December 5, 2013
Guest: Barack Obama
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Tonight, we bring to you my interview with
President Barack Obama. We present it against the backdrop of the historic
passing of his personal hero, Nelson Mandela, and event which MSNBC will be
covering for the rest of the evening.
I have covered two great world events in my career. One was the fall
of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The other was the first democratic election in
South Africa, five years later. I was there when the country`s black
majority voted by the millions, waiting in lines that stretched from one
horizon to the other. I saw firsthand the devotion to democracy and to
non-violent political change that was the great legacy of the man who died
President Obama paid tribute to Nelson Mandela today. Through his
fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the
freedom of others, he transformed South Africa and moved all of us. His
journey from prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings
and countries can change for the better. His commitment to transfer power
and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example of all humanity to
aspire to, whether in the lives of nations or in our own personal lives.
I promised you the president of the United States, and he`s here.
Let`s play HARDBALL.
It`s my honor to introduce the president of the United States!
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
MATTHEWS: Well, thank you, Mr. President, and thank you, Dr. Neil
Kerwin, who`s here, the president of the American University, for having us
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It`s good to see you.
MATTHEWS: So what brought you to HARDBALL?
OBAMA: American University.
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
OBAMA: HARDBALL was just an excuse to hang out with these fine young
people. You know, I`ve had just wonderful experiences here. First time I
spoke here, actually, was when I was running for the presidency, and Ted
Kennedy announced his endorsement here. And obviously, he was an
incredible friend and spoken here about immigration. And I just always
have a wonderful interaction with the young people here. They`re doing a
MATTHEWS: Well, let`s play HARDBALL.
OBAMA: Let`s do it!
MATTHEWS: You have a great audience here of college-age people and
some graduate students and faculty. There`s some resistance out there
among young people -- I`ve seen it in the polls -- to enrolling in the
exchanges and to get involved in taking responsibility for their health
What`s your argument why they should do that?
OBAMA: Well, first of all, I understand why people would have been
resistant to going on a Web site that wasn`t working right. And
fortunately, because of some very hard work, we`ve now got it to the point
where for the vast majority of people, it`s working well.
And my message to young people is take a look for yourself. The truth
is, is that most college-aged students, because of the law, can stay on
their parents` plan, and that may be the best deal for them. And we`ve
already insured about three million people.
And your first job, where you don`t have full health insurance
benefits, may mean that you stay on your parents` plan a little bit longer.
But at some point, let`s say when you turn 26, if you`re between jobs or
you`ve got a passion, you`re wanting to start a business and you`re not
going to have health insurance, this gives you the opportunity to get high-
quality health insurance. And for most people under 30, it`s probably
going to cost you less than your cell phone bill or your cable bill, less
than 100 bucks.
And you know, there was a time when I looked healthy, like these
folks, and thought I was never going to get sick.
OBAMA: But what you discover is that some tough stuff happens. You
have a run of bad luck. You suddenly need hospitalization. You have an
accident. You get an illness. And for young people to realize that it is
in their financial interest and their health interest to be able to get
ongoing preventive care, to be able to get free contraception, and you
know, benefits that -- like mammograms that allow them to maintain their
health throughout their lives without fear of going bankrupt or making
their family bankrupt if they get sick, that`s something that`s priceless.
And I think most young people are going to recognize that. So my
advice to everybody is, the Web site`s now working. Go to Healthcare.gov,
take a look for yourself in your state what`s available to you. There`s no
reason why you should not have health insurance.
And by the way, if you don`t get health insurance and then you get in
an accident, the rest of us end up paying for it because the hospitals --
they end up essentially charging folks with insurance an average of about
$1,000 per family in hidden subsidies for the people who don`t have health
insurance. That`s part of what we`re trying to eliminate.
MATTHEWS: Well, you saw the front page of "The Washington Post" today
with that story about the National Security Agency basically patrolling all
of the cell phones in the world, basically. A lot of young people point to
their privacy requirements. They don`t like being part of anything that`s
collecting information. Health care -- is this going to be one of the
detriments to people wanting to sign up, they want to keep their privacy?
OBAMA: Well, no, first of all, health care is entirely different.
It`s more similar to, you know, seniors who sign up for Medicare or people
who file their taxes. You know, there are a whole bunch of things where
you`re providing information to the government. It`s protected. It`s
governed by a whole series of laws.
The NSA issue is a broader issue. And you`re right, young people
rightly are sensitive to the needs to preserve their privacy and to
maintain Internet freedom. And by the way, so I am. That`s part of not
just our 1st Amendment rights and expectations in this country, but it`s
particularly something that young people care about because they spend so
much time texting, and you know, Instagramming and...
OBAMA: ... you know...
OBAMA: ... Pining and -- you know, right? I mean, they`re just --
something`s coming up every single day. And so all of us spend more and
more of our lives in cyberspace.
