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FAREED ZAKARIA GPS

Voices From the Obama Years; Aired 10-11a ET

Aired January 1, 2017 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[10:00:04] FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: This is a special edition of GPS: THE GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. "Voices from the Obama Years."

Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria. And Happy New Year to all of you.

Over the last few months, we have had extraordinary access to the White House, to officials current and former. It was all for a documentary about President Obama's legacy. You might have seen it last week in this slot or previously on CNN.

Today we wanted to bring you more of these amazing interviews and we wanted to let them breathe. So without further ado, we will start with the president himself on himself, his habits and his race.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: You know, the first line of your biography, you know, "The Capsule of Presidents," will almost certainly be not something you did but who you are.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Right.

ZAKARIA: The first African-American president.

OBAMA: Right.

ZAKARIA: And yet you're half white. You were raised by three white people, your mother and your two grandparents.

OBAMA: Right. And an Indonesian, you can throw that in.

ZAKARIA: And an Indonesian. Are you comfortable with this characterization of you?

OBAMA: I am actually. And I write about this in my first book. Fairly early on I came to the realization, maybe as a young adult, that the essence of the African-American experience is we're a hybrid people, and because the concept of race in America is not just genetic. Otherwise, the one drop rule wouldn't have made sense. It's cultural. It's this notion of a people who look different than the mainstream suffering discrimination and for many decades terrible oppression, but somehow being able to make out of that a music and a language and a faith and a patriotism and a belief in this project we call America that is unique. And so for me to say that I'm African-American doesn't preclude, you

know, all the values that my mother and grandparents taught me. It's entirely consistent with those values. And so I didn't feel as if I had to go around advertising that I was of mixed race because I am an African and an American and I'm very comfortable with that.

ZAKARIA: There are many polls that show that at the end of your presidency, a majority of Americans think race relations have worsened.

OBAMA: Yes.

ZAKARIA: Why do you think that is?

OBAMA: Well, because we've had some very high-profile events that remind us that the tensions around race, the facts of discrimination still exist. And the thing that I always remind young people of is there's been so much progress that you're surprised when you see discrimination. Thirty years ago, it wasn't a surprise, the idea that there might be racial bias in policing or criminal justice reform.

Well, the average African-American would have said, of course, that's nothing new. The fact that young African-Americans today feel pained and shocked about this is an indication of the degree to which we've moved the needle where we see it and we don't like it. And that's progress.

So my view has always been that, you know, something Dr. King said during the course of the civil rights movement when he was being told that all of this agitation down south was causing terrible racial conflict. He said, no, some lies the best disinfectant. You know, when those folks were marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, you could argue that race relations were worse but, in fact, race relations had improved to the point where not only could African- Americans mobilize to cross that bridge, but when the TV cameras showed it, the entire country's conscience was awakened in a way that in prior years it might not have been.

[10:05:05] ZAKARIA: Do you think that some of the animus toward -- against you has been racial? And if the answer is yes, it must enrage you.

OBAMA: You know I think that what you've seen -- somebody characterized this I think quite well, that conservative ideology exists independent of racial prejudice. There are people who dislike me because they think I'm a liberal, because they think that I represent an expansion of federal power and they're all about states' rights. They worry about high taxes and they'd be just as mad if a white president they thought was somehow encroaching on their liberty when it comes to guns. Right? So there are a whole series of issues why people would be upset regardless of my race.

I think there's no doubt that the way the conservative movement has evolved inside the Republican Party over the last several decades, that those nonracial ideological objections have interacted with, you know, a long-term set of concerns about people who are different, whether it's African-Americans, or immigrants, or Muslims.

I think there's a reason why, you know, attitudes about my presidency among whites in northern states are very different from whites in southern states. So, you know, are there folks whose primary concern about me has been that I seem foreign, the other, are those who champion the birther movement, you know, feeding off of bias, absolutely.

