How a senior Obama adviser views his record

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U.S. President Barack Obama talks with his advisor Valerie Jarrett upon his arrival back at the White House in Washington March 30, 2016.REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RTSCWA2

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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we continue our look at the Obama years.

Today, the president had a surprise parting gift for Joe Biden. He presented the vice president with the highest award a civilian can receive: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Behind the scenes, Joe’s candid, honest counsel has made me a better president and a better commander in chief.

From the Situation Room, to our weekly lunches, to our huddles after, when everybody else has cleared out of the room, he has been unafraid to give it to me straight, even if we disagree, in fact, especially when we disagree.

And all of this makes him, I believe, the finest vice president we have ever seen. And I also think he has been a lion of American history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another person who has been by the president’s side for the entire ride is his senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett.

We sat down at the White House earlier today, and I began by asking what it will feel like to walk away after eight years.

VALERIE JARRETT, Senior Adviser to President Obama: Oh, my gosh.

Well, there’s an enormous amount of emotion. First of all, it’s been the privilege of a lifetime to be able to serve our country from the White House, to serve this president, who I have now known for 26 years. And it’s hard to leave. But it’s fine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re turning the White House over to someone who has said he wants to undo, dismantle most of what happened during the Obama administration.

Just last night, the United States Senate took another step toward repeal of Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. There was a budget vote, which is going to lead to other steps, which will lead to repeal.

Just yesterday, the president-elect called Obamacare a complete and total disaster.

VALERIE JARRETT: I would really look at the Affordable Care Act through the lens of the many, many people across our country who I have had the privilege of meeting, many of who wouldn’t be here were it not for the Affordable Care Act.

And so I think it’s very easy to say repeal and replace, but we have been encouraging the Republicans, since the president first started embarking on this effort, to put in place a plan for affordable care to come up with their best ideas.

And they have had, what, 50, 60 votes to repeal, and not a single replacement plan. So…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, they say that’s what they’re going to do. They’re going to get rid of what’s there now and replace it with something much better.

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, what’s the something much better? That’s my question. That’s the question the president has been asking for eight years right now.

So, if there is a something better, let’s hear it. What’s the secret? As he said last week when we had an event focusing just on the Affordable Care Act, show me. Show us all the plan. You have had eight years to come up with a replacement. Where is it?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there any other piece of the Obama legacy, whether it’s immigration, whether it’s the executive orders that the president implemented, any other issue or step taken that you think stands a good chance of surviving under the Trump administration?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, you mentioned immigration.

And, obviously, the president granted relief to the young people who entered our country through no fault of their own, who have grown up as American citizens, and who he thinks have a right to stay here. And we would hope that they would allow that to move forward.

I think campaigns are one thing. And let’s just see what happens after the president-elect takes office and the realities of the plight of so many people around our country really begin to sink in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama has said he doesn’t view the election result as a personal repudiation, but how is it not, when he campaigned around the country saying, this is about what I have done, this is about my work?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, he wasn’t actually on the ballot.

And we did learn is that his popularity, which is at a high, wasn’t transferable. And, obviously, that’s disappointing to him. He and the first lady worked really hard to help Secretary Clinton win, and they were not successful in that event.

But I don’t think that that really reflects a repudiation. There is so much about what’s happened over the last eight years that I think has the support of the American people, that I think it will be harder than it looks to reverse that progress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president has said that he believes race relations in America are better than when he took office. There’s clearly some debate about that. Some don’t agree.

How do you see that?

VALERIE JARRETT: I think what the president said is race relations are better when you look at the arc of our history, that we have constantly been making improvements.

What we have seen since he was elected is, thanks to the video camera, a lot more evidence of tensions that still exist. Those tensions were there before we had a video camera. We just didn’t see them on the news and in the social media the way we are today. But it takes time to change our culture, and it’s a work in progress.

And simply by electing an African-American president doesn’t suddenly make our election post-racial.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In his farewell address this week in Chicago — you were there — the president talked about threats to American democracy now.

Is he referring to Donald Trump?

VALERIE JARRETT: No, I think what he is saying is, look, in order for us to make our country as strong as it has to be, the founding fathers understood that democracy means we have to all participate in it.

Those self-evident principles of life and liberty, pursuit of happiness, they’re not self-executing. They require each of us to get engaged. And what he is really concerned about is to ensure that the American people appreciate their power to influence the democracy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president is leaving office with a high approval rating, over 50 percent. He’s getting credit from many quarters.