Now, the challenge is, first of all, we do have people who are trying
to hurt us and they communicate through these same systems. And if we`re
going to do a good job preventing a terrorist attack in this country, a
weapon of mass destruction getting onto the New York subway system, et
cetera, we do want to keep eyes on some bad actors.
The second thing is that the same cyberspace that gives us all this
incredible information and allows us to reach out around the world also
makes our bank accounts vulnerable. Cybercrime is a huge problem and a
growing problem. And so we`ve got to be in there in some way to help
protect the American people, even as we`re also making sure that government
doesn`t abuse it.
Now, I think -- I can`t confirm or get into the details of every
aspect of what the NSA does. And the way this has been reported, the
Snowden disclosures have identified some areas of legitimate concern. Some
of it has also been highly sensationalized, and you know, has been painted
in a way that`s not accurate.
I`ve said before and I will say again, the NSA actually does a very
good job about not engaging in domestic surveillance, not reading people`s
e-mails, not listening to the content of their phone calls. Outside of our
borders, the NSA is more aggressive. It`s not constrained by laws.
And part of what we`re trying to do over the next month or so is,
having done on independent review and brought a whole bunch folks, civil
libertarians and lawyers and others, to examine what`s being done, I`ll be
proposing some self-restraint on the NSA, and you know, to initiate some
reforms that can give people more confidence.
But I want everybody to be clear. The people of the NSA generally are
looking out for the safety of the American people. They are not interested
in reading your e-mails. They`re not interested in reading your text
messages. And that`s not something that`s done. And we`ve got a big system
of checks and balances, including the courts and Congress, who have the
capacity to prevent that from happening.
MATTHEWS: Mr. President, let`s look at that question of confidence
and trust in government. Fifty years ago, in June of 1963, President John
F. Kennedy spoke here at the American University. Let`s listen to something
that he said at that moment which I think applies to the situation we`re in
in this country now politically. Let`s watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN F. KENNEDY, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our problems are
manmade, therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he
wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man`s reason
and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they
can do it again.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: How do we get back to that confidence that we can solve our
manmade problems and other problems?
OBAMA: Well, you know, I have that confidence. But we`ve gone
through a tough time over the last five years, and most of the young people
who are here today have come of age during as difficult a period as we`ve
seen in our modern history.
We went through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
We have gone through wars. This is part of the 9/11 generation, who was
very young at the time but remembers the trauma of that event.
And yet if you look at it, we`ve now ended the war in Iraq. We`re
about to end the war in Afghanistan. We`ve begun a recovery that is not
yet complete coming out of the financial crisis, but the job market is
getting better. Our economy is improving.
We have, you know, doubled our production of clean energy, doubled our
production of traditional energy sources. We are on the brink of being as
close to energy-independent as any country our size could be in a very long
time. We still have the best universities on earth, the best researchers
and scientists on earth, the best workers on earth and the most innovative
companies on earth. And we`re still the envy of the world and the one
So I continue to have great confidence in our capacity to solve our
problems. There`s a specific challenge that we`ve got, and that is a
Congress and this city, Washington, that is gridlocked and spends too much
time worrying about the next election and not enough time worrying about
the next generation.
And you know, the solution to that is ultimately what was envisioned
by our founders and what Jack Kennedy understood, as well, and that`s the
American people. You know, we go through these periods where our politics
gets all bollixed up. And the truth is, sometimes we`re nostalgic about
MATTHEWS: I am.
OBAMA: I know you are.
OBAMA: But the -- but the truth of the matter is, is that when you
look at our history, there have been a lot of times when Congress gets
stuck. But we get through it. And the reason we get through it is,
ultimately, the American people have pretty good instincts. And if over
and over again, they see that we`re not addressing the core problems that
we have, eventually, they will put in place folks who are serious about
getting the work done.
MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about the problem with the legislative branch.
The other day, Speaker Boehner said that we can`t get anything done because
we have a divided country, a divided Congress.
But that`s the nature of America. They have an aisle down the middle
of the Senate, an aisle down the middle of the House. Those aisles have
always been there. We`ve rarely had one party in power for more than a
year or two. The country doesn`t want that, generally. So are we stuck
with this as long as we have two parties running our government, they can`t
They used to compromise. My argument is, in the old days, they would
compromise and then blame the other party for the parts of the compromise
they didn`t like. Today, they don`t compromise and blame the other party.
Why not strike a deal, and then you can blame Boehner for the parts of
the deal you don`t like, and he can blame you for the parts that he doesn`t
OBAMA: Well, a couple of things. First of all...
MATTHEWS: (INAUDIBLE) compromise.