You know, on the other hand, there are folks who are also excited and probably voted for me because they were excited about an African- American president and might have been more critical of me if I hadn't been certainly within the African-American community. And I think it is important just to recognize that I did get elected with the majority of the vote twice. And that gives you a sense of the degree to which the overwhelming majority of the American people are fair- minded and judge me on the merits and not on the basis of race.

And that's probably why I don't get enraged. You know, there are times where I might get a little irritated but I try to keep it to myself.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, the president on the discipline it requires to win the Oval Office and to hold on to it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

[10:11:21] ZAKARIA: You know, you have this famous calm, this equanimity. And I just wonder underneath it there must be -- there must be anger, fear. Do you -- is this a shield that you have developed?

OBAMA: I tell you, if you talk to Michelle or my kids or my best friends, people who know me pretty well, I am genuinely a pretty calm guy. You know, the -- there's that "Key and Peele" skit with Luther, my anger translator.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: In our fast changing world, traditions like the White House Correspondents' Dinner are important.

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY, COMEDIAN: I mean, really. What is this dinner? And why am I required to come to it?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: And he's going off. That's not something that's going on that I'm suppressing. Most of the time, I am optimistic about America. I am somebody who I think instinctively takes the long view on things. I don't get too high and I don't believe the hype when things are going good and I don't get too low and believe all the doomsayers when things are going bad. Some of it may just be that Hawaiian in me. When you're born in really nice weather, you have a chance to go on the beach and take a dip in some really nice weather --

ZAKARIA: And the worries --

OBAMA: -- it washes away, yes.

ZAKARIA: So another thing people talk about you is the discipline. There was a story about the -- your late-night habits and these precisely seven almonds. And I know you say it's not precisely seven. You occasionally have more.

OBAMA: Occasionally. Often.

ZAKARIA: Right. There are people who tell me that, you know, when you're at a restaurant and there's fries there, you will try the fries, but you'll try one French fry, which seems almost inhuman. Are these tall tales or have you tried to -- is this a willed character that you are -- do you try to be very disciplined?

OBAMA: You know, I think anybody who ends up being president has some discipline because there are sacrifices along the way to get here. I think anybody who's accomplished big things has discipline. You know, maybe there are rare geniuses who don't have to apply sweat and tears and enormous amounts of time to achieve what they want to achieve. I haven't seen them, though.

Picasso drew a lot to become Picasso. Myles Davis played a lot of trumpet to play the way he played. Michael Phelps I assume swam a lot of laps. I don't know anybody who -- who's made their mark that -- where it just falls into their lap. That's a lesson I -- Michelle and I are always teaching our kids. So, yes, sure, I'm a pretty disciplined guy. I think the stories tend to be apocryphal and a little exaggerated.

[10:15:05] You know I -- look, I wasn't very disciplined about smoking for a long time, which, you know, I think when young people hear that I was smoking a lot, they just can't believe it. What an idiot. And they're right. I'm -- you know, when it comes to eating I tend to be pretty disciplined. I have certain weak spots. You put nachos and guacamole in front of me I tend not to be able to refrain.

Part of the discipline I've learned here, though, at the White House is because, you know, you've got these White House chefs who are outstanding and the first year I came, they always had pies and they're the best pies on earth and they're different flavored pies. There's pecan and there's cherry and huckleberry, and I think after the first year I was here, you know, the Navy doctor said, you know, you're fine but your cholesterol spiked way up. What do you think happened? And I said, oh. So we were more disciplined about just having those pies on the weekends because otherwise I'd be eating them all the time.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: Coming up, inside one of the hardest-won political battles of the Obama administration, the historic passing into law of the Affordable Care Act. Why was it so personal for Obama's chief adviser David Axelrod? Find out when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:20:21] ZAKARIA: As a key architect of Obama's 2008 change campaign, David Axelrod worked side by side with Obama from the very start. During Obama's first term, he served as special adviser front and center to one of the biggest victories of the Obama administration, the Affordable Care Act. For him, it wasn't just politics. It wasn't just business. It was very personal. Listen in.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: Talk about health care. Do you remember whether he was for the big push up front from the start?

