The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

Pete Rouse

Obama adviser

From the time Barack Obama became a U.S. Senator in 2005, Pete Rouse was among his most-trusted advisers. Obama has credited him with drafting the "strategic memo" that charted his two-year path from freshman senator to presidential candidate. In the White House, Rouse served as Obama's acting chief of staff from October 2010 until January 2011, and then stayed on as a senior counselor to the president until late 2013.

Rouse counseled Obama on many of the most consequential decisions of his presidency -- from how to rescue a sinking economy and pass healthcare reform, to the failed negotiations around a "grand bargain" on the budget with Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Rouse says that Obama "is disappointed that he's had as much partisan opposition as he has" and is "somewhat perplexed why he hasn't had more success." As he explains in the following interview, "I think he came in with a sincere belief that he could change things and make progress." But in the face of "united Republican opposition," says Rouse, "the campaign met reality."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk on June 13, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

... What are the stakes for the president as the administration begins its first few days in the administration? He's facing two wars and an imploding, cratering economy. He knows that he needs some kind of a stimulus package, and he's about to go up to Capitol Hill, and he has the fervent hope, presumably that he really believes, which is that he can get some bipartisanship going with the Republicans, who would have every reason to play in this game.

I think a couple things about that. One is I think that President Obama wasn't naive. He realized that there are some deep philosophical differences between the two parties. He was coming in with a stimulus approach here, a Keynesian approach, so to speak, which has not been in favor with the Republicans for some time. He was aware of that, and I think he was aware that he was going to have to negotiate with them and deal with them. I think it was a little bit of a surprise about how much resistance he did get to this, and that given the nature of the economic crisis and the problems we were facing--we were, as I recall, losing 740,000 jobs a month. The economy was on the verge of a second Great Depression; [the] financial system was on the verge of collapse, and I think that, as I recall, the economy was, on an annual basis, was climbing by 6 percent a year.

I think he felt going in that, while not being naive, that given the nature of these problems facing the country, they ought to be able to have a conversation about this and try to find some common ground.

... One of the great old saws about this is that as he's dancing at the inaugural balls, the Republicans are meeting at the Caucus Room having dinner on Frank Luntz and Newt Gingrich's tab talking about "just say no" to almost everything Obama is going to want to do. Did you guys know about that from the very beginning?

... It was pretty evident fairly early that there was going to be strong resistance to this. I think we knew that right away, and part of the calculus, therefore, was we did control the House and the Senate. I think we had 61 votes in the Senate at that time, which we obviously [lost] when Sen. [Ted] Kennedy tragically passed away and Scott Brown won. When we get the health care, that was even more difficult to try to get to 60. But I think there was a realization fairly early that this was going to have to be done with Democratic votes.

Strategically, were there conversations about what he could do? I mean, a lot of people now say wouldn't it have been great if he was a back slapper, if he had everybody over to the White House for steaks and beers, or whatever it was? Realistically, were you guys talking about what he could do and what you could do to break the logjam?

... There were those conversations. I also think that it's often discounted -- or at least underestimated -- what's the nature of the environment out there generally. And, for example, I remember at some point back when I was in the White House reading an analysis. Remember, this was a time of divided government and highly polarized electorate. And I believe there was an analysis, a political scientist analysis I read that said that in the House and the Senate, that polarization in 2010 was the highest it was since the Civil War, in the post-civil war era. And another statistic that --

Was that before the midterms?

That was before the midterms. I think that was after the stimulus and right around the time healthcare was being, in March of 2010 when it got through. But, even if you want to go back a little bit here, because I know you're talking about the stimulus back in 2009, the other fact was that in 1947, I believe, of what political scientists define as salient issues, issues that are not just your pro forma 90/10 votes or 95/5 votes, the salient issues that came before Congress in 1947, 30 percent ended in deadlock and stalemate. By the time of George W. Bush's time, it was over 70 percent. And that carried straight through I think into the Obama Administration ... a lot of people suggest that race played a role in this. I'm not going there on that. But even without that, you can see how polarized this environment was.