OBAMA: ... I think, Chris, it`s fair to say that I have always been
prepared to not only negotiate, but to go ahead and push forward on
principled compromises. In fact, sometimes on your station, MSNBC, I`ve
been blasted for being too willing to compromise. So the problem is not,
generally speaking, on the Democratic side.
And obviously, I`m partisan here, but objectively, I think you can
look at it and you can say that the big challenge we`ve got is you`ve got a
faction of the Republican Party that sees compromise as a dirty word, that
has moved so far to the right that it would be difficult for a Ronald
Reagan to win the nomination for the Republican Party at this point. And
as a consequence, it is more challenging.
But a couple of things I just want to point out...
MATTHEWS: But you`ve got three-and-a-half more years to deal with
OBAMA: Yes, well, a couple things I`d point out. First of all, in
our history, usually, when we`ve made big progress on issues, it actually
has been when one party controlled the government for a period of time. I
mean, the big strides we made in the New Deal, the big strides we made with
the Great Society, you know, those were times where you had a big majority.
And when Ronald Reagan made changes in the direction of a more Republican
agenda, it was when he had a majority.
What you`re right about, though, is that when we have divided
government, most of the time, there`s about 70 percent, 80 percent overlap
between the parties. We`re not like some countries that -- where you
actually have a socialist party on one hand and an ultra- conservative
party on the other hand. Most of the time, we`re playing between the 40-
yard lines here.
So my argument to Boehner and McConnell and everybody else up there
is, Let`s go ahead and have big arguments on the things we disagree about.
But why don`t we go ahead and work on the things we do agree about?
And a classic example of this is immigration reform. We know that the
majority of the American people think the system`s broken. We now have a
vote out of the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans voting for a common
sense bill that would strengthen our borders, that would fix the legal
immigration system, make it easier for talent to come here and work hard
and become part of America, and that would hold companies accountable when
they`re hiring undocumented workers and taking advantage of them, oh, and
by the way, would deal with the 11 million people who are in the shadows
Now, we`ve got a majority of the American people who think it`s a good
idea and we`ve got a majority of the Senate, including Republicans, who
think it`s a good idea. The only thing that`s stopping it at this point is
what I mentioned earlier, a faction in the Republican House party that is
resistant. I continue to be optimistic we`ll get it done, and I think John
Boehner is sincere about getting it done, but...
MATTHEWS: Didn`t he just say, We won`t do it in `14, today?
OBAMA: Well, you know, the -- I think that there`s so much focus on
the politics of the base and Republicans being worried about getting
challenged during their primary season that that inhibits a lot of
cooperation that is there.
And I actually think there are a bunch of Republicans who want to get
stuff done. They`ve got to be embarrassed because the truth of the matter
is, is that they`ve now been in charge of the House of Representatives, one
branch of -- or one chamber in one branch of government for a couple of
years now, and they just don`t have a lot to show for it.
MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about the executive branch, which you control.
The -- back in 1964, we looked it up, a Pew study, 76 percent of the
American people believed that most of the time, almost always, the federal
government did the right thing. Now it`s down to less than 20 percent.
The trust question, the commitments you made before the rollout with
health care -- what is it? What is it that`s just -- it`s a serial
decline, Mr. President. It keeps going down.
I know we had Watergate. We had the Vietnam war, of course, all that
together. But what`s going to stop and arrest that decline of faith in you
doing the right thing, you being honest, anybody who`s president, this
skepticism that`s out there?
OBAMA: Well, look, the cynicism and the skepticism is deep. And I
distinguish between, you know, just management of government and the basic
blocking and tackling of getting stuff done to help the American people and
then the ability to move big policy changes that are going to help more
When it comes to the management of government, part of the reason
people are so skeptical is that when we do things right, they don`t get a
lot of attention. If we do something that is perceived at least initially
as a screwup, it will be on the nightly news for a week.
So let`s take the example of the Federal Emergency Management Agency,
FEMA. We`ve got a guy who`s been in charge, Craig Fugate, who has managed
as many natural disasters over the last five years as just about anybody
and has done a flawless job.
MATTHEWS: So he`s really doing a good job.
OBAMA: He is doing...
MATTHEWS: Unlike his predecessor.
OBAMA: He is doing -- he is doing a heck of a job.
OBAMA: This guy -- and that`s not just my opinion. That`s the
opinion of every governor and mayor that works with him, including
Nobody knows who this guy is. And if, in fact, we go in after Sandy
or after the tornadoes in Oklahoma or Missouri and we`re helping a lot of
people effectively and quickly and they`re getting what they need, nobody
hears about that. That`s not something that`s reported about.
If on the other hand, you`ve got an office in Cincinnati in the IRS
office that I think for bureaucratic reasons is trying to streamline what
is a difficult law to interpret about whether a non- profit is actually a
political organization that deserves a tax-exempt agency (sic) and they`ve
got a list, suddenly, everybody`s outraged...
