AN EXCLUSIVE WHITE HOUSE INTERVIEW
A GLITCHY HEALTH CARE WEBSITE, EMBARRASSING SPYING REVELATIONS AND A 16-DAY GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN: AT THE END OF A DIFFICULT YEAR, THE PRESIDENT AND MRS. OBAMA SAY THEY ARE FOCUSED ON A BRIGHTER FUTURE – WHILE ALSO SAVORING FAMILY TIME
There’s no question 2013 saw critics of President Barack Obama out in force. But with his kids, Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12, in that inevitable teen phase of parental fault-finding, the President found some critics on the inside too. “Look, I’ve got three opinionated, strong, tall women, and if they get together, they can have fun about my ears or being too loud or how I dress,” the President confessed when he and Michelle Obama sat down with PEOPLE editor Larry Hackett and Washington, D.C., correspondent Sandra Sobieraj Westfall on Dec. 6. His wife added helpfully, “Last night I walked in and you said, ‘Why is everybody picking on me?’ ” If only the genial ribbing at home was the worst of it. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
When you look back – NSA spying, healthcare.gov and the shutdown – what have you learned about your management style ?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I would distinguish between most of the things you mentioned, which weren’t management issues, but rather had to do with the fact that the federal government is big – 2 million people – and at any given point there are going to be some problems that arise. The health care.gov issue, which is something that I was paying a lot of attention to, didn’t get done the way I wanted it. The government hasn’t transitioned into the 21st century on that front.
Did you try to log on yourself?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, absolutely. My experience was no different from everybody else’s, which was we couldn’t get on, and it was frustrating. The good news is now it works, although it’s still got some problems. My expectation is that next year when we sit down for this interview, there are going to be millions of people who have the security of health insurance for the first time.
With this autumn’s government shutdown, Ted Cruz and the Tea Party put front and center what partisan gridlock means. Do you see any path for getting past that?
THE PRESIDENT: That faction that would rather shut down the government than cooperate isn’t representative of Republicans around the country, much less Democrats or independents. You’re starting to see some Republicans in the Senate say, We’re kind of tired of just saying no to whatever the President is proposing. We saw the Senate pass immigration reform – that’s something I think we can get done. People are overwhelmingly supportive of increasing the minimum wage. A majority of Republicans think it’s a good idea as well.
This year also saw a debate about surveillance [by the National Security Agency]. How was it to call German chancellor Angela Merkel and tell her that her phone had been spied upon?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, it would be a little ironic if we were talking about Chancellor Merkel’s privacy and then I revealed to you [laughing] in PEOPLE exactly what I told her in a conversation.
But how did you feel about having to make that call?
THE PRESIDENT: I have been frustrated generally about both the Snowden disclosures but also some of the reporting around it. I want to emphasize that for people who live in America, the government is prohibited by law from listening to your phone calls or reading your e-mails without a warrant from a judge. Sometimes what we’ve seen and heard makes people feel like Big Brother is watching all the time, and that’s just not the case. What I said to Chancellor Merkel and to my own team is that because technology is changing so fast and the information is out there, we have to make sure that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we do do something.
You both visited families fasting for immigration reform.
MRS. OBAMA: I met a woman in the fasters’ tent who hadn’t seen her kids in about a decade. She was in tears at the thought that she is an economic engine here, and she hasn’t seen her kids. So this is about reunifying families. For me it was pretty impactful, because I’d just imagine how I would feel if I didn’t have access to my kids. It’s important to remember that immigration reform isn’t just about a bunch of folks in Washington.
Your girls are getting older. You’ve said Malia has a bit of a lawyer in her. How about a senator?
THE PRESIDENT: No. I would be surprised if they decided that they wanted to get involved in politics.
MRS. OBAMA: Malia talks about wanting to make sure that whatever she does – that if she earns fame or fortune or success – it’s based on something concrete that she does. But I don’t get a sense that they are that interested in the political process.
The teenage eye-rolling – does that happen in this household?
MRS. OBAMA: The last was Malia had friends over, and there was a question about whether she was going to even introduce them [to her dad], because sometimes he gets a little formal, asking them about school and interests. She says, “I don’t know if my friends can handle that.” But she said that you actually did quite well.
THE PRESIDENT: I acquitted myself well. I did not embarrass her. The truth is, we haven’t seen a lot of teenage acting out. The issue really is they’re just growing up fast and they’ve got a busy life of their own. You can project out over the next several years how, between school, sports, social life, their community service, they’re not around as much. So that gets me teary sometimes.
Which celebrities do they look up to?
MRS. OBAMA: They love Jay Z. They love Beyoncé. Sasha is still a One Direction fan, although I think Malia has become a little less into boy bands. But I don’t think they view these folks as role models. They’re not looking to them to define their character. I think they look to us for that still.
THE PRESIDENT: They’ve gotten to know Beyoncé, and she has always been very sweet to them. So they’re people that they think highly of. But I agree that if you’re talking about their values or career ideas, I think their mom has a little more influence over that than anybody else.
Any trends they’ve taught you about this year?
MRS. OBAMA: I still look to them when I have a big event, they still want to see me so that they can go, “How nice,” or “What about those earrings?” They have tons of opinions. And it’s a joy to hear them think out loud about life. They’re growing into really interesting individuals. We still have 6:30 dinner, even though they’re busy. We get a good conversation going, and that’s the best part of our days.
THE PRESIDENT: Technology is an area where they still help us old fogies out. [Laughter] You know, Instagram, Vine, those are all things that I first heard from them. Watching them gives you a sense of where the culture and technology are moving, and it actually ends up being useful to me when I’m talking about policy.
THE PRESIDENT: The Duck Dynasty family seems like a pretty fun bunch, so I can see how that would be pretty fun. Kanye’s music is outstanding, though. I’ve got a lot of his stuff on my iPad. If it was a concert, then I might not mind listening to him.
You’re really diplomatic. Looking ahead, what do you hope to do after you leave here?
THE PRESIDENT: We haven’t had a long conversation about it. I’ll be 55, so I’ll hopefully have a few more good years left, and Michelle will be much, much younger than that. Whatever we do, we’ll probably focus a lot on getting young people more opportunities. Figuring out ways that every child has a chance to fulfill their potential seems exciting.
MRS. OBAMA: I’m going to continue working with military families, working on health issues with kids and hopefully getting more kids to think seriously about their education. So our life after this will involve those issues and whatever else the world tells us we need to be focused on. Sometimes you don’t know until you’re there what’s needed.
THE PRESIDENT: In the meantime, we’ve still got a lot of work to do here.