And I think the president, President Obama, felt that the nature of the problems were so severe and so significant and so consequential that he could find some way to work better with the Republicans in Congress to try to find some common ground.

... Let's go back now to the beginning of the Affordable Care Act in the early days. [Secretary of the Treasury] Tim Geithner talking to us said that he and [Director of the National Economic Council] Larry [Summers] were pushing pretty hard not to have health care get started. They really thought, focus yourself, focus the people, focus the Congress on the crisis; don't go after this right now. What was the counterargument by the president, and why in the end did he end up going forward?

Couple things. One is [President Obama] was well aware that we were trying to get health care reform in this country for over 100 years. I think it started with Teddy Roosevelt. It had been unsuccessful. I think he felt that if he ever was going to have an opportunity to accomplish this, he needed to do it at the beginning when he had his maximum political capital, and I think he just thought it was the right thing to do, and he felt he had an opportunity and he needed to seize it, and he was willing to take the political risk to take a shot at this.

I remember that [Director of the Office of Management and Budget] Peter [Orszag] and Larry and Tim, with some justification, you could make this argument, saying that we've got to address these economic issues first, the deficit, so forth and so on; we can't confuse it with health care, and we have to do that later. They made that strong argument, and they were in the majority. It was the president himself who I think, with his view of history and his understanding of what he wanted to accomplish and what the timing was on this, was the one that wanted to keep this alive.

He never said from day one, "We're doing this, no matter what." What he would argue when we had these conversations was: "I'm not willing to foreclose this option yet. I think we should keep this alive, and let's see how this goes and see where we can get with this." When we had discussions as early as February, where I think some of the deficit hawks wanted to shut this down and take it off the table, he was the one, the president was the one, that kept it alive.

It's interesting, because I know you talked to Tom Daschle earlier today, and this is the time when his brother was tragically ill with brain cancer, and I think this was still at the time when he was the nominee for secretary of HHS [Health and Human Services]. Daschle was arguing that we should go forward with health care, and there was a big meeting--I forget when it was, in February, March--I think it might have been February in the White House on a Friday, where they were going to have this discussion about health care and the economy and priorities, and Daschle was at Duke, where his brother was undergoing treatment. So nobody was really there to make the argument about health care. I was actually out of town that Friday, and I remember talking to Mark Childress--I don't know if you're going to talk to Mark or not.

We're going to try.

And Mark was doing health care with Daschle at the time. He was going to be Daschle's chief of staff if Daschle had succeeded and then confirmed. So I remember telling Mark, I said, "When this comes up, there's nobody else but you on Daschle's behalf to raise the issue about why we should not take this off the table." I remember after the fact, this did come up. Larry and Peter and whoever it was made the argument, Tim made the argument against going forward with health care. The president said something to the effect, "Does anybody want to give the other view?" So Mark raised his hand. Now, he's not even a member of the White House staff here, and he made the case for why it was premature to shut this down. He said he apologized, but Tom isn't here; he had to be someplace else on a personal matter.

I remember him telling me that there were people telling me that the president said, "Well, I think that's a good point, and I'm going to argue this side of the case." And he argued the case for why we should at least keep it alive. He was the one who kept us alive right into the summer, and I think it's been reported the famous meeting where--this was, I believe, after Scott Brown had won and upset Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, which threw the Senate numbers out of whack here in terms of trying to get this done, and an argument was made that we should go small and just do children's health care or something like that and declare victory and move on.

It was the president who said: "I'm not willing to do that yet. I'm not willing to say we're definitely going to go forward with this, but let's keep it alive here and see what happens." And then he gave the 1,000-watt Obama smile and said, "I'm feeling lucky today." And he's the one that kept it alive, and that's how we got to where we are today.

... The president's sitting in the Oval Office and on television every night, and everywhere this thing that's usually a benign recess where guys go home, guys and women go home to county fairs and stuff, are now screaming sessions in some places.

I can't speak for the president on this--I would never presume to speak for him--but I don't really remember all the conversations they have, but I do think my sense of this is that the charges made against health reform, like death panels, to many of us seemed so ridiculous and so absurd that we probably ... didn't take it as seriously soon enough, I would say.

