Critic's Notebook: President Obama Continues Greatest-Hits Tour, Reflects on His Legacy in '60 Minutes' Interview

Screengrab/Courtesy of CBS News

The 44th president of the United States talks about his successes, failures and the "unusual" transition.

If Donald Trump was watching Barack Obama being interviewed on 60 Minutes, he must have been startled by one shocking revelation in particular: The First Family, it seems, has to pay for its own toilet paper, and all the other staples, while residing in the White House, even receiving a grocery bill every month. You can bet that will be one of the first changes Trump makes when he and Melania settle into their new, part-time residence.

Obama has been on a greatest-hits tour of late, making appearances on numerous television shows and delivering his farewell address in Chicago earlier in the week. It’s hard to blame him for seeking a bit of attention during his last days in office, considering how hard it must be to compete with Trump’s tweets.

The broadcast featured clips from previous interviews from throughout Obama’s presidency, which served as an effective visual primer of the physical toll the office takes on its inhabitants. With what Trump looks like now, it’s downright terrifying to imagine his future appearance should he serve two terms. On the other hand, it’s not like he’s going to let the job keep him up nights.

Early in the interview, Obama pointed out that it helps to have “thick skin” if you’re in the Oval Office, and he’s certainly needed it the last eight years. Subjected to more partisan attacks than any president in modern history — if memory serves, no other commander-in-chief has had to endure heckling on the order of “You lie!” while delivering the State of the Union address — Obama has maintained an emotional equilibrium that, if it were more widely shared, would put shrinks out of business. Even now — for a president whose political legacy is imminently threatened with oblivion — he’s in remarkably good spirits.

But his cool facade cracked slightly at least one time during the interview, when Steve Kroft asked him about Syria.

“I want to go back to, like, 2012,” Kroft said, to which Obama, sensing where things were headed, wearily said, “Yeah.”

“Two words…’red line,’” Kroft continued, to which Obama, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else, again replied, “Yeah.”

“You didn’t have to say that,” Kroft pointed out. “Yeah,” Obama sighed. When Kroft pressed him further, Obama sighed again, before admitting that, when it came to how the utterance was interpreted, Kroft had a “legitimate point.”

As usual, Obama was thoughtful and reflective, and not bashful about touting his accomplishments in eight years.“By almost every measure, the country is significantly better off than when I came in,” he declared, but he also admitted that he “did not crack the code in terms of reducing…this partisan fever” and that “there were times during my presidency when I lost the PR battle.” More surprisingly, he gave props to the Tea Party, at least in political terms. “They made a difference in terms of moving the Republican Party and the country in a particular direction,” he commented. “It’s a direction I disagreed with, but it showed that, if you get involved, it has an impact.”

It didn’t take long for Kroft to bring up the elephant that would soon be in the room. “Donald Trump, if you take away the particulars, was elected to the office basically on the same program that you were, of change. He wants to change Washington,” Kroft offered.

“Well, I mean, that’s a lot of particulars you’re takin’ away!” Obama laughed.

“You have to admit, this is the strangest transition in history,” Kroft said.

Putting on his best poker face, Obama allowed, with his usual understatement, “It’s unusual, I’ll agree with that.” He went on to examine Trump’s appeal, displaying the diplomatic skills that are such a marked contrast to his successor. “He clearly was able to tap into a lot of grievances,” Obama pointed out. “And he has a talent for making a connection with his supporters that overrode some of the traditional benchmarks of how you’d run a campaign, or conduct yourself as a presidential candidate.” He added that he doubted that Trump would be able to effectively govern in the same fashion.   

Kroft asked Obama what he thought about Trump’s propensity for airing his petty grievances in tweets.

“You know, you’re going to have to talk to him,” Obama laughed. “First of all, I think everybody had to acknowledge, don’t underestimate the guy, because he’s going to be the 45th president of the United States.”

The discussion inevitably turned to Obama’s post-presidency plans, beginning with when he wakes up on the morning of Jan. 21.

“Well, I’m not setting my alarm, that I’m certain of,” Obama declared, saying that his family was fine with the idea of leaving the White House.

“They’re ready to go,” he said. “The girls…they are now of an age in which the constraints of Secret Service and all that stuff has gotten pretty old. Michelle never fully took to the scrutiny. I mean, she’s thrived as a first lady, but it’s not her preference.”

Referring to the strains that the presidency must have put on their marriage, Kroft asked solicitously, “But you’re still all right? I mean, everything’s OK?”

Husbands everywhere must have identified with Obama’s response.

“So far, as far as I know,” he said tentatively, before laughing. “I better check later. Yeah.”