Full transcript: David Axelrod interviews President Barack Obama for The Axe Files

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA IS INTERVIEWED ON "THE AXE FILES" FROM CNN & THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO INSTITUTE OF POLITIC
SPEAKERS: PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
DAVID AXELROD, HOST

AXELROD (voiceover): I first met Barack Obama when he returned to Chicago from law school in the early '90s 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, as the new year approaches, the days are ticking down on the Obama administration, and so I went by the White House to sit down with my old friend and reflect on the road he's traveled.
AXELROD: So Mr. President, I actually came over to help you pack.
(LAUGHTER)
    But I really appreciate you dropping by. This is a great surprise to be able to sit down with you. You know, I was over at the Kennedy Center the other night...
    OBAMA: Yeah.
    AXELROD: ... for the Kennedy Center Awards, and when you walked in, there was this thunderous and lengthy ovation and lots of tears. And you know me, so you know that I was among those who were -- who was tearing up. But then I was thinking, what are you thinking? And has -- is it beginning to hit you that this is coming to an end?
    OBAMA: Well, let me make a couple points. Number one, you're the last guy I would have help me pack...
    (LAUGHTER)
    ... because lets face it, orderliness is not...
    AXELROD: I'd also be the last guy to offer to help, so...
    (LAUGHTER)
    OBAMA: So that's point number one. Point number two, they were applauding Michelle's dress, which was spectacular, even by her own standards.
    (LAUGHTER)
    AXELROD: OK. You're not gonna get away with that.
    OBAMA: I tell you, what has started to hit me is that the collection of unbelievable talent and vision and dedication in my team, the people I've 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 they're running huge operations and married and their babies are crawling on the floor of the Oval Office...
    AXELROD: Right.
    OBAMA: It's a family, and...
    AXELROD: All named Barack.
    (LAUGHTER)
    OBAMA: So far, nobody's named their kid Barack. I've been a little upset about that.
    But knowing that that phase is coming to an end -- they'll stay my friends for life. Some of them, I'll collaborate with, like you, on various things in the future. But to have them all in one place, to see how well they've worked together and gelled, it has been just an enormous privilege, and so I have been getting more sentimental about that.
    We had our senior staff dinner, you remember these...
    AXELROD: Yes.
    OBAMA: ... and I got...
    AXELROD: Yes. I heard you got a little verklempt.
    OBAMA: Yeah, I got through about four minutes of the thing and then started, you know, getting the hanky out and...
    AXELROD: Which you don't really do that much.
    OBAMA: I -- I -- it's a...
    AXELROD: You used to mock me for doing that.
    OBAMA: Well, it's interesting. There are two things that can get me teary. One is talking about my daughters or seeing my daughters and the second is my team. I mea,n you remember after 2012 when I went over to the campaign office and I saw all those kids who had been working so hard...
    AXELROD: Yeah...
    OBAMA: ... and it was the same kind of emotion that stirs up this deep gratitude for their devotion and I think an 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 lot of goodness and a lot of heart and idealism. And so that gets me choked up.
    AXELROD: Well if -- if they were here, what they would tell you is right back at you because you're the one who -- I mean, everything has been organized around your energy and your sensibilities.
    And you know, we talked about this when you -- when we talked about you running for president in 2006 and '07 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 it. And so...
    OBAMA: Look, the point is, it feels like the band is breaking up a little bit. And it really has been a team effort, it's been a really big band, a full orchestra.
    AXELROD: Yes.
    OBAMA: Horn section and all that. And one of the things that I tell people I appreciate is that -- that spark, that thing that we took a flyer on in 2007, 2008. You know, it didn't always manifest itself in the day to day grind of governing, but the truth is it's -- it never died out. And I would continue to see it every day in what happened here in the West Wing and the East Wing and the White House. 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. There were times where we were frustrated. There was gallows humor, but we -- 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 who are going to keep on doing stuff...
    AXELROD: Yeah.
    OBAMA: ... in the future. I don't think they come away from this feeling like government service doesn't work...
    AXELROD: Well...
    OBAMA: ... politics is terrible.
    AXELROD: The result of the election actually has stirred what I think is an encouraging reaction, which is this stuff matters, we can't walk away -- we can't walk away from it.
    Let me take you back because what I was thinking about last night as I was thinking about this conversation was how remarkable your personal journey has been. I -- I sort of got to jump on the train and we -- we had this trip together, but you know, when I think back to -- I always love that story about after you lost your congressional race by what, the narrow margin of 30 points or something...
    (LAUGHTER)
    OBAMA: That was a nail biter.
    AXELROD: But you...
    OBAMA: I think it was literally called like two minutes after the polls closed.
    AXELROD: Yeah. Well, that's good, you didn't have to waste the whole evening.
    OBAMA: No, but I had to rush to get to the hotel to concede.
