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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Fareed Zakaria Looks At Obama's Years In Office. Aired 9-10p ET
Aired December 7, 2016 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[21:00:00] ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN Special Report.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: Barack Obama's America was born with hope --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People were crying in the streets.
ZAKARIA: -- and with crisis.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Fragile financial system.
ZAKARIA: Financial panic.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were hanging on the edge of a cliff.
ZAKARIA: Health care hysteria.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why don't they take the health care being forced down our throats?
ZAKARIA: Two wars. Mass shootings.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A gunman opens fire --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A spray of bullets.
ZAKARIA: Racial violence.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.
GLENN BECK, CONSERVATIVE POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This guy is a racist.
ZAKARIA: But Barack Obama made some big bets that paid off. Troops came home. Gays got married.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Americans lived up to her promise of liberty and justice for all.
ZAKARIA: Enemies were vanquished.
OBAMA: Justice has been done.
ZAKARIA: Millions got health care.
OBAMA: Amazing grace --
ZAKARIA: And sometimes tragedy gave birth to hope.
VAN JONES, FORMER WHITE HOUSE SPECIAL ADVISER ON ENVIRONMENT: And that was a profoundly important moment.
ZAKARIA: But as a new era begins --
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: Your moment of liberation is at hand.
ZAKARIA: What will remain?
DAVID AXELROD, FORMER OBAMA SENIOR ADVISER: The President just smiled and said, I'm a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama and I'm president of the United States. And I feel lucky every day.
ZAKARIA: What is the legacy of Barack Obama?
He may be the most improbable president in American history. In 2003, he was a state senator from Illinois.
OBAMA: The intent of this bill is to make sure --
ZAKARIA: An unknown African-American politician named Barack Hussein Obama. He made a big bet that he could be elected to the White House. Five years later, he was.
OBAMA: To preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States.
ZAKARIA: He entered on a wave of hope and promise. He leaves office with robust approval ratings that place him in a small club. Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. But by the end of his presidency, the country was consumed by a wave of protest so strong that it had dashed the prospects of disputed of successor, Hillary Clinton and elected to the White House, his polar opposite.
TRUMP: Make America great again.
ZAKARIA: A man who promised to erase the Obama presidency. How did it happen? To understand that, we have to ask what is the legacy of Barack Obama.
The late publisher of "The Washington Post", Philip Graham, once said that journalism is the first rough draft of history. That's what we have tried to put together here. We will show you that love him or hate him there is little doubt that Obama has been one of the most consequential presidents in America history.
Notice, I didn't say successful. Time alone can make that judgment. But Obama sought to affect broad transforming changes in America. He used his power to make some very big bets. What happens to that legacy if those bets are now undone?
Race in America is in the eye of the beholder. We call Barack Obama our first African-American president because of the color of his skin. But in truth, he is, of course, biracial, born of an African father and a white mother from Kansas.
The first line of your biography will almost certainly be not something you did but who you are --
ZAKARIA: -- the first African-American president. And yet you're half white. You were raised by three white people, your mother, and your two grandparents.
OBAMA: Right. And an Indonesian.
ZAKARIA: And an Indonesian. Are you comfortable with this characterization of you?
OBAMA: I am, actually. And the concept of race in America is not just genetic otherwise the one drop rule wouldn't have made sense of this. It's cultural. It's -- this notion of people who look different than the mainstream suffering terrible oppression but somehow being able to make out of that, a music, and a language, and a faith, and a patriotism.
[21:05:03] Being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness and your own defeat.
ZAKARIA: Barack Obama once felt quite differently about race.
OBAMA: And the final iron. Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that too, a name that could cage you just as good like paranoid, or militant, or violent, or nigger.
ZAKARIA: At a reading from his first book, "Dreams from My Father", he told a painful story from his childhood when his grandmother expressed fear of a man at her bus stop, his grandfather became very angry.
OBAMA: She has been bothered by men before. You know why she is so scared this time? I'll tell you why. Before you came in, she told me the fellow was black.
The earth shook under my feet, ready to crack open at any moment. I stopped, trying to steady myself and knew for the first time that I was utterly alone.
