and so strong and steady and fundamentally honest helped sometimes brutally so sometimes brutally so but but no I it she has she's been ballast for our family yeah and and I no doubt contributed to me feeling call because here's what I knew about Michelle on the same way I knew about my girls or my sister all are my best friends there are relationships with me never depended on my success more outward success it be a date and my best friends from high school don't operate any differently with me now than they did when they're around a lot you have them here are a lot yeah they'll call you Mr. President do not yeah yeah that's about it though I've been lucky to see as you get older you figure some things are getting some things are not yet hopefully better self assessment yourself and one gift I do seem to have is getting really really good friends are around me who who who got my back and that gives you a certain serenity in the midst of a lot of foolishness we you've rebuilt the American economy from when we when we came here and as a result I have to take a word from our sponsor rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision skip the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty one other one other element I want to talk about the two thousand and four speech which to me is foundational for almost everything that came after but before judges have one other question about your sort of make up that I think is so essential to your success and one mystery to me even though we've been friends for like twenty five years what how is it that you just made the decision in the middle of your years in college that you are going to sort of transform yourself from a guy who enjoyed the party was kind of a goof off at Occidental College to kind of becoming an ascetic at Columbia with a much more purposeful view of I mean that's the unusual thing as well yes it's a discipline I've some of this I think it is just a kid growing up and it turns out I see this in my own daughters people go to their own pace so I don't think that the more serious side of me she sprang up overnight I think it had been building it just took longer to manifest in me than it might have and some other kids this may be an area where the lack of structure during my high school years because my mom was always around my grandparents or older than the strict and paying attention I'm sorta raise myself right manner that is what strikes me here was what it meant was that what kind of discipline that I see in my daughter's developing at fifteen or sixteen took me till I was twenty or twenty one because there wasn't some may nag me and giving me some perspective the way Michelle Meyer able to get one transformative event no I don't think so it was just sort of gradual at the two other things that started happening that I think are relevant one was I became more socially conscious at Occidental even though I was partying anti apartheid movements being stirred to be interested in social policy and poverty a story most of the civil rights even if it was through the haze or hangover on the soap so that starts giving me a sense of what a purposeful life might look like that becomes tied up with my or my racial identity I start thinking about what it means to be not just a man but a black man in America and how do you forge dignity and respect in society that still troubled by the question of race and then my father dies unexpectedly but that doesn't happen too low but later What does start happening is that the awareness that I don't know him and and so I'm not going to get that much direction from him but I start needing to understand better my Genesis word I come from all these things just make me brutal little bit more and so physically remove myself from my old life or go to New York and it's true I live like a monk for three or four years take my strips up way too seriously but there's this huge over partying young too yeah exactly huge over compensation Schumer lesson you know have one plate one towel am fasting on Sundays and friends start noticing that are begging off going out because after you read Sartre or so in retrospect while the pretentious and when I read medical journals from that time because I'm stern or write or letters that I've written to her
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Ep. 108 - President Barack Obama

The Axe Files with David Axelrod