Did you know that a match had been lit, maybe all the way? I mean, when we look at it, we look at Sarah Palin, for example, when [John] McCain picks Palin, and you think, wait a minute; she touched something none of us knew, none of us--maybe you guys knew; I didn't know--boom, boom, boom, boom, all the way down to summer of '09, and suddenly there it is; it's on fire.

Again, Ax [David Axelrod] and some others may have a different view on this--this is their area--but my view is I think we probably misread that and perhaps the way people are misreading Trump's attacks on political correctness today, which in some of the things that Donald Trump is saying in his race today strike me as being, how can people possibly get motivated by this? They're absurd. It's extreme, and he's gone way overboard in making any kind of a rational argument. And I think we sort of had that feeling back then, and by the fall, by the time it got past Labor Day, we realized we're behind the eight ball here. But I think at the time in that recess, probably not.

... Let's go back to the economy just for a moment. While the whole healthcare thing is happening, right after the summit, the bankers come to the White House, 13 bankers come. The bonuses have been announced the day before. The president is having to make a decision. Do I keep the economy solid? Am I nice to the bankers? Or do I -- as some people in the White House who say, we've talked to [David Axelrod] and others who said they were hunting for scalps. They were talking about nationalizing -- pick a bank and nationalizing it. Take me into that argument.

Well, I think the argument is the economic team, while sympathetic to the sort of populist sentiment out there that somebody ought to pay a price for what happened and how we got into this hole ... While they were aware of that, I think they made the argument that, A, economically this could end up being counterproductive, and B, it's probably unconstitutional.

... You had, on the other hand, a lot of the communications, political people worried about the president's popularity and his political capital saying, "The banking industry and banking executives ... ought to pay a price."

... We spent some time with Ken Lewis, the former head of Bank of America, and he said all the bankers went into that meeting very nervous. There was no coffee in front of them, they figured the president was going to come in and whack one of them, or all of them. And he does start with a kind of come to Jesus speech, but then he turns. Are you surprised that he turned to say, "All right, now guys, fellas, we got to get together on this. We're all in this together."

No, because two things. One is, again, I think he is a left of center pragmatic guy and what he was trying to do was get out of this economic hole, which he thought was obviously the most important priority. And he was present for a lot of these debates among his staff about whether we should limit compensation or not. Coming from Congress, Democrats in Congress, how we should limit it.

And the one thing I will say about President Obama is ... he may be the smartest person I've ever met, and he has an amazing temperament under pressure to dispassionately analyze arguments and then come to his own conclusion. And it was his decision ... He'd been through hours of those conversations. And I'm sure he knew exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it and what his strategic approach was going into that meeting with the bankers.

... We're now back in the fall of 2009, and almost on the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse, [the president] goes back to Wall Street, and he's got some stern words for these guys. But the fact is, as you've already alluded to, a lot of them don't even show up. The big names, the guys who have been saved, the banks who have been saved, they aren't even there. How do you think he felt? How did you all feel at the snubbing by the very guys you saved?

I certainly can't say what he feels. I'm never going to suggest what he might think about something, but I think it was disappointing, and I think it's also fast-forwarding to the global budget deal. I think there was a view that the business community, not just Wall Street, but the business community, while they felt that more than it appears that it was on the Republican reluctance to make the concessions, comparable concessions to what the president was willing to make to get this global deal, they were never willing to step up and say that. They were never willing to step up and be forceful with Republican leadership and tell us: "Basically, you're right, but there's nothing we can do. The Republicans won't listen to us." I think this is just a continuation of the same thing.

What do you chalk it up to, Pete? What's that about?

I think it's their own politics. I think it's their politics. The one thing I will say that I've heard people, businessmen complain about, and I think there's some justification for that, [is] they felt that during these debates about economic recovery that the president's rhetoric was too hot, saying that they were fat cats or challenging their motives, so forth and so on, although I will say that, as you know, I was 10 years with Tom Daschle in the leadership, and Sen. Daschle said things that were similar and never got the same vitriolic response from the business community or Wall Street.