ZAKARIA: The poet, William Wadsworth wrote, "The child is the father of the man." So, how to reconcile this troubled boy with the man who grew up to be president.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR: The fact that his mother was white from Kansas, his daddy was an African from Kenya, he brings together the unimaginable paradoxical opposites in American society and in one body unites them. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Having this unclear understanding of where he fit into the American story, I think he somehow was able to tell himself that he might be able to be a person who could bring people together.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Barack Obama, 47 years old, will become the president-elect of the United States.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A seismic shift in American politics.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is truly an incredible moment of American history.
ZAKARIA: November 4th, 2008, a joyous, historic moment.
OBAMA: Because of what we did o this stage, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.
VONES: You saw what happened. I mean people were crying in the streets. There were people who were crying in the streets who did not vote for him.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The idea that a black family would occupy the White House.
RANDALL KENNEDY, HARVARD UNIVERSITY LAW PROFESSOR: There was a reason why people were saying that over and over.
OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear --
ZAKARIA: Nearly 2 million people packed into Washington for the inaugural.
OBAMA: To preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So help me God.
OBAMA: So help me God.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations, Mr. President.
KENNEDY: To look from the Capitol down towards the Washington monument and to see just this sea of faces and people had American flags, it was just absolutely something.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president of the United States.
ZAKARIA: That night, Barack and Michelle Obama danced to a song sung by Beyonce. The title told the story.
BEYONCE, SINGER: At last my love has come along --
ZAKARIA: It seemed like a fairy tale beginning but at precisely the moment the first couple began swaying on the dance floor, the central crisis of the Obama presidency was already taking shape. RYAN LIZZA, THE NEW YORKER: Within half a mile of where Obama and Michelle are dancing and celebrating their great victory, his Republican opponents are whining and dining and plotting his defeat.
ZAKARIA: Fifteen of the most powerful Republicans in Washington made a pact that night.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Out of that meeting, they decide that the only way to win back power is to oppose Obama at every level.
ZAKARIA: That fierce, unrelenting opposition would haunt the next eight years and what began as whispers is now discussed openly.
Did race play a role in the brick wall of Republican resistance to Barack Obama?
[21:10:00] AXELROD: It's undisputable that there was a ferocity to the opposition and a lack of respect to him that was a function of race.
VONES: I can't name one thing that this Congress supported this president on in eight years.
You have to have an extraordinary explanation for this level of obstruction.
ZAKARIA: David Axelrod says, at least one powerful Republican was personally disrespectful to Obama.
AXELROD: Said to him, you know, we don't really think you should be here but the American people thought otherwise. So we're going to have to work with you.
ZAKARIA: Republicans have strongly rejected charges that race played a role in their opposition.
MICHAEL STEEL, FORMER RNC CHAIRMAN: I, like a lot of Americans, concerned and disagree with the president's policies and approaches from the stimulus spending to this health care strategy. Am I racist because I disagree with that? I don't think so.
OBAMA: There are people who dislike me because they think I'm a liberal.
ZAKARIA: The President doesn't see racism in mainstream opposition to him but he does see it on the fringes.
OBAMA: I think there is a reason why attitudes about my presidency among whites in northern states are very different from whites in southern states. So, you know, are there folks who -- whose primary concern about me has been that I seen foreign, the other? Are those who champion the birther movement, you know, feeding off of bias, absolutely.
TRUMP: The fact is if he wasn't born in this country, he shouldn't be the president of the United States. ZAKARIA: The loudest voice in the birther movement has of course now been elected president.
TRUMP: Why doesn't he give his birth certificate? He says he has a birth certificate. So, either they don't have one, which is very bad, or there is something going that he doesn't want people to see.
AXELROD: The birther movement has roots in racism. There's no question about it.
TRUMP: I have people that actually have been studying it and they cannot believe what they're finding.
MEREDITH VIEIRA, NBC'S TODAY HOST: You have people now out there searching -- I mean, in Hawaii.
TRUMP: Absolutely. And they cannot believe what they're finding.
If he wasn't born in this country, then he has pulled one of the great cons in the history of politics.
ZAKARIA: They found nothing. And the White House released Obama's long form birth certificate. Finally, the President had his say.
OBAMA: No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that's because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like did we fake the moon landing? And where are Biggie and Tupac?
AXELROD: Large numbers of people could accept or believe it.
ZAKARIA: The first racial controversy to rock the Obama presidency came in July of 2009.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A professor at Harvard University tried to get in his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he wound up under arrest.
ZAKARIA: Henry Lewis Gates, a friend of Obamas, had been trying to open his own front door.
OBAMA: I don't know not having been there and not seeing all the facts what role race played in that. But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry. Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly.
