Humility from the Most Powerful Man on the Planet

Before President Barack Obama left office, he gave an "exit interview" to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. It originally appeared in Vanity Fair. When I first read it, President Obama's response to one of Goodwin's questions struck me -- enough that I've thought about it a few times since reading it, including today.

Goodwin asked Obama a question that I imagine isn't easy for a President to answer at the end of his/her term. What do you wish you would have done differently? Here's the exchange.

GOODWIN: So what do you regret the most that you wish you had done—or that you might have been able to deal better with?

OBAMA: Oh, look, the list of things I wish I had gotten done is long.

GOODWIN: I don’t mean what you didn’t get done, but what you might have done differently.

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OBAMA: What I might have done differently. Yes, even that list is perpetually renewing itself because each day I say, maybe if I had done that just a little bit different or that a little bit better. I know there are problems that I say to myself, if maybe I was a little more gifted I might have been able to solve. But that’s not because I believe what I did was a mistake. It’s that maybe it required the talents of a Lincoln.

So when I think about the polarization that occurred in 2009 and 2010, I’ve gone back and I’ve looked at my proposals and my speeches and the steps we took to reach out to Congress. And the notion that we weren’t engaging Congress, or that we were overly partisan, or we didn’t schmooze enough, or we didn’t reach out enough to Republicans—that whole narrative just isn’t true.

GOODWIN: But that narrative took hold, right?

OBAMA: What I can say is maybe if I had the genius of an Abraham Lincoln, or the charm of F.D.R., or the energy of Teddy Roo­se­velt, or the legislative acumen of L.B.J., or all those things wrapped into one, maybe things would have turned out differently.

If I had more talent, or genius, or charm, or energy, or acumen, maybe things would have turned out differently. What strikes me about this is that Obama isn't questioning the things within his control: his decisions, his timing, his words. He doesn't talk about his biggest mistakes (which he has discussed publicly). That would have been the easy thing to do.

Instead, he does something harder. Something humbler. Something that requires self awareness. At a basic level, what he's saying -- out loud, in an interview with a presidential historian on behalf of a national publication, with everyone listening -- is: "maybe I wasn't good enough."

It was a remarkable thing for him to say at the time. It's even more remarkable when compared with "I alone can fix it." 

In 100 years, there will be another legendary presidential historian. I imagine that person will have an appointment at the White House in November of an election year, before the president knows who will replace him/her in the Oval Office. It will be a wide-ranging interview, but inevitably the subject of presidential greatness will come up. When it does, they will discuss Lincoln's genius, FDR's charm, Teddy Roosevelt's energy, Kennedy's oratory, and LBJ's acumen -- but my guess is there will be another name and trait that cap off the list: Obama's humility.