BAKER: President Obama came to office with this extraordinary level of expectation. The country was in crisis with the economic collapse. We still had two wars going on overseas. But we had just elected the first African American to office. And even people who had voted against him, even Republicans, even people like George W. Bush and John McCain who opposed him I think felt something about that moment and what it said about this country.
OBAMA: Americans sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states. We are and always will be the United States of America.
BAKER: But it was all downhill from there in the sense that you could never meet those expectations. Certainly he couldn’t in the way that he would have wanted. And so as he progressed trying to build a program and pull the country out of an economic abyss, he found himself becoming a much more polarizing figure than I think he ever thought he would be or wanted to be. He, I think, instinctively likes bring people together, but he was not able to do it in a country that wasn’t open to it and that perhaps didn’t have, as he has said, ‘I’m not a Lincoln.’ It was a tumultuous 8 years that he had, one full of crises, one full of progress in some areas, struggles in others. It’ll be one of the most dramatic chapters in history when people write the books years from now.
When it comes to domestic politics, it was very early on, just within the first month he passes a stimulus package that was very consequential for him, for the economy and for his politics because he does it without a single Republican vote. It has obviously some impact on the economy, not as much as he had hoped. It set the course going forward for a pretty polarized environment in which it was going to be tough slogging the entire way. And he was never able to bridge that divide. You know, he hoped to, but he was never able to do it. He and his people would say it’s Republican obstructionism. Republicans would say he never was genuinely reaching out. He didn’t really want our opinion. Either way it meant for the beginning of an 8 years of division and fighting the entire way.
Other pivotal moments: the Christmas bombing, would have been bombing in 2009 when the underwear bomber almost pulled down an aircraft over Detroit. That reshaped President Obama’s thinking about terrorism, really I think changed it from being a candidate to being a president. It meant that he kept going with things like surveillance. He kept some of the other Bush policies that he had inherited, and it soured, to some extent, some of his liberal supporters who thought he should have done more to undo that legacy. And then, you know, other key moments, I think the killing of Osama bin Laden.
OBAMA: The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children.
BAKER: A moment when the country finally purged this sort of final legacy of 9/11.
And I think the latter year, basically the election of Donald Trump which sort of crystallized this idea that we had not yet in fact put partisanship behind us, we had not in fact put race behind us, we had not in fact put a lot of the things that his presidency was supposed to tackle behind us. That there was a backlash there and people were unhappy with the way things had gone.
We saw him in Berlin at the same time President Trump was in Europe. And I think he doesn’t think much I think of President Trump or what he’s doing in office, but he’s trying to restrain himself and not be too outspoken. He thinks that would only backfire for Democrats, that it would galvanize President Trump’s supporters to have an enemy again, that would be President Obama.
OBAMA: Obviously some of the progress we made is now imperiled because there’s still a significant debate taking place in the United States.
BAKER: He’s bristling obviously. His health care program is being attacked. His legacy on environment is being attacked and on other areas. So it’s not been an easy time, but he’s still figuring out his path forward. We haven’t seen the end of him.