MATTHEWS: 501(c)(4) is tricking to begin with.
OBAMA: To begin with.
MATTHEWS: How do you define it?
OBAMA: And by the way, Chris, I`ll point out that there`s some so-
called progressives and -- you know, perceived to be liberal commentators
who during that week just were outraged at the possibility that these
folks, you know, had been, you know, at the direction of the Democratic
Party in some way discriminated against Tea Party folks.
And you know, that is what gets news. That`s what gets attention.
Now, here`s what I will say. You know, there are a couple million
people working for the federal government. And I remember Bob Gates, my
former secretary of defense -- wonderful public servant, had served under
seven presidents -- when I first came in, I asked him, So Bob, you got any
advice for me? He says, Mr. President, just understand you`ve got a lot of
people working for you. Somebody, somewhere, at this very moment is
screwing something up.
OBAMA: And that`s true. And so -- so I...
OBAMA: ... have to consistently push on every cabinet secretary, on
every single agency, How can we do things better? And we can do things
better. Part of what we need to do is reorganize the government, which was
designed primarily in 1935 -- `45. We could consolidate agencies.
We`ve got to do a much better job, as everybody has learned, buying
OBAMA: You know, how we make ourselves more customer-friendly, those
are all things that we can improve.
But the upshot is, the government still does a lot of good. And the
last point I will make on this is, you know, we have had a politics,
frankly -- the entire Republican Party brand over -- since Ronald Reagan
has been, government`s the problem.
And, if you, day after day, week after week, election after election,
are running on that platform, and that permeates our culture, and it`s
picked up by ordinary citizens who grow skeptical, then it`s not surprising
that, over time, trust in government declines.
But, as I said in a speech yesterday, the biggest issue that I see out
on the horizon is, how do we make sure an economy works for everybody
OBAMA: ... and that every one of these young people can get a good
job, pursue a career, support a family, not be loaded up by $100,000 worth
of debt, actually buy a home?
How do we do those things that reduce inequality in our society and
broaden opportunity? And government can`t solve all of that. And we live
in an economy that is global and technological and is changing faster than
ever before in history.
But government can`t stand on the sidelines when we`re doing that.
And without some faith in our capacity for collective action, those trends
are going to get worse. So, we have got to -- and young people in
particular have to understand, government is us. Government`s not somebody
else. Government`s us.
We have the capacity to change it. And voters have the capacity to
change it. Members of Congress do, as well as a president.
MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about the chief executive, you.
MATTHEWS: And let`s talk about a lot of these young people came here
to study government and how it can be run.
There`s all kinds of theories of how to be president of the United
States. There`s the spokes-of-the-wheel method, which Kennedy used, where
he had direct contact with his Cabinet secretaries, his speechwriters,
everybody all the time.
Then there was the strong chief of staff, sort of the military command
system of General Eisenhower as president. And, of course, Ronald Reagan
did it superbly with a great chief of staff, a strong one, Jim Baker.
What concerned -- Zeke Emanuel, who worked with you on health care,
said the other day is there should have been a CEO assigned by you
personally with unique personal responsibility to oversee the rollout of
health care, and there wasn`t.
When Secretary Sebelius appeared in that hearing and she was asked by
MATTHEWS: ... who`s in charge, it took her awhile to answer. And she
final got to the chief operating of CMS, the Center for Medicaid and
And it didn`t seem like there was a strong top-down authority system
from you. Did you have -- or do you have now -- let`s look forward here.
Do you have a relationship with your Cabinet that you have a system of
cracking the whip, that they follow through, they execute as you envision
they should, or do you work through a COO like McDonough?
What is your system for management?
OBAMA: Well, yes.
Well, first of all, I think it`s important to distinguish between this
OBAMA: ... this health care project, where it is obvious that we
needed additional controls in place, because it didn`t deliver on time the
way we wanted, and how we have managed incredibly complex problems for the
last five years, everything from wars, to pandemics to, you know, natural
disasters, to expanding student loans for young peoples.
OBAMA: Generally speaking, my theory has been, number one, that, yes,
I have got a strong chief of staff, but I`m holding every Cabinet member
accountable, and I want to have strong interactions with them directly.
Number two is, I have an open door policy where I want people to be
bringing me bad news on time so that we can fix things.
OBAMA: And the -- the challenge, I think, that we have going forward
is not so much my personal management style or particular issues around
White House organization.
It actually has to do with what I referred to earlier, which is we
have these big agencies, some of which are outdated, some of which are not
designed properly. We have got, for example, 16 different agencies that
have some responsibility to help businesses, large and small, in all kinds
of ways, whether it`s helping to finance them, helping them to export.
And so, if you`re a small business person getting started, you may
think you need to go to the Small Business Administration on one thing, you
have got to go to Commerce on another. So, we have proposed, let`s
consolidate a bunch of that stuff.