But there is also criticism out there, including from Democrats, that he didn’t do enough to reach out to members of Congress to get his agenda accomplished, that he should have done more, gone the extra mile.

Is that a fair criticism?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, you know, Judy, I have been here since day one, January 20 of 2009. And I have watched how hard the president has worked.

I have watched how every single day, he comes to the office focused on one thing, and that’s what’s in the best interest of the American people. He has rolled up his sleeves. He’s worked as hard as I have ever seen a president work.

And that includes his outreach the members of Congress. So, should we have done more? Well, of course, you always wish you could do more. The work is never finished. But I think he’s proud of his record.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have been at moments critical of Republicans for not attending state dinners, for not participating in some of the events that they were invited to by this White House, for not engaging more in the other direction.

Right now, the Democrats are on the outs. Should they engage?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, I think they will.

I mean, I think part of what we have learned certainly over the course of the last eight years is, if the Republicans had engaged, even though we’re very proud of the progress we have made, we would be so much further.

And what I observed in my criticism really, Judy, was much deeper than whether or not they attend a state dinner, although I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to come and represent our country when we are inviting foreign dignitaries here.

But the real point is, they put their short-term political interests ahead of what was best for our country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Vice President Biden said the other day, when I spoke with him, he said: We were not clear enough in this election that we understood the pressure working people, working Americans were under, and that we had concrete solutions to that. We never got that across to them.

VALERIE JARRETT: Yes, we had a hard time getting that message out.

And there was — it’s troubling, Judy, because there was a disconnect between the policies that the president has embraced since he was first campaigning back in 2007 and ‘8, and the feeling that many people have that those policies were not meant for them.

But they certainly were. The president has always believed in growing the middle class, providing room for everybody. And so it’s certainly what the president believes. And I think what the vice president said and what the president believes is, is that the Democratic Party has to do a better job of reaching out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Donald Trump has tweeted a few times in December about the economy. At one point, he wrote: “The world was gloomy before I won. There was no hope. Now the market is up nearly 10 percent. Christmas spending is over $1 trillion.” In another tweet, he took credit for rising consumer confidence.

VALERIE JARRETT: I think that, if you look at what has happened over the last eight years, in large part due to the grit and determination of the American people, we have rebuilt our economy, and it is strong. And we’re real proud that we’re going to turn it over in as good a shape as it’s in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, no particular reaction to what he said? He was wrong?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, what incoming president who is enjoying a good economy wouldn’t want to figure out how they can take credit for it? I think that’s par for the course.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As new information is coming out about Russian interference in the election, in retrospect, should President Obama have called out the Russians earlier? He had information earlier that this was going on.

VALERIE JARRETT: You know, he — the one thing I can say to you about the president is that he is thoughtful. He’s deliberate. He takes in all the information he has, and then he makes the best judgment he can. And he’s very comfortable with the decision he made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Has his thinking changed about what he’s going to do after being president, after being in office, given the result? Does he feel more of a responsibility now to go out and defend his legacy?

VALERIE JARRETT: I think he will speak out when he thinks his voice can move the needle, make a difference, and be an inspiration to those who are looking for positive change in our country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about Valerie Jarrett? I saw you quoted as saying you were going to be moving between your hometown of Chicago, Washington, where your daughter is, and some other places. What about you?

VALERIE JARRETT: Lots of sleep.

And then, after I have had some rest, I will make some decisions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think you will continue to work with President Obama and Mrs. Obama?

VALERIE JARRETT: Oh, I will help President Obama and Mrs. Obama for the rest of my life in any way that I can.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Run for public office?

VALERIE JARRETT: You know what? You’re not first person who has asked me that question.

I toyed with it, as you would probably remember, when the president was elected and there was a vacancy in his seat. And he appealed to me and said: You know, I know what it’s like in the Senate. And I know what I want to do here in the White House. And I think you will be happier here.

And, boy, was he right. So, we will see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re not ruling it out?

VALERIE JARRETT: I’m not ruling out anything right now, because I know, after eight years here, you are not in a position to make any really important, long decisions that affect your life.

I know that I need some rest. I need to gain some perspective. I still want to continue to work on issues that I care a great deal about, and to be as helpful as I can.

So, whether that leads me to elected office, or whether it leads me to help a not-for-profit that’s trying to do something important, we will see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Valerie Jarrett, thank you so much.

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