DAVID AXELROD, FORMER SPECIAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: No. It was an open discussion. I think in his -- in his heart that's what he felt was necessary. He knew that given the economy and the politics of that moment that the likelihood that we would have large Democrat majorities in his second two years was very faint, and so if we were going to deal with health care, we were going to have to deal with it in the first couple of years or it probably wouldn't get done. And that was the argument that he made.

By summer of 2009, the polling reflected the water that he was taking on as a result of health care, and I went into his office with polling books and I remember standing in the middle of the Oval Office and he listened respectfully and when it was done, he said, "Yes, but I just got back from Green Bay and I talked to a young woman, 36 years old. She has two kids, a husband, they both have jobs, they have insurance but she has stage 4 breast cancer, and now she's worried that she's going to hit her lifetime caps and leave her family bankrupt."

And he said, "That's not the country we believe in, so let's just keep fighting." And then a few weeks later there was a discussion in the Oval Office and someone suggested that perhaps we'd have to scale back or throw the towel in on this and he turned to Phil Shalero, his legislative director, and he said, "Phil, what do you think the chances of passing this law are?" And Phil said, well, it depends how lucky you feel, Mr. President, which is not necessarily what you want if you're the president. And the president just smiled and said, Phil, I'm a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama and I'm president of the United States. So I feel lucky every day.

ZAKARIA: Do you remember the night when it passed?

AXELROD: Oh my, yes. Because this was an emotional thing for me, even though I was giving him political advice, I also am a parent of a child with a chronic illness and she has -- she started having seizures when she was 7 months old and they told us it would pass and a month later, she was released from the hospital and still having 10 seizures a day. We had to try all kinds of different medications.

My insurance didn't cover those medications. I couldn't switch insurance because she had a pre-existing condition and I was going broke. I was a young reporter. I didn't have a thousand dollars a month, which is what her medications cost. So I knew why we needed reform even if I knew how hard it would be and when the votes came in --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: The bill is passed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AXELROD: We were all gathered in the Roosevelt Room, the president, the vice president, everybody who worked on this issue, and I -- my office was right next to his and I got up and I went into my office and I sobbed, and I didn't even know why at first I was so overcome and then I realized it was because I knew that there were families out there who wouldn't have to go through the terror that my family did worrying that taking care of their child would leave them bankrupt.

And I went and I found them and I thanked them on behalf of all of those families and he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, that's why we do the work. And I'll always remember that moment because to me it crystallized what politics at its best is all about.

ZAKARIA: When you look at it, it's kind of almost unbelievable. This guy was a state senator in Illinois.

AXELROD: Yes.

ZAKARIA: And four years, five years later, he's --

AXELROD: Yes.

ZAKARIA: He's the president of the United States. What is it that you think propelled that meteoric rise?

AXELROD: Well, look, part of that success at this level is luck. The man meets the times. Barack was the right person for a time when Americans were looking for a distinctively different direction from the Bush years and he represented the sharpest departure in terms of style, approach, so that was one reason he got elected president but the other is, he has a set of qualities that marked him for leadership. He's powerfully intelligent and thoughtful and deliberative.

[10:25:04] He's thought about these issues from a very early age. And I think the greatest virtue that Barack Obama had brought to all of this was an ability to think long term and an understanding that you can't just ask the first question about a policy decision. You have to ask the second question and the third question. If we do this, then what? He's a long-term thinker. My friend David Plouffe once said that Barack Obama is a chess player in a town full of checkers players. And I think that that's true. So he had an extraordinary array of qualities that marked him for leadership and advanced him faster than most people in American history.

ZAKARIA: When you think of him, you know him and you've worked with him and seen him in the ups and downs, and as somebody I would ask you, who is this guy, what would your answer be?

AXELROD: I think that he is a deeply moral person, a person who sees his role as contributing to the greater good. That's his calling. Views politics as a calling. Not as a business --

ZAKARIA: Is he very ambitious?