The challenge we have got is that that requires a law to pass. And,
frankly, there are a lot of members of Congress who are chairmen of a
particular committee. And they don`t want necessarily consolidations where
they would lose jurisdiction over certain aspects of certain policies.
But this is going to be a major area of focus and has been over the
last five years, but going forward over the next three years. How do we
have a 21st century federal government?
OBAMA: And this is part of the reason why people are skeptical.
There -- there are just some things that people have an interaction
with the federal government where we could be doing a much better job.
OBAMA: Some of them, by the way, aren`t federal.
Everybody has the experience of going to try to get their driver`s
OBAMA: And it takes a long time.
OBAMA: You know, why do you have to do a written driving test if you
already have your license?
I mean, there are just a whole bunch of things we could be using with
the Internet and new communication systems. And the more we can just
reorganize the guts of how these agencies work, the easier it`s going to
be, because the White House is just a tiny part of what is a huge,
widespread organization with increasingly complex tasks in a complex world.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about something else.
This is a Twitter question we got from C. Wilhelms is his name. He
said: "What can we do to stop the GOP" -- the Republicans -- "from rigging
the states" -- or "rigging the votes state by state to disenfranchise
voters and destroy our democracy?"
Thirty-six states right now led by Republican legislatures have been
trying to make it difficult for minority people to vote, especially in big
cities, and older people.
MATTHEWS: Everybody knows the game. Republicans often admit the
game: to deny people the vote.
MATTHEWS: How can -- well, what`s your reaction?
OBAMA: Well, a couple of things.
You saw the lines that we had not only in `08, but then in `12. Some
of these folks might have stood in line.
And I said on election night, that`s not acceptable in a democracy
that has been around as long as ours and that the world looks to. So we
actually immediately assigned my chief election lawyer and Mitt Romney`s
chief election lawyer to sit down with a group of experts and come up with
a whole series of vote -- voter reforms.
They`re supposed to report back to me by the end of this year, so
that, early next year, we`re going to put forward what we know will be a
bipartisan effort -- or a bipartisan proposal to encourage people to vote.
You can`t say you take pride in American democracy, in American
constitutionalism, American exceptionalism and then you`re doing everything
you can to make it harder for people to vote, as opposed to easier for
people to vote.
So, I think there`s some commonsense things that we can do. And I
won`t preview the proposals, because I haven`t gotten them yet.
Keep in mind, though, for all the efforts that have been made -- and
some of them, by the way, may be illegal, may violate the Voting Rights
Act, even after the Supreme Court`s recent ruling -- and our Justice
Department is going to be staying on them. If we have evidence that you
have mechanisms that are specifically designed to discriminate against
certain groups of voters, then the Justice Department will come down on
them and file suit.
The one point I want to make, though, is, is that, even with all the
efforts that were made, let`s say, in the last election, folks still voted.
And if -- if people feel engaged enough and have a sense of a stake in our
democracy, you know, you will be able to vote.
And, you know, our -- our biggest problem right now is not the
misguided efforts of some of these state legislators. Our bigger problem
is the one that you alluded to earlier, which is people`s skepticism that
government, in fact, can make a difference.
OBAMA: And even in the best of years these days, we still have about
40 percent of the population who is eligible to vote that chooses to opt
out. And they`re -- they`re not being turned away at the polls.
OBAMA: They`re turning themselves away from the polls.
And -- and that`s something that we have got to -- we have got to get
at. And young people in particular have a tendency to vote during
presidential years, and then just are not excited at all during midterms.
These midterm elections, in many ways, are more important, because
that`s what`s going to determine who`s in charge of Congress. And you may
agree with me or disagree with me, but don`t think that it all ends with
me. It`s also important who`s the speaker of the House and who`s in charge
of the Senate.
And I hope young people increasingly understand that.
MATTHEWS: Right. Government dysfunction is now the number one
concern, even more than the economy.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, Mr. President.
We will be right back with a bit more with President Obama here at
You`re watching "The HARDBALL College Tour" from American University.
OBAMA: Thank you.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, JULY 24, 2004)
OBAMA: There`s not a liberal America and a conservative America;
there`s the United States of America.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
OBAMA: There`s not a black America and a white America and Latino
America and Asian America; there`s the United States of America.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: I have seen the first black president there.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for
president of the United States of America! (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MATTHEWS: This is going to be remembered as one great day in American
politics, when Barack Obama, with an American mother and a Kenyan father, a
graduate of the Harvard Law School, the president of "The Harvard Law
Review," a senator in just his second year of office, runs for president of
the United States, and is already the number two candidate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MATTHEWS: We`re back with "The HARDBALL College Tour" at American
MATTHEWS: You know, Mr. President, your -- your remarks the other day
on economic justice to me, as a Roman Catholic, was so resonant with what
the Holy Father, Francis, has been saying.
