Obama’s exit interview: I could’ve won again

Updated 6:10 PM EST, Tue December 27, 2016
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Arguing that Americans still subscribe to his vision of progressive change, President Barack Obama asserted in an interview recently he could have succeeded in this year’s election if he was eligible to run.

“I am confident in this vision because I’m confident that if I had run again and articulated it, I think I could’ve mobilized a majority of the American people to rally behind it,” Obama told his former senior adviser David Axelrod in an interview for the “The Axe Files” podcast, produced by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN.

“I know that in conversations that I’ve had with people around the country, even some people who disagreed with me, they would say the vision, the direction that you point towards is the right one,” Obama said in the interview, which aired Monday.

“In the wake of the election and Trump winning, a lot of people have suggested that somehow, it really was a fantasy,” Obama said of the hope-and-change vision he heralded in 2008. “What I would argue is, is that the culture actually did shift, that the majority does buy into the notion of a one America that is tolerant and diverse and open and full of energy and dynamism.”

Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton won a majority of the vote in the 2016 contest. Clinton beat Trump in the popular vote by almost 2.9 million ballots, though Trump won more electoral votes and thus the presidency.

In the 50-minute session, Obama repeated his suggestion Democrats had ignored entire segments of the voting population, leading to Donald Trump’s win. He implied that Hillary Clinton’s campaign hadn’t made a vocal enough argument directed toward Americans who haven’t felt the benefits of the economic recovery.

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

“If you think you’re winning, then you have a tendency, just like in sports, maybe to play it safer,” he said, adding later he believed Clinton “performed wonderfully under really tough circumstances” and was mistreated by the media.

Trump on Monday afternoon responded to the President’s assertion that he could have won a third term. Though the President-elect framed Obama’s comments as describing a head-to-head matchup between the pair, which Obama did not say in his interview with Axelrod.

“President Obama said that he thinks he would have won against me. He should say that but I say NO WAY! - jobs leaving, ISIS, OCare, etc.,” Trump tweeted.

Trump hit Obama again on Tuesday, tweeting, “President Obama campaigned hard (and personally) in the very important swing states, and lost. The voters wanted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

Trump and Obama have largely steered clear of direct criticism of each other since the election. They met in the White House two days after Election Day and according to both parties, have talked by phone several times since.

The podcast interview was Obama’s latest post-election analysis, which has focused on Democrats’ failure to convince non-urban voters and a media preoccupied with negative stories about Clinton. Obama said his party this year hadn’t made an emotional connection to voters in hard-hit communities, relying instead on policy points he said didn’t make enough of an impact.

“We’re not there on the ground communicating not only the dry policy aspects of this, but that we care about these communities, that we’re bleeding for these communities,” he said. “It means caring about local races, state boards or school boards and city councils and state legislative races and not thinking that somehow, just a great set of progressive policies that we present to the New York Times editorial board will win the day.”

Obama cited an unlikely model for future Democratic success: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who he said had executed an effective – if obstructionist – strategy.

“Mitch McConnell’s insight, just from a pure tactical perspective, was pretty smart and well executed, the degree of discipline that he was able to impose on his caucus was impressive. His insight was that we just have to say no to that,” Obama said.

He said part of his post-presidential strategy would be developing young Democratic leaders – including organizers, journalists and politicians – who could galvanize voters behind a progressive agenda. He won’t hesitate to weigh in on important political debates after he leaves office, he told Axelrod.

Following a period of introspection after he departs the White House, Obama said he would feel a responsibility as a citizen to voice his opinions on major issues gripping the country during Trump’s administration though he would not necessarily weigh in on day-to-day activities.

“At a certain point, you make room for new voices and fresh legs,” Obama said.

“That doesn’t mean that if a year from now, or a year-and-a-half from now, or two years from now, there is an issue of such moment, such import, that isn’t just a debate about a particular tax bill or, you know, a particular policy, but goes to some foundational issues about our democracy that I might not weigh in,” Obama went on. “You know, I’m still a citizen and that carries with it duties and obligations.”

Obama’s first acts out of office, however, will be lower-profile. He said he’ll focus on writing a book and self-analyzing his time in office. Obama and his family plan to live in Washington while his younger daughter finishes high school.

“I have to be quiet for a while. And I don’t mean politically, I mean internally. I have to still myself,” he said. “You have to get back in tune with your center and process what’s happened before you make a bunch of good decisions.”

As he concludes his term, Obama is growing sentimental about his time at the White House. He said he grew misty in a meeting of senior aides recently thinking about the end of the Obama era.

“I got through about four minutes of the thing and then started, you know, getting the hanky out,” Obama said. “It feels like the band is breaking up a little bit.”

For more of The Axe Files, go to http://podcast.cnn.com. To get “The Axe Files” podcast every week, subscribe at http://itunes.com/theaxefiles.