JONES: The pres of the United States says what anybody in Washington would say. It was stupid to arrest one of the most famous professors in the world in their house for being in their house.
ZAKARIA: There was a very different response on the right.
BECK: This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture. I don't know what it is. This guy is, I believe, a racist. KENNEDY: He didn't say anything about the race of the police officer, about the race of the professor.
ZAKARIA: Obama apologized.
OBAMA: I could have calibrated those words differently.
ZAKARIA: He invited the police officer to the White House for a beer.
JONES: Black moral witness falls silent because if the President can't talk about this without being sent to the woodshed, to be on equal basis with some random cop, it's over.
ZAKARIA: The timing of the Gates arrest is important. It was the first time Obama had addressed a racial controversy as president. But it was also at the height of his health care fight. Rage over Obamacare was turning to race.
[21:15:05] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Afrolenonism coming to you on a silver platter, Barack Hussein Obama.
ZAKARIA: All of it led to several years in which the President avoided the topic of race.
GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: Hey, can I get an officer to 1960 Retreat View Circle?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Your name.
ZAKARIA: The violent death of one teenage boy in Florida put race back front and center. Trayvon Martin was on his way home from buying candy when he was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer.
GERALDO RIVERA, NEWS ANCHOR: Zimmerman is not a racist. Trayvon Martin would be alive today if he wasn't wearing thug wear, if he wasn't wearing that hoodie.
ZAKARIA: The President's response was personal.
OBAMA: When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. You know, if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.
ZAKARIA: Within months, case after case began to make headlines.
ZAKARIA: Young black men dying at the hands of law enforcement.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Don't shoot him. Don't shoot him.
ZAKARIA: The details were often disputed. But the rage was clear.
African-Americans did battle with the police. And a new civil rights group, Black Lives Matter, quickly grew in number. Some in the African-American community turned their rage on Barack Obama. TAVIS SMILEY, LIBERAL POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Stop telling black folk they got to wait and that these things take time. We can't wait, number one. Number two, Mr. President, respectfully, when you're saying we can't compare what's happening now to what happened 50 years ago, tell that to the parents of these kids who are being gunned down in America's streets. It is open season.
ZAKARIA: The President faced an impossible challenge, to be black enough to satisfy African-Americans yet post-racial enough to reassure many whites.
AXELROD: He never ran to be the first black president. He ran to be president of the United States and he happens to be black.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But wait a minute, you may not be the president of black America but you are the president of black Americans.
AXELROD: He needed to become a force for healing and finding the right way to do that was something that he wrestled with.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A brand new "New York Times" poll finds that 69 percent of Americans say that race relations are bad. The highest level that since the Rodney King riots back in 1992.
ZAKARIA: Relations between blacks and whites were at their worst point in a generation.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You do want a black man to die, you send the police to kill him.
ZAKARIA: The whole country was wrestling with race.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If they don't do something, they're the bad guys. If they try to do something, they're the bad guy. So, what are they supposed to do?
JONES: These sort of suppressed racial feelings and these suppressed racial resentments actually rather than being quelled by Obama's rise were actually unleashed by Obama's rise.
ZAKARIA: But no single moment in the Obama presidency was at once so ugly and unifying as the Charleston church shooting.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The killing is being investigated as a hate crime now.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He said, you are raping our women. You are taking over our country. I have to do what I have to do.
ZAKARIA: Nine people murdered. The gunman said he wanted to start a race war. When President Obama came to the Emanuel AME Church, his hesitance to speak frankly on race was gone.
OBAMA: For too long, we have been blind to the way past injustices continue to shake the present. We now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don't realize it. Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
[21:20:04] JONES: And when he sang "Amazing Grace", you know, there was a medicine in that song for 400 years of funeral after funeral, there's a alleluia anyhow, no matter what you do to me. He channeled that as the president. And that was a profoundly important moment, you know.
And to me, that's the capstone. That's the capstone. That's this man not just rediscovering who he is but rediscovering who this country is.
OBAMA: May God continue to shed his grace on the United States of America.
ZAKARIA: When we come back --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The banking system remains in deep trouble, the worst showing ever on an inaugural day.
ZAKARIA: The first day, a day from hell.
AXELROD: We could have a second Great Depression.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nearly 1.2 million jobs have disappeared.
TIM GEITHNER, FORMER SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY: Stunningly scary moment.