MATTHEWS: Talk about that common Judeo-Christian or, even further,
Muslim background to the belief we have a social responsibility, a moral
responsibility to look out for people who haven`t made it in this country.
OBAMA: Yes. Yes.
There`s no great religion that doesn`t speak to this. At root, every
great religion has some equivalent of the golden rule, some equivalent of
the idea that I am my brother`s keeper and my sister`s keeper, some notion
that, even as we each take individual responsibility for acting in a
responsible and righteous way, part of our obligation is to the larger
world and to future generations.
And, you know, I -- I think Pope Francis is showing himself to be just
an extraordinarily thoughtful and soulful messenger of peace and justice.
I haven`t had a chance to meet him yet, but everything that I have read,
everything that I have seen from him indicates the degree to which he is
trying to remind us of those core obligations.
And, you know, as I said in my speech yesterday, we live in a market
economy that is the greatest generator of wealth in history. We`re risk-
takers. We`re entrepreneurs. And we`re rugged individualists. And that`s
part of what makes us great. That`s why we continue to be a magnet for
strivers from all around the world, because they think, you know what?
I`m not going to be held back by conventions and traditions. And I`m
going to go out there and I`m going to make it. And we want to maintain
that sense of character. But what I always remind people is that what also
built this country was a sense of community and a sense of common endeavor.
So, whether it was building the Transcontinental Railroad, or sending a man
to the moon, or helping to create the Internet, or curing diseases, we
always understood that there are some things we do better together, and
that we should take pride as a nation in our ability to work in concert.
And if, in fact, we are helping to assure that that kid over there
who`s not my kid has a chance at a good education or that guy over there
who I`m not related to has a chance at a decent job and a decent
retirement, I`m going to be better off. I`m going to be living in a
society that is more cohesive and is going to create the kind of future for
our kids that we all want.
And that, more than anything, is at the core of the debate that I have
been having with the Republican Party over the last several years. It`s
not just the details of the Affordable Care Act or, you know, the minimum
wage, because, as I said yesterday in the speech, look, if you have got
better ideas for achieving the same goal, put them out there.
I`m not wedded to one particular way of doing things. But the central
argument I have is, we do have an obligation to each other. And there`s
some things we can do together. And, in fact, the big challenges that we
have, whether it`s immigration, climate change, an economy that works for
everybody, improving our education system, making college more affordable,
competing in the world economy...
OBAMA: ... dealing with questions of war and peace, those are not
things that Chris Matthews or Barack Obama can solve by ourselves.
We -- by necessity, we`re going to have to do those together. And if
we can at least agree on that, and agree that our system of self-government
allows us to come together to take on those big problems, then, you know,
we can figure out the specific policies and we -- that`s where we can
compromise and negotiate.
But what I will not compromise on is the idea, for example, we
shouldn`t have 41 million people in this country without health insurance.
That, I won`t compromise on. That`s where it gets to who are we as a
country and my own sense of what my responsibilities are as president of
the United States.
MATTHEWS: Well, we`re almost done.
I have to ask you a little question you may not like to answer.
MATTHEWS: This could be tough.
OBAMA: All right.
MATTHEWS: It`s an essay question.
MATTHEWS: The qualities required of a president.
MATTHEWS: Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary
MATTHEWS: ... compare and contrast.
OBAMA: Not a chance am I going there.
OBAMA: Here`s what I will say.
Both Hillary and Joe would make outstanding presidents and possess the
qualities that are needed to be outstanding presidents.
They -- and I think Joe Biden will go down in history as one of the
best vice presidents ever. And he has been with me at my side in every
tough decision that I have made, from going after bin Laden, to dealing
with the health care issues, to -- you name it, he`s been there.
Hillary, I think, will go down in history as one of the finest
secretaries of state we have ever had, and helped to transition us away
from a deep hole that we were in when I first came into office, around the
world, and to rebuild confidence and trust in the United States.
And they`ve got -- they`ve got different strengths, but both of them
would be outstanding.
I`d say the most important qualities of any president -- I`m not
necessarily saying I have these qualities because I`m speaking historically
-- I think has to do with more than anything a sense of connection with the
American people. That`s what allows you then to have that second quality
which is persistence.
If you know who you`re working on behalf of, if you remember as
Lincoln did or an FDR did or Truman did or a Kennedy did. If you remember
that person that you met who was down on their luck but was a good
character and was trying to figure out how they are going to support a
family. If you remember that young child who has big dreams but, you know,
doesn`t yet know how they`re going to get to college -- if you feel those
folks in your gut every single day, that will get you through the setbacks
OBAMA: -- and the difficulties and the frustrations and the
criticisms that are inherent in the office.
