Obama's Motivation

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    Coming of Age

    Sohale Siddiqi   His New York City roommate

    He met Obama at a New Year's Eve party in San Francisco, while Obama was attending Occidental College, and the two men later became roommates in New York. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    I was always on this team of, "You've got to make money; you've got to find a way to hit the big time," legally, of course. And he would say things which -- he would repeat things to me, crediting his grandmother. I think it was either "Find a better rat trap and build it," or "Find a niche and fill it," probably both. But he wasn't too interested in what I wanted to talk about, which is potential money-making schemes or the other interests of 20-year-olds.

    Why not? I mean, what was he interested in?

    I didn't probe. I didn't probe. It seemed to me he just -- I saw a transformation in the Barry I had met in Occidental. He got very serious and less lighthearted, and our conversations were more about serious things, and at that time and probably still, so I was not as deep as him. It seemed to me that he wanted to benefit the downtrodden. I would hear things like -- now we were living on East 94th Street, which at that time was like the borderline -- Harlem started at 96th. It's very different from the neighborhood looks like today.

    And [then there were] filthy streets, and [during the] school day with kids, Latinos and blacks mainly, hanging on the corners, you would see little exchanges and probably transactions, and that would set him off. He would start lecturing, like, "There is no reason that --" I can't remember his exact words, but it amounted to something like, "The most powerful, the wealthiest nation in the world, and this is what kids are doing on a school day," something to that effect, that there is no reason that should be happening. And he seemed very troubled by it. And I was bored by the conversation.

    So he would be lecturing you as you were walking down the street?

    This conversation, I think, was on our fire escape, which was our balcony outside his bedroom window. We would get some sunshine there. But yeah, this was something that troubled him; I knew that. And other than wanting to study and be serious, I didn't probe further or ask him for any more reasons. I mean, he stopped going out more and more. I was always trying to get him down to the corner bar, etc., and after some point I gave up, and I didn't ask him, "Why not?" anymore. It's the same thing.

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    Gerald Kellman   Hired Obama as a community organizer

    He is the community activist who gave Obama his first job in Chicago, organizing black neighborhoods to push for local change. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on July 24, 2008 for The Choice 2008

    So you sat down with him in a diner. Tell me where you meet, what your first thoughts are about him, what you think of him.

    Sure. Well, there's the surface impression, and then there's the more substantive impression. The surface impression was that he was personable. For 24 years old, he seemed relatively stable emotionally, fairly confident, neat and I'm not sure if I said personable, but he was personable. That's the superficial sort of impression.

    What was important for me was his motivation. I mean, the whole purpose of this interview for me was to ascertain his motivation, because we had not had good experiences with people who were as young as he was in organizing. They would burn out very quickly. The work was very, very frustrating. There was a lot of failure. And the fact that someone had been successful in previous endeavors, including in their academic career, was not necessarily a plus in terms of the organizing, because young people who have been successful would, for the first time in their life, encounter significant failure. And they would often unravel on us.

    And so I wanted to see whether his motivation made sense to me, and that he'd be able to withstand some of that stuff in the early stages of learning the work. And the way I needed to do that was to get as much of his story as possible. And the organizing itself was always based on a narrative, which gave Barack a good jump-start with the work, getting to know people's story and building a relationship with them around that story, and then challenging them to move out of that story, to change their life along with other people in the present.

    And so it was natural for me to try to pull Barack's story out of him. And I did. And based on that story, I was convinced that he had a good shot at doing the work.

    What I noticed about his story, that I responded to, were three things. First of all, Barack was, to my mind, an outsider. He had been a foreign kid. He'd been American growing up in a foreign country. He had traveled back in high school without his mom to Hawaii. Although he was biracial, he was certainly identified as someone who was black and African American. There were very few people like him in Hawaii. He had moved around a lot, and he just had the experience of being an outsider.

    And what he did with that, which attracted me, was he used that to identify with other people who were outsiders. And for the work we were doing, people were poor. People had faced racial discrimination. They're certainly outsiders. So Barack used his own experience of being an outsider -- although he had more opportunities, certainly, than the people we were working with -- to identify with other people.

    The other thing about the outsider piece is that he had a tendency, as people who feel that way, to step out of things, to be reflective, not just to get caught up in the action, but to step out and think about things. And he was reflective. So that was the first thing.

    The second thing is he was very idealistic. What Barack really wanted, I thought at the time, was to be a civil rights organizer. But he was 10 or 12 years too young for that. That was for those of us who were a little bit older. And this was the closest thing he could find. But he had been inspired by the civil rights movement and by Dr. King, in particular. That sort of inspiration, idealism, was particularly powerful for a young man who was half African and who was trying to figure out how to put the various pieces of his identity together. So there was that idealism.

