(CBS) — For eight years, CBS 2 Special Contributor Jay Levine has asked the White House for a one-on-one interview with President Barack Obama, the former Illinois lawmaker from Chicago who had a meteoric political rise in the early-2000s.
On Thursday, with Obama preparing to leave office after two terms, Levine was finally granted that request. During a nearly 10-minute interview, Levine asked the president about a range of topics, from the lessons he’s learned in office to Chicago’s crime epidemic to the state of race relations in the U.S. to Obama’s plans after office.
Here is a transcript of that interview.
JAY LEVINE: Couple quick ones to start. How have you changed in the eight years since you traded one residence on Greenwood (in Chicago) to another one here on Pennsylvania Avenue?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I’m a lot grayer, that’s for sure. You know, look, it’s interesting, most of my friends will tell you that I’m basically the same guy. I think that the reason for that is Michelle and the girls, who are my pride and joy and have kept me grounded, made sure I don’t take myself too seriously. They know I take my work seriously, but they don’t want me to take myself too seriously as a father or as a husband. I think the close friends that I’ve kept all these years have kept me grounded. There is no doubt that, as President, you have a bird’s eye view on the world. I’m wiser in some ways. I’m certainly more knowledgeable about a lot of problems. Interestingly enough, I’m actually more hopeful. I’ve seen real changes that make a difference in peoples’ lives. A lot of people focus on the things that are still troubling, like, for example, the kind of violence we are seeing in Chicago. But I have confidence in the American people and our ability over time to tackle any problem that’s out there as long as we are working together.
LEVINE: Do you take all of President-elect Trump’s criticism about violence in Chicago personally? After all, it’s got to be frustrating that the most powerful man in the free world cannot stop the violence in his hometown.
OBAMA: We all have a role to play. Obviously, most issues around crime and safety are local. I can’t send the Marines into Chicago. But it is heartbreaking to see that, for a variety of reasons, not all of which I think are fully understood, Chicago is the one big city where you’ve seen a big spike in the murder rate. Overall, during the course of my presidency, violent crime is much lower than it has been during my lifetime. It’s probably as low as it’s been in the last 50 years. Something’s happening in Chicago that is specific. It’s a combination, it appears, of the structure or lack of structure in the gangs; easy access to firearms; I think some tensions between the communities and police, and isolation for communities that are poor and underserved. My hope in addition to the work we’ve done as president — I’ve assigned the Justice Department to work with directly with the Mayor’s Office and the Police Departments there to come up with better solutions, best practices — my hope is that as a private citizen, who’s still got a home in Chicago, that I’ll be able to contribute. The Presidential Center that I have there, hopefully, will be able to contribute to some ways of reversing what has been really a troubling trend.
LEVINE: You talk about tensions between people and police. Among the many accomplishments you’ve had, the one that has been frustrating I’m sure to you is race relations. They’ve gotten worse, especially in Chicago: Laquan McDonald, two recent racially motivated attacks, one this week caught on Facebook Live. That’s got to be terribly disappointing to you, of all the things you wanted to do with race relations.
OBAMA: Jay, here’s how I think about it. I don’t think it’s accurate to say race relations have gotten worse. Listen, I came to Chicago in ‘85, you were there during ‘Council Wars.’ I promise you race relations haven’t gotten worse. What is true is that, in part, because we see visuals of racial tension, violence, and so forth because of smart phones and Internet and the media, what we’ve seen is surfacing, I think, are a lot of the problems that have been there a long time. Whether it’s tensions between police and communities, whether it’s hate crimes of the despicable sort that has just now recently surfaced on Facebook, I take these things very seriously. The good news is that the next generation that’s coming behind us, you see have, I think, have smarter, better, more thoughtful attitudes around race. I think the overall trajectory of race relations in this country is actually very positive. My own election, obviously, is some proof of that. It doesn’t mean that all racial problems have gone away. It means we have the capacity to get better over time, and I think that will continue.
LEVINE: Was Chicago integral to your success? Could it have happened anywhere else, the Obama success story?
OBAMA: No, and the reason is because I came of age, I understood my mission when I moved to Chicago. I was a young community organizer out there. I never claimed that I was wildly successful in bringing about the kind of changes I wanted in some really tough neighborhoods. But I met such wonderful people. I was able to establish a sense of community. I understood what I wanted to devote my life to, and that was giving people a chance to empower themselves to make their lives and their children’s lives better. Everything that I have done subsequently — all the way through my presidency — was a direct outgrowth of what I learned in Chicago. I always say Chicago’s got challenges, but it really is really a microcosm of the country. There is no city is some ways that is more representative of both the difficulties, but more importantly, the promise of America.
LEVINE: I’m getting a wrap (signal) here. Will you go home again? Will your principle residence be in Chicago going forward after Sasha graduates from high school?
OBAMA: Michelle is the one who ultimately makes that decision. As she points out, she’s been dragged around on a whole bunch of wild adventures. She pretty much gets veto power here on out. Here’s what I know, is our Presidential Center will be there. I will be investing a huge amount of effort and time and energy to making that a world-class center in a world-class city to help train the next generation of leaders to bring about social change. I think it will have a real positive impact in the communities around Chicago and a real economic benefit to the city. So, I will always be a citizen of Chicago. Right now, we’ve still got a house in Chicago in Hyde Park that I look forward to spending more time in.