ZAKARIA: Welcome to the White House.
OBAMA: Maybe because I was too new to panic.
ZAKARIA: Day one, the new president bows his head in prayer. He needed all the help he could get. He had been briefed. He was facing the worst economic crisis in decades.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Fragile financial system.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Likely to get worse before it gets better.
AXELROD: Larry Summers said, we're going to lose millions more jobs and we could have a second Great Depression.
Tim Geithner said the financial system is locked up and it might collapse.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: U.S. banking system remains in deep trouble.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were hanging on the edge of a cliff. And in fact, we were starting down that down into the abyss.
GEITHNER: A stunningly scary moment. ZAKARIA: There was plenty of panic to go around.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And the troubled economy offering a harsh greeting to the new president, worst showing ever on an inaugural day.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tough to stay positive when you have been kind of getting clubbed to death.
ZAKARIA: Markets were collapsing. Major banks were failing.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm definitely going to pull my money out.
ZAKARIA: More than 100,000 Americans were losing their homes every week.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're doing a serving an eviction on you. You have to take off in about 15 minutes.
ZAKARIA: And the worst effect, soaring unemployment.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In 2008, nearly 1.2 million jobs had disappeared.
ZAKARIA: And still climbing.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We need jobs.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People were scared.
GEITHNER: It was really getting worse. And we had already, as a country, done just a massive amount of things.
RAHM EMANUEL, FORMER WH CHIEF OF STAFF: Where do you start? Which one of these piles of things that you want to start with?
GEITHNER: We had this big debate about what to do.
ZAKARIA: It's your first day on the job and the world economy is collapsing.
Did you ever think to yourself this is going to derail my country, my plan, my presidency?
[21:25:06] OBAMA: Maybe because I was too new to panic. I was very confident that we could get to the right answer.
ZAKARIA: Obama decides to go big. A stimulus bill that would bump $800 billion into the economy. Tax cuts, money to save the jobs of cops and teachers and the rebuilding of roads and bridges.
OBAMA: At this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe.
ZAKARIA: Republicans hated it. They said it was too rushed and hopelessly complex. REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), OHIO: I don't know how you could read 1,100 pages between midnight and now. Not one member has read this. What happened to the promise that we're going to let the American people see what's in this bill for 48 hours? But Nope, we don't have time to do that.
AXELROD: The decision said he was making to save the economy were all politically toxic. He had no allusions about that.
ZAKARIA: Still, Obama thought he could pry loose some Republican votes instead of the usual step of inviting them to the White House, he went to Capitol Hill.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a very dramatic gesture on the part of the President, as you know.
ZAKARIA: To talk to Republicans on their turf.
OBAMA: Hello, everybody.
ZAKARIA: It did not go well.
DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I could not find anybody who said, at least, in the House that they would vote yes tomorrow.
OBAMA: We had a wonderful exchange of ideas.
ZAKARIA: Not so much as it turned out. The Republicans had made up their minds before Obama even arrived.
OBAMA: On my trip up to the Hill, they released an e-mail saying we're going to be voting against it before they had even heard our presentation.
ZAKARIA: The stimulus passed without a single vote from a House Republican.
AXELROD: They were making political decisions and we were trying to save the country from a disaster.
ZAKARIA: This was, in fact, a crucial moment in the history of the Obama presidency. It was only the President's second month in office. The financial crisis was about to get even scarier. And yet, it was already clear. Republicans would hold firm to the vow they made as he entered the White House.
EMANUEL: Mitch McConnell says what his strategy is. They told you the strategy. It's not like you have to interpret it. They're overt about it.
VALERIE JARRETT, SENIOR ADVISOR TO THE PRESIDENT: Their desire to stop him was also going to have devastating consequences for the American people and why? Was it race? Was it the politics? Was it power?
ZAKARIA: But Obama was not blameless. Republicans say he would not accept any of their ideas.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No engagement in any way, shape, or form.
GEITHNER: They found him unappealing in many ways.
ZAKARIA: The Republicans had a favorite word to describe the President and his policies.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Really arrogant, if you will.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Arrogant.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But I do think Barack Obama is arrogant.
ZAKARIA: But now Obama had to go it alone and he was facing a new crisis.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: More troubles for G.M. and its workers.
ZAKARIA: America's iconic car company, General Motors, was in a death spiral.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With General Motors right now, I think we're all afraid.