AXELROD: I think he's ambitious in the way anybody has to be to seek that most powerful office on the planet but his ambitions run less to his own self-aggrandizement, certainly his own pecuniary interests than it does to his -- his desire to make the biggest difference he can.

You know, in the summer of 2011, I went to see him right after the controversy over the debt ceiling and it was probably the nadir of his eight years in the White House, his polling numbers were as bad as they have ever been. He was about to embark on a re-election campaign and many people were doubting he could win. And we sat out. We went down to the basketball court at the White House. We were shooting some baskets and we sat down on a bench and I said, did you ever regret having made this decision to run? And he looked at me with astonishment and he said, "Why would you even ask that?" And I said, "It seems pretty brutal right now."

And he said, you know what, if you're going to do public service, do it at the highest level you can do it where you can have the greatest impact. And he said, I'm happy every day to have that chance. And he was very sincere about that. That's who he is. He's a public servant and he takes public service very seriously.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: Coming up, in crisis opportunity. President Obama's first chief of staff Rahm Emanuel tells us about trying to turn political lemons into lemonade while working at the White House.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:31:29] ZAKARIA: Just days after his 2008 victory, then President- elect Obama made his first major political appointment. His chief of staff will be his fellow Chicagoan, now mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. Of Emanuel Obama said no one I know is better at getting things done. And there was, of course, a lot to get done.

When I sat down with Emanuel, we began by discussing the red hot issues Obama faced on day one.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: You guys come into the White House and you discovered that the world economy is collapsing. Describe for me, was it -- was there a sense of oh, my god, what have you gotten into? How did we get into --

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL (D), CHICAGO, FORMER OBAMA CHIEF OF STAFF: There were a few other adjectives between oh, my, and god. (LAUGHTER)

EMANUEL: No, I think that -- you know, the way I look at this and I try to describe this to people, any one of the four crises that he was handling were the -- one of them were the definite president of the next term.

ZAKARIA: What were the four crises?

EMANUEL: Well, think about this. Jimmy Carter handled Chrysler. We were handling the auto industry. George Herbert Walker Bush was handling the savings and loans. We were handling the financial industry including insurance. I mean, so savings and loans was a major crisis of a segment of the financial industry. The entire financial industry clamped up under -- prior to President Obama but that's what he walked into.

When President Carter was working through Chrysler, it was the single part of the auto industry. Basically we were discussing whether GM and Chrysler would ever exist. And all these The recession that became the great recession or not the word great was added to it because everybody knew there was a period of time for three or four months that we were butting up against something far worse than just a severe recession.

Any one of those individually would define another president's entire term and tenure, and we were dealing with all of them, let alone the longest war in American history and two foreign engagements.

ZAKARIA: So you famously said never let a crisis go to waste. What did you mean by that?

EMANUEL: Never let a crisis go to waste is the opportunity to do things you never thought you could do. So the second part which gets usually clipped off, what I meant by that is, while crises usually are associated with oh, my god, you know, what are we going to do, but they're also opportunities. They're not just challenges. And the question is, can you navigate it where that crisis becomes the opportunity to do things rather than just the challenge of how to solve a problem?

The auto industry, in my view, is the perfect example. We talked about the cars, we talked about the labor costs, we had talked about suppliers, we had talked about dealers, we had talked about all these things but never once in a collective way were all the problems at one fell swoop dealt with. But they have been postponed, delayed to the point that the auto industry, even at producing 17 million cars, was unprofitable.

By the time we were done with the reorganization and the lifeline of resources, at nine million cars a year, the auto industry of the United States is profitable. Today they're selling 15, 16 million. And it wasn't dependent on these big SUVs to make a buck. That's because if everybody had a little -- if everybody gave a little nobody had to give everything. Then it became a crisis that became the opportunity to do the things that you never thought were possible had made it possible.