But I do think our rhetoric early, our rhetoric in maybe the campaign, but certainly in 2009, some of it anyway, hit a chord that we never came back from.

It's Christmastime. Scott Brown has won [in Massachusetts]. ... The president makes the hard decision to push through Affordable Care Act without the Republicans. As I say, you're a very experienced guy, both all the years with Daschle, understanding the way politics works in the country. What does it mean on such a big issue not to have some buy-in from some of the Republicans, and what was the argument in front of the president about the risks of pushing it through for other things on the agenda?

Well, I'm not sure there was a whole lot of conversation about this. You're talking now, we're in 2010 now, early 2010.

Early 2010, correct.

I think the view is we're so far down the road and that close to doing it that the president's view of this [is] we just need to get this done, and we can come back and revisit it. I think the basic view in the White House was it's evident that nothing, nothing can be done to get Republicans to support the Affordable Care Act. We've gone as far as we can go to try to entice [them]--drop the public option, for example, which caused a lot of heartburn on the left--and I don't think we felt we could go any further. And if we could get this done, let's get it done.

And a number of times afterward, how many times have they voted to repeal it? Fifty, 60 times, whatever. And the president has often said--he said privately and I think he said it publicly: "There's a number of criticisms the Republicans had that I agree with, that I'd like to change it. And if we could sit down and in good faith try to make this a better bill, there are some Republican ideas that I would"--I don't remember what they are offhand, but he would list them, that we could--but I think given the fact that they were so hell-bent on repealing it, it was just never practical to figure you could sit down with them and have a good-faith negotiation on approving the bill as opposed to repealing it again or gutting it.

In your own heart, based on your own experience, did you know that this could go very badly in terms of the agenda, that these guys--maybe you'd already made that calculation, and it sounds like he did, which is we're just going to have to tough it out now?

Maybe we underestimated a little bit how much the wagon would bear here, and maybe, probably--but I think that in the president's mind, I do agree with him on this--that we got this close to achieving something that we couldn't get done for 100 years, and if we didn't get it done now and get it off of the line, who knows when you'd ever get another shot at this? It was so important, and the president believes it, and I think the history has shown this, that it was important actually for the economy as well to pass this Affordable Care Act even in the form that it was eventually passed.

I think the view was maybe there was a little bit of blinders on; that we're this far, we need to drive this through.

... Daschle said that he thought President Obama had believed that maybe [John] Boehner could be a partner, somebody he could talk to about this, but that at some moment he realized Boehner doesn't have any control over his caucus. He can't deliver any of the things even he wants to deliver.

... Where you really saw that was when we were negotiating in the spring of 2011 about a global budget deal. As I recall, the president and Boehner had general agreement on $800 billion in tax increase or whatever, and then the Gang of Six wanted to go higher or something. The president talked to Boehner about "We could tweak it on this side, and can we get to 400 more? We'll tweak it on the other side here for you guys," and Boehner said, "Well, let me take it back to a caucus."

Went back to his caucus, and this was the famous time when he wouldn't return Obama's calls and people for 18 hours, whatever it was, and people were wondering how can the speaker of the House not return the president of the United States' calls, no matter what the situation may be?

But what really happened--what I recall happened here is when Boehner came back and said, if he had just come back and said, "I can't sell this," that would be one thing. But ... rather than coming back and saying, "I can't sell this," Boehner went out to the press and said, "Obama moved the goalposts on me," which to me was a liberal interpretation of what happened here. And if Boehner had come back, "I just can't sell this," I think they could have kept on working on this, but I think there was a signal right there that he was on such shaky [ground]--and this was when Cantor was nipping at his heels as well, at the time, of Boehner, when there's all the speculation about whether Boehner, would he even run again, and ... was there a deal for Cantor to take over, whatever, that I think that was sort of a sign that he wasn't in total control.

I recall back to our Senate days when Daschle was leader with--Bob Dole was the Republican leader when we first came in, and then Trent Lott and then Bill Frist. Certainly Dole was an experienced person, would never get himself in that position. But even Trent Lott, who had a very good working relationship with Daschle, would often go back to his caucus. He'd say, "I'll go back and sell this to my caucus." When he couldn't, he would always come back to Daschle and say: "I just can't sell it. I'm sorry. I thought I could, but I can't." And then they'd keep that inside closed doors and see what they could do next. That didn't happen in this case.