EMANUEL: They were talking about two weeks and bust. It was not two years. It was not we have a problem here. We think we can keep it alive for two weeks.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Honk your horn.
ZAKARIA: Chrysler was collapsing as well.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everybody is here for one common cause. We want to keep our jobs.
ZAKARIA: There were layoffs, plant closings.
OBAMA: We cannot and must not and we will not let our auto industry simply vanish.
ZAKARIA: Polls showed almost two thirds of the American people opposed bailing out the car company.
Mitt Romney, whose father ran a car company, wrote an op-ed, "Let them go bankrupt." But Barack Obama decided to go all in.
OBAMA: Our government will be making a significant additional investment of about $30 billion in G.M.
ZAKARIA: The massive loan effectively made the U.S. government the owner of General Motors.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We own a car company.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's very scary. MIKE HUCKABEE, FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff.
ZAKARIA: But even d the auto bailout did not spark as much rage as bank bonuses.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Multibillion dollar bonuses despite getting billions of your taxpayer bailout dollars.
[21:30:01] ZAKARIA: That's right. Millions in bonuses were being paid to the very same bankers who many thought had almost destroyed the world economy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It makes me feel disgusted.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It makes me angry, certainly.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you're a CEO of a company like that, you shouldn't be able to drive a limo, you should ride your -- on the subway like everybody else does.
ZAKARIA: The anger came from all directions.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What happened with these bonuses was a mugging on Wall Street.
ZAKARIA: Those bonuses were contractual obligations but the administration understood that the optics were awful.
OBAMA: I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of, you know, fat cat bankers on Wall Street.
GEITHNER: It looks like you were giving money to the arsonists and they were going to profit while the country burned.
ZAKARIA: Then American anger over all of it seemed to find a voice.
RICK SANTELLI, CNBC BUSINESS NEWS: The government is promoting bad behavior.
ZAKARIA: On the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, a CNBC reporter named Rick Santelli went on an epic rant about bailouts.
SANTELLI: This is America. How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills. Raise their hand.
President Obama, are you listening? We're thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I'm going to start organizing.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What are you dumping in this time?
WILBUR ROSS: Mayor Daley is marshalling the police right now.
ZAKARIA: It was the moment that Tea Party movement was born. In the end, the banks were stabilized and credit began flowing to mainstream. The taxpayers got all their money back with interest from those bets.
GEITHNER: And we saved the country from a failing financial system but we lost the country doing it.
ZAKARIA: And they lost big even though Obama's emergency rescue succeeded, the appearance that he was helping Wall Street rather than ordinary Americans, that would prove very expensive. It cost him mountains of his political capital just when he needed it.
He was headed into a gathering storm that would threaten the one thing he wanted most. That story later in the program. But, first, how the president who brought down Bin Laden let the next big terror threat rise up and take over land Americans had died for.
Let me ask you if it's possible in your position to be completely honest and say the rise of the Islamic State surprised you?
The ISIS story, next.
OBAMA: Hello, everybody.
ZAKARIA: December 14th, 2011 was a great day for Barack Obama. It was the day he proudly announced that the troops were home from Iraq.
OBAMA: Welcome home.
[21:34:58] ZAKARIA: A campaign promise fulfilled just in time for his re-election bid. But had the President taken his victory lap too early? Three years later, chaos had descended on Iraq, cities that Americans had bled for. Mosul.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ISIS now controls Western Iraq --
ZAKARIA: Ramadi Fallujah had been lost again to a deadly new terror group, ISIS.
Let me ask you if it's possible in your position to be completely honest and say the rise of the Islamic State surprised you? It took you by surprise, it took the administration by surprise.
OBAMA: The ability of ISIL to initiate major land offensives, that was not on my intelligence radar screen.
ZAKARIA: Everyone was stunned that a few thousand militants swept through Iraq and Syria sewing fear in the region and the war.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We chop off the heads of the Americans, chop off the heads of the French, chop off the heads of whoever you may bring.
ZAKARIA: They created a caliphate ruled by strict Sharia law meeting out punishments in the most barbaric ways imaginable. Their philosophy may have been medieval but they were masters of the Internet. They took thousands of recruits from Malaysia, to Belgium to New Jersey. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ISIS claiming responsibility for the horrific attack --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A large truck careens through crowds of tourists.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bullets fired into a cafe.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They killed at least 30 people in Belgium.