ZAKARIA: There are people who think that if Obama had been more of a schmoozer that, you know, maybe people like you were too partisan, that somehow he needed to reach out. You don't think that?

[10:35:09] EMANUEL: No. We're just one golf game away from singing Kumbaya. Give me a break. They had a political strategy. And the reason I say that is Mitch McConnell on the day he gets inaugurated says what his strategy is. He enunciated it. It's in the paper. "We're going to do everything we can to stop him." And everybody else said, thinks if he just knew how to be a better golfer with everybody else, everybody would get along. It's not -- they told you the strategy. It's not like you have to interpret it.

They're overt about it. OK. Now could the president on the margins done the things that people talked about? Yes. But that was not going to change people's fundamental political calculus. Not one iota. Now I will -- I say this and I want to go back because it's going to make people uncomfortable and I want to be very clear.

In 2008 in September, the financial system collapses. George Bush calls Nancy Pelosi. Now you're two months away from a presidential election, a third in the Senate and the entire House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid's reaction wasn't, Mr. President, this is your crisis go figure it out with your party. We sat at the table, worked through the issues and we voted to get TARP created under George Bush with two months to go before the presidential when there was a major crisis in the financial sector.

Barack Obama becomes president two months later and there is a crisis in the financial sector, the economy is in a hole, and the auto economy and the Republican's answer when it came to America, said, go pound dirt. This is your problem. Go fix it yourself.

There is a very -- and people don't like to hear it, but the Republican legislative leaders' reaction to the national crisis was party above country. When there was a crisis under George Bush with two months to go before an election and it was a crisis of financial stability, we put country in front of party.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: Up next, a tragic day for America and the White House. Long-time Obama friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett talks about the shootings in Newtown and Obama's determined gun control fight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:40:54] ZAKARIA: Few people know Barack Obama as well as Valerie Jarrett. She's been his senior adviser for the past eight years but they have been close friends for over two decades. How did they come together? Listen in.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: When you knew him as a young man, what in him do you think has stayed the qualities and has made him a successful president?

VALERIE JARRETT, SENIOR ADVISER: Well, it's interesting. The first lady said about him once that being president doesn't change who you are, it reveals who you are and the young man that I met 25 years ago I think was -- I call him an old soul. He was very grounded. He was very clear about purpose for public service. Wasn't sure at that point how it would manifest itself, but was trying to figure out, how can I do good? And he had this kind of very focused long view. And that has stayed the same.

The other thing I'd say that's been constant throughout is his temperament. He is steady, he's calm. His highs are not too high and his lows are not too low. He is able to absorb a lot of anxiety that comes inevitably your way when you're in a position of leadership but not let it eat away at him, but not lose his empathy either. And so those are the kind of unusual qualities that go together that I recognized so long ago and I think they served him well in this office.

ZAKARIA: You talked often about his cool, his discipline, the ability to focus on the long term. Where do you think that comes from?

JARRETT: I think some of it he would attribute to Hawaii as kind of a laid back place. I think some of it is discipline and not losing focus because you know that if you lose focus, you're not going to be able to get as much done. So it's a combination of both just how you're born and the qualities that you have. The fact that he was well-loved as a child and nurtured, I think, gives you both feet planted on the ground.

The fact that he takes issues seriously, but he doesn't take them himself that seriously. And that you can tease him and get away with it. The fact that he is well-loved now by his amazing wife and these two incredible children that they've raised together. All of that, I think, acts as an anchor and a buffer that allows him to be temperamentally where he is.

ZAKARIA: He's also played the role of head of state and president and Michelle has as first lady with a great deal of dignity. Is there a conscious effort to do that because it is the first African-American couple in the White House? Do they think in those kinds of historic terms about their role?

JARRETT: I think they behave in a dignified way because they're dignified. I think part of the magic for why they're so appealing is that they are who they are. Early on, we'd have meetings and people would say to me, well, what did he really think? And I'd say, what did he say? And they'd say what he said. I said well, he kind of is what he is and that is the same for both of them. So I think that they behave as the people who they are, what you see in public is the same thing I see in private.