And I think, you know, the interesting thing about now having been
president for five years is it makes me humbler as opposed to cockier about
what you as an individual can do. You recognize that you`re just part of a
sweep of history. And your job really is to push the boulder up the hill a
little bit before somebody else pushes it up a little further and the task
never stops at perfecting our union.
But what makes me more confident than ever is the interactions I have
with young people like this all over the country -- who still believe in
this country, still are optimistic fundamentally about their futures, are
problem-solvers, are practical.
The American people are good and they are decent. And yes, sometimes
we get very divided partly because our politics, and our media specifically
tries to divide them and splinter them. But, you know, we`ve got so much
stuff going for us that as long as any president stays close to the people,
I think they`re going to do all right.
MATTHEWS: You know, what I always thought was great about what you
did in your early political career -- this just my personal observation
because I love studying politicians.
MATTHEWS: You lost that race in the south side to Bobby Rush.
MATTHEWS: And you got in your car and drove out into the burbs with a
map next to you in the passenger seat.
MATTHEWS: And you said, "I`m going to do this thing."
MATTHEWS: How many kids here want to go into politics?
OBAMA: That`s a pretty good number.
MATTHEWS: Are they right?
OBAMA: It continues to be a way to serve that I think can be noble.
It`s hard. It can be frustrating. You got to have a thick skin.
And I know it`s tempting to say, "You know what? Why would I want to
get in the mud like that and get slapped around and subjected to all kinds
And so for those people who say, I`d rather serve in other ways
through nonprofits or through starting a great business and work with
people who are completely on my side all the time instead of trying to
undermine what I`m trying to get done, I understand that. And God bless
you. That`s part of what makes this country great.
You know, we`re not completely government-centered. We`ve got all
kinds of folks who are doing great stuff all around the country.
But I tell you, the satisfaction you get when you`ve passed a law or
you`ve taken an executive action and somebody comes up to you and says,
"You know what? My kid`s alive because you passed that health care bill,
because he was uninsured, he got insurance, got a checkup, and we caught a
tumor in time." Or you see somebody and they say, "You know, you helped me
save my house. And I can`t tell you what that means."
It`s pretty hard to get greater satisfaction than that. And -- so,
for those young people who don`t mind a little gray hair, it`s something
that I not only recommend but I`d welcome.
MATTHEWS: On behalf of the people who watch me every night and are
loyalists, many of them to you -- thank you for coming on the show.
OBAMA: Great to see you, Chris. Thank you.
MATTHEWS: We`re back from American University on the HARDBALL college
We just heard from the president.
And we`re here with some people we know very well, "The Grio`s" Joy
Reid, "The Huffington Post Media Group editorial director, Howard Fineman,
and, of course, the Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones", David Corn.
Each of you, I`ve just been chatting during the commercial break. It
seems to me that you`ve heard things that I didn`t even hear.
I want to start with Howard, because you grabbed me. What did we see
in president the man, Barack Obama, who is a bit distant usually, what did
we learn from him tonight about being president?
HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTON POST: First of all, I would like to say,
Chris, and that you and the students here from A.U. got a once in a
lifetime opportunity to see in person a president talking about what it`s
like to be president, while he`s actually president.
Now, he`s gone from Superman to Sisyphus. He`s talking about rolling
a boulder up a hill. He has a much more mature view, but he has moral
view. I thought he made the moral case for Obamacare, for you folks to
consider Obamacare as a measure of community in America. That`s what
motivates Barack Obama. He knows it`s tough --
MATTHEWS: And he gave it up.
FINEMAN: The last 15 minutes of this interview extraordinary were
extraordinary. I`ve never seen anything like it, where a president kind of
unburdened himself to you about why he`s in the ballgame. And I thought he
made a very compelling case for his own decency, whatever the screw-ups
were managerially, and they were real.
JOY REID, THE GRIO: And, Chris, can I say, I felt like we saw two
interviews with the president. In the first half of that interview, you
saw a man who is incredibly frustrated by what I think he sees as the
smallness of the debate in Washington, where we don`t talk about the big
things, the big sweeping issues that matter to the country, or we boil it
down to sort of petty fights, frustrated incredibly with the Republicans
and with the media.
But in the second half of that interview, I saw the guy that I first
met in 2004, when he was essentially an activist, attempting to use
politics to move forward -- grand issues, really big themes.
REID: Somebody who really is, you know, in lead or in line with the
way the pope feels about social justice. This is a guy who fought for
social justice and that second half, I think you saw him strip away from
just the presidency, back to that guy, the guy who still has that --
MATTHEWS: David, just follow for Joy. Why did that happen? Is it
the bad poll numbers that forced him back to being, damn it, I`m going to
defend who I am? What got him here, what got him to where he was today?