ZAKARIA: Soon, they would mount some of the deadliest terror attacks since 9/11. Casting a large shadow over Obama's presidency and an even larger one over the presidential election.
TRUMP: The way they got out of Iraq, the vacuum they've left, that's why ISIS formed in the first place and now they're in 32 different nations, Hillary. Congratulations, great job.
ZAKARIA: So, could President Obama have prevented the rise of the Islamic State? His critics point to a pivotal decision, leaving Iraq with just a handful of troops. His generals had wanted thousands more.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS (RET), CIA DIRECTOR, 2011-2012: I don't know whether 10,000 troops would have given us the leverage. I actually suspect it might not have but I would have liked to have tested the proposition.
ZAKARIA: But there was a problem. His predecessor, President Bush, had signed an agreement with the Iraqis promising that all troops would be gone by the end of 2011.
OBAMA: The only way in which we were going to keep troops there was at the invitation of that government. And we couldn't get that done.
We've spent a considerable amount of time talking about Syria.
ZAKARIA: That government was run by this man, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He didn't get a new agreement to prove by his parliament. Worried he would lose his political support, perhaps the most crucial, Maliki, a hard hard-line Shiite had mounted a violent crack down against Sunni Muslims throughout the country. As a result, many of them had turned in desperation and defines to ISIS, which is hard line Sunni and deeply anti-Shiite.
Meanwhile, another crucial decision faced the President. How to handle the growing crisis in neighboring Syria, where Jihadis were showing up to battle the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
ROBERT FORD, FORMER AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: WE had reports coming from Iraq that some of the fighters in al-Qaeda in Iraq had moved to Syria.
ZAKARIA: Robert Ford, then the U.S. ambassador to Syria, witnessed the turmoil firsthand.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two car bombings blamed on suicide attack -- ZAKARIA: Al-Qaeda in Iraq --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The remains of the dead were scattered.
ZAKARIA: -- the group that morphed into ISIS --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The wounded were carried away in blankets.
ZAKARIA: -- was suspected of masterminding a car bombing of serious state security officers.
[21:39:58] FORD: One car goes in and blows up, take down the outer defense. Then a second car goes in to detonate.
ZAKARIA: The criminal attack carries the blueprints of al-Qaeda.
FORD: This is a hallmark tactic of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
ZAKARIA: Back in Washington, Ambassador Ford met with David Petraeus, who was then the head of the CIA. The extremists in Syria were getting stronger, he said. While the moderate rebels fighting Assad were getting weaker.
FORD: You do nothing, extremists will continue to gain ground. That's what our Syrian contacts were telling us. This isn't rocket science.
ZAKARIA: Petraeus urged the White House to arm the moderates.
PETRAEUS: Recommendations were made to assist some of the opposition. Elements and that obviously a decision was not forthcoming to do that for quite a very long time.
ZAKARIA: The President was skeptical. He saw the Syrian civil war as a quagmire in which the moderates were too few, too weak and too disorganized to prevail.
OBAMA: I think this notion that somehow there was this readymade, moderate Syrian force that was able to defeat Assad is simply not true.
Jay tells me that you guys have been missing me.
ZAKARIA: Then in August, 2012, at a routine press conference Obama appeared suddenly willing to use force against Assad.
OBAMA: A red line for us is we start saying seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.
ZAKARIA: That red line was crossed one year later. A horrific sarin gas attack in a Damascus suburb left hundreds dead, including many children. The President ordered the military to get ready for a strike. An attack was imminent.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: The drums of war growing louder. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: U.S. will punish Syria.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Obama administration --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Says there must be a response.
ZAKARIA: But the President who wanted to end America's wars in the Middle East was having second thoughts about starting a new one.
He proposed what some saw as a delaying tactic, seek permission to fight from Congress. Some of his staff worried it was a mistake. But Obama stood his ground, convinced that the American public was as weary of war as he was.
ZAKARIA: If one were to look at your statements on Syria from the start, the red line, and then your decision at the very last minute not to use military force, wouldn't it be fair for critics to say this shows inconsistency, perhaps it shows your own ambivalence and yet you have seen it as one of your best moments.
OBAMA: Ambivalence, absolutely, because it's hard with respect to my red line. We, in fact, positioned our military to be able to strike Assad if he did not give up his chemical weapons. And the fact is he got rid of his chemical weapons in an unprecedented way.
JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: The world will now expect the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments.
