David Remnick: The Obama Tapes
On Robert Gates
“What I do believe is true, not just for Bob Gates and this National Security Council but for every national-security team in every modern White House, is that there is going to be some back and forth and give-and-take between Cabinet secretaries and White House staff. And the criteria that I imposed throughout my first term, and will continue to insist on in my second term, is: Are we getting it right? Even if it’s messy, even if sometimes folks are frustrated, even if the conversations get heated—in the end of the day, are we putting forward the best possible policies to secure this country, and protect our troops, and make sure that if we send them on a mission it’s the right mission and they’ve got the tools they need to succeed?
“And I think my understanding, at least, is that Robert Gates acknowledged that at the end of the day, in a very difficult circumstance, we made the right decisions and oftentimes ignored political expedience to do so. And that’s ultimately how I’m going to measure success, and, hopefully, how history measures success.
“The one thing—and I said this publicly, so you could probably get a transcript of this, when I was in a bilateral with the Spanish President—the one thing I did say, getting to my motivations or body language in some of these meetings, is that war should be hard for everybody involved, that you should be asking tough questions at all times—most of all, of yourself. And that, if you are not asking difficult questions of yourself and your team, then you can end up with bad policy that hurts the national interest and that, in my mind, is a betrayal of those young men and women who I’m putting in harm’s way.”
“There have been times where I’ve been constrained by the fact that I had two young daughters who I wanted to spend time with, and that I wasn’t in a position to work the social scene in Washington. But having said all that, on fundamental issues like getting Republicans to raise taxes or eliminate loopholes, or getting Democrats to consider reforms to entitlement programs, what matters is the makeup of their districts and their electorates, and I think probably, just from a purely political point of view, the bigger challenge that I’ve had has to do with the fact that there is a core group of Republican House members in particular who know that I lost their districts by twenty-five or thirty points, and that there is a Republican base of voters for whom compromise with me is a betrayal. And that—more than anything, I think—has been the challenge that I’ve needed to overcome. “Another way of putting it, I guess, is that the issue has been the inability of my message to penetrate the Republican base so that they feel persuaded that I’m not the caricature that you see on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh, but I’m somebody who is interested in solving problems
when it comes to Democrats, the truth of the matter is, with fairly thin margins over the last five years, what’s been remarkable is the degree to which Democrats have been unified and worked with this Administration to accomplish some big things, even when there were a lot of political risks involved. And I’d like to think that part of that is because the Democrats up on Capitol Hill that I have relationships with know that the things I’m fighting for are things they care deeply about, and that I have a genuine commitment to seeing them succeed. You haven’t seen me, I think, go out of my way to play against Democrats on the Hill. But I’ve tried to be supportive of them in every way that I can.”
On Foreign Policy
“My working premise, what I believe in my gut, is that America has been an enormous force for good in the world, and that if you look at the ledger and you say, What have we gotten right and what have we gotten wrong, on balance, we have helped to promote greater freedom and greater prosperity for more people, and been willing, as I think I said to you earlier, to advance causes even if they weren’t in our narrow self-interest in a way that you’ve never seen any dominant power do in the history of the world.
“And so, to apologize for certain historic events out of context, I think, wouldn’t be telling an accurate story. On the other hand, I do think that part of effective diplomacy, part of America maintaining its influence in a world in which we remain the one indispensable power, but in which you’ve got a much more multipolar environment, is for other people to know that we understand their stories as well, and that we can see how they have come to certain conclusions or understandings about their history, their economies, the conflicts they’ve suffered. Because, if they think we understand their frame of reference, then they’re more likely to listen to us and to work with us.