DAVID CORN, MOTHER JONES: He was very self-reflective, as I think he
is prone to be, but perhaps more so now in public. Maybe -- and I don`t
know if this is a negative spin on this, maybe because he feels even more
frustrated, he`s trying to get not to the point where he`s giving up, but
he`s trying to figure out what he can do.
He was very explanatory in this interview. Not a lot of fight.
There`s still a lot of fights to be had. Even about saving Obamacare. But
it was really stunning to me, he talked about persistence and the
connection between a president and the public and that motivating
But that`s different than fighting. So --
MATTHEWS: You just defined --
FINEMAN: -- motivation, about why he would continue to fight. As I
say, comparing politics to rolling a boulder up a hill is a little
different from the way he began his life in politics, like with popping a
champagne cork. This is tough stuff, but he showed his own motivation. He
said, I remember every day --
MATTHEWS: He`s also -- guys, he`s been there before. I mean, I refer
-- I didn`t have to remind him of being in that car all alone, an African-
American guy, heading out into the white suburbs and rural areas of
Illinois where no black guy`s never run for anything and certainly not won
anything. He doesn`t have a GPS in the car, he`s got a map on the seat,
passenger seat, I`ve got to discover Illinois --
MATTHEWS: -- so I can be elected senator, after being beaten in a
south Chicago race.
CORN: And also, after losing (INAUDIBLE) the 2010 election. Remember
that? That was a tremendous blow, and he sort of reassessed his presidency
and how he could move forward and started emphasizing, some of what he
talked about today, the difference in values between him and the
Republicans. When he says, the government is us -- that`s like the grand
slogan here. Us because we come together to do the things that he talked
MATTHEWS: Did you see the other end of that, the 180 from that? When
he said, people who try to restrict minority voting?
MATTHEWS: How can they claim they believe in American exceptionalism
when they try to screw the voter out of voting?
REID: But even there, he went back to the responsible of people to
sort of get together and do this collectively. And you`re looking at a
president who`s looking beyond what the presidency can do, and really
yearning for, really hoping for people to recapture that sense of hope that
they themselves can galvanize and try to work through, because he`s
completely stymied by what`s happening in Washington.
FINEMAN: And don`t forget, we`re seeing him at a low point here.
MATTHEWS: For sure, below 40 percent.
FINEMAN: I mean, his approval ratings are way down. He`s downtown,
sitting there. He`s got 3 1/2 years, as you say. What`s the motivation?
What are his goals? Where is heading with this in the tough sledding that
And I think you got a rare glimpse and the viewers of HARDBALL get a
rare glimpse of how he`s going to motivate himself as he moves through this
very tough political season.
CORN: I also think --
MATTHEWS: We`ve got to go. We`ll be right back with more from
American University in just a minute.
You`re watching the HARDBALL college tour, the place for politics.
MATTHEWS: Well, we`ve heard from the president of the United States
tonight and we`ll be coming right back with more on the HARDBALL college
tour from American University, after this.
MATTHEWS: We`re back from the American University here in Washington,
D.C., and the HARDBALL college tour.
I want to get a thought from you. Bottom line for the president: what
will you remember?
REID: I`ll remember his deep belief in social justice, very much
reflective of what the pope has said.
MATTHEWS: Isn`t that great?
FINEMAN: Yes. I heard, as soon as you mentioned Pope Francis, the
president kind of remembered yet again why he`s dealing with all the
MATTHEWS: As opposed to what Rush Limbaugh said when he --
FINEMAN: One thing to say, change you can believe in, but making
change happen is hard.
MATTHEWS: Rush Limbaugh called him a Marxist the other day.
CORN: I saw a president who remains frustrated with the political
media culture that he has to work within, and he really is looking to rally
people, students here, and supporters, and people within the media.
MATTHEWS: But, David Corn, you skeptic. He came to us today.
CORN: I know, which is what he`s trying to do.
MATTHEWS: He came --
CORN: He`s trying to rally people behind this vision that he`s been
promoting for a couple of years.
FINEMAN: By the way, he did it the end here, today, Chris -- not by
defending specifics, but by explaining why he`s in the game to begin with.
And I don`t know about you, he`s a professor, I don`t know about what the
kids at A.U. think, but I thought at least at the end, it was extremely
MATTHEWS: Yes, when he said, you can go make money or do something
else beside s politics and you don`t have to be poked apart (ph) like I am.
FINEMAN: And, by the way, he didn`t oversell the politics thing.
FINEMAN: That`s one way to serve.
CORN: Lots of good options out there, right.
MATTHEWS: It sounds like he might have been talking to his daughters.
Anyway, thank you, Joy Reid. Thank you, Howard Fineman and David
And that`s HARDBALL for now. And I want to thank everyone for being
with us tonight here.
And thank you, President Obama, of course for being our guest on the
HARDBALL college tour. And also to the American University for hosting us.
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'Hardball with Chris Matthews' for Thursday, December 5th, 2013