ZAKARIA: Assad's allies in the Kremlin had brokered a deal that forced him to give up his chemical weapon stockpile. Within a year, Syria's declared materials were removed without a shot being fired. But the Syrian civil war continued and extremists gained the upper hand.
FORD: When you have these ungoverned spaces, that's exactly where extremists like to go to set up. They can plan, they can organize, they can recruit, they can do training, that's what they need.
ZAKARIA: In 2013, ISIS took over Raqqa, a major city in Syria. Then they marched into Iraq capturing vast swaths of territory. They had effectively created their own nation, an Islamic State.
Over the last two years, ISIS has been badly squeezed. But the group could still strike any time in the Middle East, Europe or America. And Syria is still in chaos.
PETRAEUS: This country and this region, in fact, does not play by Las Vegas rules. What happens in Syria doesn't stay in Syria. It spews violence and instability and extremism and ultimately a tsunami of refugees into the countries of our European allies and partners.
[21:45:08] FORD: There was a time and there was a way to help moderates in the opposition prevail. Absolutely, we missed an opportunity.
ZAKARIA: Do you think it is an accomplishment of your presidency that you have substantially kept the United States out of the Syrian civil war militarily?
OBAMA: I think it is the smartest decision from a menu of bad options that were available to us. Have we been flawless in the execution of what is a complicated policy in the region? Absolutely not. I think flawless is not available when it comes to foreign policy or the presidency, at least, with mere mortals like me at the helm.
Have we made the best decisions that were available to us at each stage? The answer is yes.
ZAKARIA: Up next, the battle at home.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 911, what's the location of your emergency?
ZAKARIA: With mass shootings.
WAYNE LAPIERRE, NRA EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun --
ZAKARIA: A president struggles --
LAPIERRE: -- is a good guy with a gun.
ZAKARIA: -- with an American horror story.
OBAMA: They had their entire lives ahead of them.
ZAKARIA: That story when we return.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 911, what's the location of your emergency?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I at Sandy Hook School, I think there's somebody shooting in here, Sandy Hook School. Oh, they're still running and still shooting.
ZAKARIA: Five minutes, that's how long it took for a deranged man with an assault rifle to end the lives of 20 first graders and six adults inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a horrific scene and we've never seen anything like this.
OBAMA: The majority of those who died today were children. Beautiful little kids between the ages of five and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them, birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.
[21:50:15] ZAKARIA: Barack Obama was haunted by the gun violence that pervades America, but gun control was the big bet he did not make.
OBAMA: If you ask me where has been the one area where I feel that I've been most frustrated and most stymied, it is the fact that the United States of America is the one advanced nation on earth in which we do not have sufficient common sense gun safety laws. ZAKARIA: He failed to pass any firearms legislation. By the time it became a priority, he simply did not have the political capital.
GOODWIN: Well, I think a president has to figure out what priorities he's going to have a chance of getting through, like gun control, he might have felt if I go for that, then I may lose this because you're building up capital or you're losing capital.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, (D) NEY YORK: Let's be honest here, there haven't been the votes in the Congress for gun control. Make no mistake about it.
ZAKARIA: The midterm election of 2010 had been a disaster for the Democrats.
OBAMA: Some election nights are more fun than others.
ZAKARIA: They lost the House and the Senate and with them, any chance of getting major legislation passed. Still, when it came to guns, Obama would finally find a way to act without Congress and make the first move on gun control in decades.
But now it could all easily be reversed. President-Elect Donald Trump has vowed that there will be no gun restrictions.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A gunman opens fire --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A spray of bullets.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There has been a multiple shooting.
ZAKARIA: It was early in Obama's presidency when an explosion of gun violence began to hit the headlines. Among the worst shootings, Tucson, Arizona.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Six people are dead, 12 others wounded including Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
OBAMA: There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts.
ZAKARIA: Aurora, Colorado.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Twelve people killed, 38 injured after a gunman opens fire in a movie theater.
OBAMA: I'd like us to pause in a moment of silence for the victims of this terrible tragedy.
ZAKARIA: The President was praised for his eulogies but pilloried for inaction.
MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK CITY: Why President Obama? When you campaigned three years ago, you campaigned on a promise to try to enact legislation that would ban assault weapons. Again, what changed your mind, why did you not during the last three years do anything?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Evil visited this community today.
ZAKARIA: It wasn't until Newtown that Obama finally acted. Public anger and his own resolve drove him to put his full weight behind gun control legislation.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: This is not the first issue, the first incident of horrific gun violence of your four years. Where have you been?