Because Boehner just couldn't do it?

Well, he couldn't do it, but why he felt compelled to go out and blame Obama and say, "Obama moved the goalposts," which was really, to me, he was speaking to his own caucus: "Look, I didn't mean it. It was Obama that is the culprit here." Now, I know there's other views of this. [Boehner's Chief of Staff] Barry Jackson has a different view of this, and Barry's a good friend of mine, and I work well with him, and I still do today. So it depends on, I guess, which side of the street you're on. But to me, my recollection of this is that he should not have--I would have said, if he was serious, the speaker should not have gone out publicly to a press conference and say, "Obama moved the goalposts." He just should have come back and said, "I can't do it."

... We're heading into the 2012 election, which is Obama--by now, the Grand Bargain has failed. They've had those kind of dueling, weird press conferences.

There are a number of people, and I think I'm in this camp, that think we tried too hard to get the Grand Bargain pre-2012. I remember there was a conference. [Obama's Chief of Staff] Bill Daley was part of it, [Director of Office of Management and Budget] Jack Lew, myself, [White House Director of Legislative Affairs] Rob Nabors, others, where we would say--again, the dates are fuzzy to me--but we'd say, "Well, if we don't get this thing nailed down by Saturday, it's over." Saturday would come, and we'd try again on Monday. It went on for a week or two longer, and maybe the president wanted this just too much. I think that view of this Grand Bargain was that--I think what the president saw, and there was some risk at him to do this prior to the 2012 election, but I think he thought if he could get a global budget deal done, that would sort of lay the foundation, and if he was re-elected, when he was re-elected, that there'd be a foundation set so there could be some serious negotiation on investments and things. I don't think he felt necessarily that the Republicans were going to agree to immigration reform or climate change or whatever, but I think he did think that if we could get that foundation, we could do some investments in infrastructure, maybe early childhood education, other priorities, and have some break here.

I remember in the summer of 2012, four or five months out--it was before the Charlotte convention, but certainly before the election--I remember talking someplace with the president. We were just sitting there, and he was just in a quiet moment and said that: "You know, this election's still competitive. It could go either way. I think I'm going to win, but it's a single-digit election here. It's my hope that when we get through that, regardless of who wins, whether it's Romney or myself, that the partisan fever will break." And he said: "I think I'm going to win, and in that case, I've gone on the ballot again, and they've got me for four more years. Maybe we can then conclude a global budget deal and lay the foundation for getting some stuff done together for the next four years." It didn't happen, but I know he was thinking that in the summer of 2012.

... But even larger than just the global budget deal, it's the "We're not red states; we're not blue states; we're the United States." He still has that inside his aspiration?

I think so, yeah. And when you get after the 2012 election, he wins 332 electoral votes. He gets over 50 percent of the popular vote--I believe this is right; you'll have to check it. But I believe only Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt have gotten over 50 percent of the popular vote two elections in a row; that is to say, 332 electoral votes, I think he honestly felt: "OK, I've won. I'm here for four more years. I'm not running again, I'm not on the ballot, and hopefully we can sit down here and find some common ground to move forward."

... 2013 is a bad year for the president of the United States. Lots of really bad stuff; guns, immigration, now Obamacare--the website rollout is going to happen in the fall, and Ted Cruz is all over it. What do you guys think of Cruz when he's coming? Do you know the effect a guy like this can have? You by now know there's a Tea Party out there, and you by now know that there's a lot of--that everything's locked up, and now it's Ted Cruz.

I think, too, and certainly as you talk here, there's a theme emerging that I hadn't really thought about, and maybe we were a step slow on a lot of these things. I think our view at this point after the election was on repeal of Obamacare. This has been asked and answered. How many times are you going to try to do this? If you had won in 2012, if the Republicans had won in 2012, then might have been a different result. But this is over.