    And finally -- and this is true of him today -- he was very hungry to learn. He really took the job to learn how to do this kind of grassroots work. And what he did in the interview, which is what I always would look for, is he sort of turned it around on me. I mean, in addition to my asking him a bunch of questions, he wouldn't let me get out of there without he asking me a bunch of questions. And I thought that was good. And his questions were really pointed toward what would he learn? You know, could we teach him anything? Was he going to be able to learn enough? And how would he survive financially? What were we going to pay him?

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    Valerie Jarrett   White House senior adviser

    A close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama from their early years together in Chicago, Jarrett is now a senior adviser to the president. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 20, 2012.

    Maybe you can also help us with the community organizing. Why was that important to him? What did he learn about himself and about power? Why was community organizing important?

    Well, remember that the community organizing that he did was around trying to help people who lost their jobs when the steel mills closed. So he really got into people's living rooms and kitchen tables, and he talked to them about their experiences. It gave him a deep appreciation of how hard it is on people to be unemployed through no fault of their own and what it did not just to the individual, but to the family.

    He was very frustrated by government and the role that government wasn't playing in the lives of these folks, and he saw himself as an advocate for those who couldn't advocate for themselves, but yet help them build a network where they could advocate.

    The voter registration work that he did, working with Catholic churches, same thing -- a sense of giving people this sense of empowerment through organizing. And I think it taught him how powerful ordinary people could [be] and how if they came together, they could do extraordinary things, and he observed that as a community organizer, and certainly it's what the theme of his campaign was in 2008: Together we are greater than we are as individuals.

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    Valerie Jarrett   White House senior adviser

    A close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama from their early years together in Chicago, Jarrett is now a senior adviser to the president. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 20, 2012.

    If there's one story about this man that you know, that you don't think people get, understand, that motivates him to a second term, what is it?

    Well, I'll tell you a story. The night that the health care passed, we had figured out that the votes were there, and I actually went home to watch on television. And the president's assistant called and said, "The president wants everybody to come back to the White House and watch it together," and that means everybody from the most junior staff person who worked on it to the vice president. So everyone was together and watched the vote, and then he invited everybody up to the Truman Balcony to celebrate. And this is about midnight, 1:30, 1:00 in the morning.

    As the crowd started to weed out -- and the president was so happy that night, he was just totally joyful and in a great mood -- I asked him, you know, "How does this night compare to election night?," because election night was a warm evening, obviously; everyone was out in Grant Park in Chicago and watching from around the world.

    And he looked at me and said: "Valerie, there's just no comparison. Election night was just about getting us to a night like this." So he has never been motivated by the political victory in itself. He has always used politics as a means to improve the quality of life for people. And the Affordable Care Act was so important to him because he knew how dramatically it would change the lives of so many Americans. You know, his mom died at a very early age, in her early 50s, and he wondered whether if she had been diagnosed earlier, might there have been a treatment, and even if there hadn't been one for her, for so many people who die early because they don't get adequate health care.

    Or he thought about Sasha when she was very young, she was very ill, and I remember talking to him when Sasha was in the hospital, and he says: "I can't breathe. It's so hard to breathe when your child is sick." Well, anyone who has had a sick child knows that feeling. So Sasha got well very quickly, and she received excellent care, but there are just so many young children who don't receive that care.

    So his life experiences are really what has really motivated him to work so hard. And it's not the politics; it's not the fact that he wants to be president. It's the fact that he wanted to dramatically improve our health-care system. That's what I think has made him such a great leader.

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    David Axelrod   Senior strategist, Obama 2012 campaign

    (Text only) He was a senior White House political adviser until 2011, when he left to serve as a senior strategist on Obama's re-election campaign. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 26, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Any points that we haven't talked about that you think is important to understand?

    ... I was the political guy in the White House. I was the keeper of the polling and all the data. I often say that what I like about Obama so much is that he listens to me so little, that he's willing to override what is in his own political interest to do what he thinks is right. And that ultimately is what he promised the American people in 2008. He said we had to look past the next election and think about the next generation.

    I've seen him do that time and again, whether it was on the auto bailout or on health care or on some of these very difficult national security issues. He's been able to put aside his own political interests and do what he thought was right for the country, and I'll always admire him for that. That's exactly what I think we should want in a president.

    ... What makes him like that?

    I don't know. The thing that always interested me about him, having spent a lifetime in and around politicians, is that so many of them live for the approbation of the crowd. And you know, his motivation is different. He's very secure. He's very centered. And he really is motivated by trying to solve problems and to respond to challenges out there, particularly ones that impact on people's lives and their security, where he can be helpful.

    And so he's a different -- and I don't whether it was Hawaii per se, or whether it was that he had in his grandparents and in his mom some sense that he was secure.

    I think so many in politics are just insecure, so they need that approbation. And it's good to be someone who understands that there are more important things even than winning elections. That's a perspective that too few in politics have, because if you don't have that perspective, then you're willing to stand for anything and do anything. And that will never be Barack Obama.



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