Do they feel responsibility because they're historic figures? Yes, they do. But I don't think that it has made them be different than who they are. The president prides himself on the fact that his administration hasn't had a scandal and that he hasn't done something to embarrass himself. But that's not because he's being someone other than who he is. That's because that's who he is, that's who they are, and I think that's what really resonates with the American people.

ZAKARIA: Do you remember Newtown, the day, and the president's reaction?

JARRETT: I certainly do. I certainly do.

ZAKARIA: How do you remember?

JARRETT: I remember being in the Oval Office when he was delivered a note that said the number of people who perished, and he said 20 children, and I thought he said two. And I said two? Well, that's a terrible thing. He said, no, I said 20. And I just remember neither my brain nor my heart could process that. And it was just every parents' nightmare, of course.

[10:45:01] And I traveled with the president to Newtown and we ended up having to drive about an hour and 10 minutes because it was a cloudy day and he couldn't take a helicopter and he read a speech that had been prepared for him in the car. And I remember watching him read it and then he put it on the other chair in the car and he pulled out a yellow pad and a pen and he started writing from scratch.

And I remember being conscious of my breathing because I didn't want to disturb him in any way and he wrote solidly for an hour and 10 minutes and he walked in and he handed his handwritten notes to one of the folks in his speech writing office and he said type this up and this is what I'll go. And it's one of his best speeches because it was all heart. And then he spoke not just as a president, but as a parent. And you know, what can we do to end this horrible, horrible characteristic of our country?

I mean, it doesn't make sense that we are the only country with this kind of gun violence that's developed in the world and so why would we want that to continue?

ZAKARIA: What would you say to people who are not very political who might be watching this who say, all I know is he failed at doing something about guns? That he's the president. There should have been some way. What's your response?

JARRETT: Well, believe me, there is no one who carries that weight more than he does. There's no one who's been to more memorial services and comforted more families in the course of his seven-plus years in office and the president, and he knows that's a big part of his job. The consoler-in-chief. 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 is like a poker in his stomach. And so it eats away at him.

But ultimately, he can't do this alone. And what he's been saying recently, since we were unable to get legislation through is, look, it's going to be up to the American people to care as much about this issue as he does. And when they do and when they begin to vote along the lines of this one issue, that's when you're going to see change because the people who represent them will be held accountable.

And so, yes, he wishes he could have done more. He's certainly done everything he can and until his last day in office he will be challenging his team to continue to work on this. But I think he also recognizes that the politics right now on the Hill are such that the strongest interest group there on guns is the NRA, not the American people.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: Next up, a final look at President Obama, the man. I will talk to his Secretary of State John Kerry and his National Security adviser, Susan Rice, about the president's personal relationships with leaders around the world, his crisis management skills and what he's really like behind closed doors.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:51:38] ZAKARIA: I traveled to Washington, D.C., in November to interview Secretary of State John Kerry. In his four years working with President Obama they've had their fair share of crises to confront. So what is the president like under pressure?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: You've seen a lot of presidents. What are the qualities that distinguish President Obama in handling a crisis? What do you think of when you think of how he handles foreign policy and, in particular, crises?

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, I think the president approaches all of these choices that come with any crisis with a terrific sense of calm, of just direction. He's a tough questioner. He gets at the nub of what the stakes may be but also what all the downstream implications may be, things others may not have thought through completely. And I've found him to be a very -- very thoughtful, tough questioner of the people around him who are supposed to be making -- you know, coming up with policy suggestions.

I also find him, you know, a strong decider. I mean, he -- you know, he will make up his mind. It may not be what everybody suggested. It may be different from what the current conventional wisdom is but he has a confidence in it, which is striking. And I think he does his thing. It doesn't mean that I or any or any other adviser will agree with 100 percent with every piece of it but he's the president and that's the job he has and we all -- everybody respects that.