Then he comes out here, and I think there was probably, I wouldn't say a lack of seriousness, of taking him seriously, but I think maybe we didn't pick up on it as quickly as we could, although I know he used us for the government shutdown, but he would have used something else if it wasn't this. So I think Obamacare itself is not the issue here. This is Cruz's formula, you know, Sen. Cruz's formula.

What's the formula?

The formula was to burn it all down, and he's out here calling--having worked for the Senate Democratic leader for 10 years, I can't imagine ... anybody, never mind one of your own caucus members, calling Tom Daschle a liar, calling his leader a liar, which is what he did, Sen. Cruz did, to Sen. [Mitch] McConnell. Clearly his formula was he was going to--it's a precursor, I guess, of what Donald Trump is tapping into now, this frustration out there about the dysfunction of Washington: Everybody's the same; I'm the one person that's here that's telling it like it is and is not willing to play the traditional Washington game.

I think there's probably a reason why people say--I don't know Sen. Cruz; I don't think I've ever met him. I know he's reputed to be an extraordinarily intelligent guy. I'm not even going to impugn his motives or anything, but I think he clearly didn't care whether he was popular in his caucus or in the Senate.

... On the day that Obamacare is supposed to get started, boom, the website crashes. How devastating, how weird, how everything?

I think what happened there, too, is--and we bear some responsibility for this, obviously, but I think what happened was the president was concerned about this, and I think you're in a situation where this [are] the technical computer people. He would ask the question to Secretary [of Health and Human Services Kathleen] Sebelius and to Denis McDonough, who was the chief of staff, and to our health care team, "Is this going to be OK?" And I think they were relying on technical people, too, and they were saying: "We're told it's going to be fine. It's close; it's tough; it's tight. But we're going to be fine." It wasn't that the president didn't ask the question; he asked the question a number of times.

Then when it turned out not to be OK, I'll give Denis McDonough tremendous credit--he'd only been in the job I think six months or so--and he basically personally took on that after the thing crashed and the disaster that it was, just force this thing back into a good place and ... had to approve every detail and double-check everything and so forth and so on.

... But I think we were caught by surprise basically in large part because the technical people were telling us it was going to be OK, and it wasn't.

... The president finally resorts to, decides to, start to use executive orders to cause a lot of stuff to happen that was on the agenda that just clearly wasn't going to move. He's not the first president to do this. In fact, he's the president that's done it the least in lots of ways, and he's waited as long as possible to do it. There must have been people almost all the way along the road saying to him: "You could just order this. You're president of the United States."

We were talking about this back on immigration, back in the--whenever it was, well before the 2012 election, how far he could go. There were people saying he should invoke the 14th Amendment on default, which--but I think there's two things. One is that the legal people, that he's a smart legal mind himself. Obviously, he's a former constitutional law professor, and he would constantly say: "How far can we actually go that's defensible, a? And b, remember this is not the best option, because it could always be overturned at the court. It's going to be challenged; it can be delayed; it can be overturned." Look what's going on now with the "clean coal" rule, the Clean Power [Plan]. With the unfortunate passing of Judge [Antonin] Scalia, the 4-4, that thing is still on hold now.

Look how close it was on the Affordable Care Act, even though that was a legislative thing. But I think he was always--reminds [us], this is not the panacea because, a, you could only go so far, and b, there's no guarantees that this won't be overruled, and it's going to be challenged in court. Won't be overruled. It's much preferable if we can try to get some kind of consensus, legislative consensus to pass. So I think he always viewed it as [being] conflicted on it. On the one hand, he wanted to move stuff forward and get stuff done, and this was a way to do it given the intransigence he saw among Republicans in Congress. On the other hand, I think he also felt, "Well, if I could just get this done legislatively, that's better long-term."

What does it say about how divided Washington is, that this is what he has to do even in the face of the difficulties that may lie on the back end? My question to you is, especially as you look at the Scalia moment, which is kind of weird and embarrassing and what can he do? How broken is it? How broken is Washington right now?