OBAMA: Well, here's where I've been, Jake. I've been president of the United States dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an auto industry on the verge of collapse, two wars. I don't think I've been on vacation. And so, I think all of us have to do some reflection on how we prioritize what we do here in Washington.
ZAKARIA: The President took the unusual step of bringing Newtown parents in to actually work on the bill. The legislation broadened background checks to include gun shows and internet sales. Consider this, at that time, an astonishing 92 percent of the country, including an overwhelming majority of gun owners, supported background checks on all potential gun buyers.
MARK BARDEN, PARENT OF NEWTOWN VICTIM: We do think that would be an easy get because of the simplicity of it and because it wasn't anything new.
ZAKARIA: But the NRA fought hard.
LAPIERRE: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
ZAKARIA: And the NRA won. In April 2013, the bill came up five votes short.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The amendment is not agreed to.
OBAMA: All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington.
ZAKARIA: It was a defeat that the president took personally.
OBAMA: But instead of supporting this compromise, the gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill.
[21:54:59] AXELROD: The failure to be able to do anything even in the face of that, even in the face of the slaughter of these innocent young kids was deeply depressing to him.
ZAKARIA: Barack Obama would have to address mass shootings again and again.
OBAMA: I've had to make statements like this too many times. No other advanced nation endures this kind of violence. This is becoming the norm. ZAKARIA: Finally, in January 2016, he announced he was bypassing Congress and taking executive action.
OBAMA: The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they cannot hold America hostage.
ZAKARIA: The order expanded background checks and narrowed the gun show loophole.
OBAMA: First graders in Newtown, first graders. And from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun. Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R) NEW JERSEY: He now has decided he's just going to write laws on his own. He's going to give us edicts, as if he's a king. And that is a petulant child. He is refusing to listen to the will of the American people.
ZAKARIA: And now, even Obama's executive orders are at risk.
TRUMP: I will veto that. I will unsign that so fast, so fast.
ZAKARIA: President-elect Trump has said there will be no gun restrictions on his watch. It is likely that the bet President Obama did not make will remain off the table for years.
JARRETT: There's no one who's been to more memorial services and comforted more families than the president. And each time he looks at a family who look at him going, you know, why couldn't we have done more? Believe me, that's like a poker in his stomach so it eats away at him.
OBAMA: All the progress that we've made these last eight years goes out the window if we don't win this election.
ZAKARIA: In the final days of Barack Obama's presidency, he campaigned his heart out.
OBAMA: Hello, Miami.
ZAKARIA: One last time.
OBAMA: Donald Trump's closing argument is what do you have to lose? The answer's everything.
ZAKARIA: Obama reached for the themes that had driven him since his days as a community organizer. Equality and social justice.
OBAMA: I'm not on the ballot this time, but fairness is on the ballot. Tolerance is on the ballot. Courtesy is on the ballot. Equality is on the ballot. Democracy is on the ballot.
ZAKARIA: Issues involving women, gays, minorities and immigrants were among those closest to his heart. But now they appear to be the Obama achievements that are at greatest risk. Donald Trump has vowed to undo much of Barack Obama's social agenda.
TRUMP: The change will begin my first day in office.
They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime.
Build that wall. Build that wall.
African-Americans, Hispanics are living in hell.
I'm pro-life. The judges will be pro-life.
ZAKARIA: It's that last item he mentioned, judges, that may have the most powerful effect in undoing the Obama legacy. Donald Trump has said he plans to put a hard line conservative on the Supreme Court, that would create a majority that could reverse almost all of Obama's programs. Obama thought that the Supreme Court could look more like America.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: President Obama names his first Supreme Court pick and history's first Latina.
ZAKARIA: He began with Sonia Sotomayor.
SONIA SOTOMAYOR, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is this nation's faith in a more perfect union that allows a Puerto Rican girl from The Bronx to stand here now.
ZAKARIA: Then a year later, he nominated another woman, Elena Kagan.
ELENA KAGAN, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you so much, Mr. President.
ZAKARIA: For the first time in history, there were three women on the Supreme Court.
OBAMA: I may be a little grayer than I was years ago, but this is what a feminist looks like.
[22:00:00] ZAKARIA: It was Obama's new high court that ushered in America's biggest social change in decades. June of 2015, the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage was legal.