    (LAUGHTER)
    I thought I was going to have half an hour. I had to put my tie on...
    AXELROD: But -- but tell the story about going to L.A. for the Democratic Convention and trying to rent a car.
    OBAMA: Yeah, this is...
    AXELROD: This was 16 years ago.
    OBAMA: Yeah, this was 16 years ago. So -- so, I just got thumped 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. It taught me a lot.
    But look, losing's never fun. The one thing I always explain to people is although, I -- I've -- I'm proud that I have tried to 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, this sense of rejection.
    AXELROD: Yeah.
    OBAMA: And so, you're already a little mopey about things, and as you know, David, because we're close friends, Michelle was never that wild about me going into politics.
    AXELROD: Right.
    OBAMA: I've got -- I've got two little kids, we're pretty broke, or at least at that point I had one little kid and one on the way. And a friend of mine says, "Look, you've got to get back on the horse. You're kind of down in the dumps. Why don't you go to the Democratic National Convention in L.A.? It'll cheer you up. You'll be among folks who are excited about politics and you can stay with me."
    And I said OK. You know, I'll go for the weekend. I fly out there on whatever connecting flight that was the cheapest and get to the rent-a-car place and present my credit card and the credit card's rejected. No more money. So...
    AXELROD: Aftermath of the campaign?
    OBAMA: Right. So I have to I think make a couple of calls to engineer somehow renting this car and I get to the hotel where my friend is ready to go and we go over to the convention and they give me the pass that is -- basically only allows you to be in the halls, like the ring around the auditorium.
    (LAUGHTER)
    Didn't actually allow you to see anything, but you could wander around and...
    AXELROD: This is four years before you gave the keynote speech...
    OBAMA: This is -- yes, and -- and I think they'd -- my friend would try to get me into some of the after parties after the convention and bouncers would be standing there saying, "Who's this guy?" And "He doesn't have the right credentials."
    AXELROD: So, this probably didn't have the cheering up effect...
    OBAMA: It didn't. I -- I felt as if I was a third wheel in this whole thing, so I ended up leaving early and...
    AXELROD: At least (inaudible) the car.
    (LAUGHTER)
    OBAMA: And I -- and that was a stage when I was really questioning whether I should continue in politics.
    AXELROD: Yeah. I was going to mention that because I remember when you called me in 2002 to say you were thinking of running for the Senate and you said, you know, I've talked to Michelle about this. I've got one race left in me, and if I don't win it...
    OBAMA: Up or out.
    AXELROD: ... then I'm going to go out and make a living and forget about this. So that's how close you came to being out of politics.
    OBAMA: Yeah, no, it was -- it was an interesting moment. And you know, since this is your podcast, I might as well give you a little credit. I think, in our conversation, you were initially and sensibly skeptical about...
    AXELROD: A black guy named...
    OBAMA: A black guy...
    AXELROD: ... Barack Hussein Obama getting elected to the Senate. Yeah, I was.
    OBAMA: 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 in a predominately black district, I had been beaten badly by a well-established African American politician, it was 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 gonna do great things, it's just it's not your turn yet. So what they told me was actually that I had strong support in the African American community, just not in this particular race.
    And 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 sizeable Irish population. And I did really well there...
    AXELROD: You did, yeah.
    OBAMA: ... and I connected well. And it -- it told me that in a big field, in the U.S. Senate race, that I might have a chance to win, so. But -- but it is...
    AXELROD: If you had won that congressional race, we wouldn't be sitting in the Roosevelt Room right now.
    OBAMA: No, we wouldn't. So things -- things work out.
    But -- but I do always think about the fact that in the 2000 convention, I couldn't basically get in the hall -- or I couldn't get into the -- on the floor and nobody knew my name. Four years later, I'm doing the keynote speech. And it wasn't as if I was so much smarter four years later than I had been in 2000, it speaks a little bit to the randomness of politics.
    And you know, part of the reasons that I think I've stayed sane in what has been this remarkable journey, and you've known me a long time and I think you'd confirm that I'm pretty much the same guy as I was when we started this thing. Part of the reason...
    AXELROD: A little grayer, but yeah.
    OBAMA: Part of the reason -- a little grayer, yes. But part of the reason for that I think is because, you know, success came late to me, notoriety came late. And it -- it made me realize that to the extent that I had been successful, it wasn't about me. It was about certain forces out there and -- and me hitching my wagon to a broader spirit and a broader set of trends and a broader set of traditions.
    And so, when -- when we came up with the phrase Yes, We Can, which again, to give you credit I was a little skeptical of, it felt a little simplistic when we first started. But...
    AXELROD: You didn't like the logo either, but that's -- that's a different discussion...
    (CROSSTALK)
    OBAMA: The logo I thought was a loser, it looked like the Pepsi logo and I thought...
    AXELROD: That's what you said, th