I think it's a lot different than it was even 10, 15 years ago, and I think there's a variety of reasons for this that we talked about before. Besides deep philosophical differences between the two parties, and sometimes it feels to me like people don't talk enough about that, because there are legitimate differences here that people feel strongly about--and I'm not impugning a lot of Republican motives; they have a different view, and they feel strongly about it. So there's that. There's what we talked about, the reapportionment, the gerrymandering. There's the money and politics, so forth and so on.

But there's a change in the media. I was just talking to somebody recently that Bill Clinton just, what, 20 years ago, 15 years ago, didn't have to deal with the fragmentation of the media and the social media the way we're dealing with today, and maybe we didn't adjust some of the stuff that you've been talking about here, about how we reacted to health care and so forth and so on.

Maybe we didn't react as well as we might have to some of this new reality. But I think this is something we're living with right now in that this hopefully, presumably, moved in cycles that at some point we're going to go back to where there's more cooperation, cohesiveness than there was in the past. You wonder if that could happen with Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, between Clinton and Trump, because this looks like a continuation of the same kind of dynamic.

I don't know if this is a non sequitur or not, but what I always say to people is that back when Daschle was leader and George W. Bush was president, and I remember when we were--a year and a half when he was majority leader, when Sen. [Jim] Jeffords switched parties, and we had a 50/50 Senate. Sen. Lott and Sen. Daschle negotiated the terms of a 50/50 Senate in three days. They found an agreement; then they went back to each of their own caucuses. I saw Trent Lott here recently, and we were reminiscing about that, and he said, "You don't realize how hard it was for me to sell this to my caucus." And I said, "Oh, yes, I do, and I give you all the credit in the world for it." And Daschle had to go back and sell his caucus on it as well, but they did it.

Do we really think that [Sen. Harry] Reid and Sen. McConnell, both of whom--I believe both of them are dedicated senators and public servants--could they have negotiated that today? I don't know. I kind of doubt it. It's a different time. And back in those days, when the Republicans push was President Bush and Republicans controlled Congress, Daschle was the highest ranking Democrat. Remember, they called him Daschle Democrat and so forth and so on, but they were still able to get some stuff done here and after 9/11 and so forth and so on.

Hopefully, we'll start to go back. I'm not sure, given the choice we have here now, the polarization between Donald Trump and what he's saying and the feeling about Secretary Clinton, can we get there after this election? I hope so, particularly if Sen. Clinton is the president. But at some point, and particularly if some of this Tea Party sentiment, Freedom Caucus is diminishing some, and again, some of that has to do with not necessarily that the House even goes Democratic again; it's that the heart, the great majority of the party in the House feel freed up to take some chances here and cut some deals.

... On immigration, what's the feel within the White House? It must have been positive, to some extent. The Senate passes it, and the Group of Eight succeeds. Then Boehner, the guy that he thought he could negotiate with at one point, is the guy that sort of pulls back and disagrees and will not go through with the Senate. Just give us the yin and yang of the feelings in the White House as immigration eventually goes down.

The president himself was very disappointed. Cecilia has devoted much of her professional career to trying to advance this priority among other things, Cecilia Muñoz, and has done a fabulous job on doing it. So I think there was a huge disappointment. I remember going back to the Senate when Obama came to the Senate January of 2005. He joined I guess it was six months in, but he joined with Kennedy, McCain and Sen. [Mel] Martinez (R-Fla.) to be four prime sponsors of the immigration reform bill. So he has a history of this going back to 2005, and I believe he said at the time it was one of the biggest civil rights issues of the decade here, is trying to get comprehensive immigration reform.

I think this has always been a big priority for him and has been an uphill slog. Obviously, it's been up and down for a long time, and I think he finally got to the point where it looked like we had a chance to get there. Then Rubio was onboard at this point and so forth and so on, and then for the thing to get close to the finish line and fall apart was very disappointing.

But at that point, with the Tea Party, the arrival of the Tea Party and so forth and so on, I don't know how you put it back together. Then particularly when you go the executive order route, you're not going to get it back together. I also think he was always, I suspect, that he's always been somewhat perplexed why the Republicans would see this in their own self-interest to try to get some kind of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. I think that was part of his strategic thinking, was "I'm really not necessarily doing them a favor, but this is in their interest, their political interest to try to find some common ground on this."