So I've always been impressed by his willingness to take the time to dig in and really grapple with the ups and downs and back and forth and sideways of every issue he's presented.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: One of the most difficult decisions the president grappled with is whether to send Navy SEALs into Abbottabad, Pakistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. I spoke with former Defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta about the days and weeks leading up to May 2011.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA: Is there an anecdote that you can recall that to you best exemplifies the character of Barack Obama?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: I think that for me personally there really was no greater moment than the moment when the president had to make the decision as to whether or not we do the operation to go after bin Laden.

We had, over a period of time, presented him with the intelligence that we had on the compound, on the various elements that indicated that bin Laden might be located there. But we never had 100 percent identity that bin Laden was there. And even intelligence people had different gradings about whether or not we should or should not conduct that operation. When we finally decided that it was important to conduct the operation and we went to the NFC.

[10:55:07] You know, the president listened to Admiral McCraven and what the operation would look like if we did this commando raid on this compound. He listened very carefully and raised questions. But then he kind of looked around in the room in the NFC and said, what do each of you think? And went around that room, and I'd have to say that probably a majority of people around that table thought it was too risky and for good reasons.

I'm not -- I don't even question the fact that they were raising concerns about the risks involved. There were risks involved. But at the same time, when the president asked me, I said, Mr. President, I have an old formula I used when I was in the Congress, which is to pretend I ask the average citizen in my district, if you knew what I knew, what would you do? And I said, if the average citizen knew we had the best intelligence on the location of bin Laden since Bora Bora, I think they would say we have to go.

And I think you have to go and I have tremendous confidence in the ability of the SEALs to conduct this operation. The president did not make a decision at that point. He said thank you to everybody and then that evening considered all of the arguments that were made and it was the next morning that I got a call and said that the president had decided that the operation was a go. I think that process of thoughtfully considering all of those arguments but then making a very risky decision that you have to make as president of the United States, to make that decision and to say go tells me that deep down that the president had the courage of his conviction to do what he thought was necessary.

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ZAKARIA: I also sat down with National Security adviser Susan Rice who has traveled with the president on more than two dozen national trips since taking the post in 2013. I asked her about criticism about the president's personal relationship with foreign leaders. Listen in.

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ZAKARIA: People say he doesn't develop strong enough human relations, that foreign leaders don't warm to him, that he's too aloof, that he's the Spock of decision-making.

SUSAN RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: That is not my experience. But I have spent a lot of time with him. I've seen his profoundly raucous sense of humor. I've seen his gentleness and kindness to people he's worked closely with and people he's never met. But let me just give you one anecdote. We were just in Germany and the foreign leader with whom the president has spent the most years and through perhaps the most challenging circumstances working with has been Chancellor Merkel of Germany and we had an extremely warm two-day visit where she and he had a three-hour one-on-one dinner where they spent a great deal of time talking through past, present and future.

And one of the images that I'll never forget, they actually quite honestly got me choked up. As we were driving away from the chancellery and saying good-bye, Chancellor Markel had already said good-bye to the president and they had embraced and she was standing at the edge of the red carpet. We were in the president's vehicle and looked over at her and you could just see on her face a degree of sadness and regret and emotion that was quite remarkable.

And it was her face saying good-bye to her friend and partner. And I think the president felt that very deeply and I think that's indicative of the kind of relationship that he has built up with her and that he's had with others.

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ZAKARIA: We hope you've enjoyed this inside look at Barack Obama's presidency. If you haven't yet seen my most recent documentary "THE LEGACY OF BARACK OBAMA," consult your local listings for air time or find it on CNNGo. And be sure to keep watching CNN every Sunday at 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Eastern. In 2017, we will be talking about America's new president's trials and triumphs every week.

Thank you for being a part of my program this week and a very Happy New Year to all of you.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Happy New Year to you and your family. Thanks for tuning in. I'm Brian Stelter. And this RELIABLE SOURCES. Our weekly look at the story behind the story. That's how the media really works. How the news gets made.

Welcome to our viewers here in the --

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