... OK, the executive action. Some people have written that he almost felt freed up. He had been fighting this battle for so long and not succeeding, and realizing at this point that bipartisanship, as far as the Congress was concerned, was a dead issue. So all of a sudden, he gets to the point of doing the executive actions. He's a lame duck, he's free to swing away.

... I do think that he did feel that he had a limited amount of time left, that it was clear that he wasn't going to get any ... major legislative initiatives passed ... At some point, I think he was saying, and thinking to himself, "Well, we really got hammered in the 2014 elections. I got two years left. If they're not going to move on some of this stuff, I'm going to do it myself because this is my last two years." So I think that played into it.

... When he's elected on that night and goes out in Grant Park, what did he think he was facing, and what did he think that he, the first black president, could accomplish? He'd had a meteoric rise, and he'd promised a lot about changing Washington. How much of that was rhetoric, and how much of that was something he believed he could accomplish?

I'm never going to speculate what's in the president's mind or what he's thinking, but I do think that he felt we were facing a huge crisis situation here on a number of fronts, cratering economy, two wars. And I think he felt that he was bringing a solution that he had the temperament, the team, the leadership ability to turn a lot of these things around and start building, as he used to say, a new foundation for the country.

And I would argue that he did to a certain extent. But what he did was he came here, and he, on this wave of hope, promising change, and ran head-on into entrenched institutions. Who he was, even before arguably, part of his inexperience, was not perhaps as entrenched as others, and perhaps he underestimated a little bit about his persuasiveness and his ability to convince established interests to embrace a lot of what he did.

I'm going to repeat the same old stuff I've been talking about here, but I think he came in with a sincere belief that he could change things and make progress. I don't think he was naive in the sense that he thought everything he was proposing in the campaign would happen in 60 days or 100 days or that he would get the health care reform bill that he wrote down on paper. But when you get in the real world and you're dealing with a united Republican opposition with a number of moderate Democrats who are worried about their next election and how this is going to affect them, this new media paradigm that you're trying to deal with, the social media, so forth and so on, the money and politics, I think the campaign met reality.

I remember back in the 2012 campaign, he was up in New Hampshire, I believe, at a fundraiser, and an African American woman stood up and started talking about how she had been a supporter of his from when he started running, and she was moved by the hope and the change he's bringing the country, and what's happened? You haven't delivered on what the hope and the change that you promised.

I remember him taking a deep breath and saying, among other things, that campaigning is poetry, and governing is prose. And I think that's what basically happened. We'll see. I think we'll look back, and history's going to treat him well. I could be wrong, but I think history will treat him well. I think he's had a lot more accomplishments than perhaps he gets credit for. But they're accomplishments in the real world, in a partisan world. So we'll see what happens.

There was a remarkable statement in the last State of the Union where he says he has one real regret, which was about bridging the partisan divide, and he goes to Springfield and also talks at length about his failure to do that. Do you remember those moments or have reactions to those?

Yeah, I think that's true. I think he's at heart an idealistic guy. He's a self-confident guy. And I think that he's not naive in that he expects everybody to do everything he's proposing, and I don't think that he thinks everything he's doing is necessarily absolutely the right thing--I mean, not the right thing, but there are other ways to do things that he's willing to talk about. But I think he is disappointed that he's had as much partisan opposition as he has, and I think he has been a little bit surprised about the commentary that if he had a better schmooze gene or if he had spent more time on this, he would have had a lot more progress.

I don't think he believes that's the case. I remember sitting in the Oval Office once with him--I can't remember when this was; I think it was during the budget debates; I could be wrong--but where he's saying: "It's frustrating to me when people say I'm not willing to reach out and to engage with my Republican colleagues. If they wanted me to come down and wash their cars, and it would help them be more open to some of my ideas, I'd do it today. I'd do it tonight."

So I think he's somewhat perplexed why he hasn't had more success. Maybe he should be more self-aware, but I'm not sure about that. I just think that he is who he is, and I think he's been the victim of the political environment in which we're living today.