By Jordan Fabian - 02/11/16 09:11 AM EST
President Obama does not believe race played a role in the deepening partisan divide that has marred his time in the White House.
"So those things cut both ways."
The president made the comments after calling for unity and civility that have eluded his presidency during an appearance in Springfield, Ill., the city where he launched his first White House bid nine years ago.
Already a month into his final year in office, Obama said he wants to "create a tone" for the next president in which partisan politics pose less of an obstacle to getting things done.
Obama conceded that he shares some of the blame for not doing a better job of reaching out to Republicans, adding that today's political system punishes bipartisan cooperation.
"Every day that I’m in this office, I look back and I say, 'Well, maybe I could have done that a little better,' or 'Maybe I should have reached out to that person more effectively,' or 'Maybe if I had framed the issue better, that people would come together and find common ground,' " he said.
The president conducted the interview with three of his former colleagues from the Illinois state Senate. When one of them suggested race played a factor in the vociferous opposition from Republicans, Obama pushed back.
"There’s no doubt that there are pockets of the country where some dog whistles blow and there’s underlying racial fears that may be exploited, overall, what’s more the case I think is just the straight, hardball politics of running against an incumbent and beating the heck out of them and softening them up," he said.
"Because if a whole bunch of stuff gets done, he’s going to get the credit."
Obama pointed out that former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonBill Clinton: We're entering era that will 'make the 90s look like small potatoes' Trump son: Talk like father's leaked 2005 tapes 'a fact of life' Is Georgia turning blue? MORE and then-first lady Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDems double down on Nevada Latino vote The New Yorker endorses Clinton House race between Republicans turns ugly MORE didn't have to contend with race in trying to pass a healthcare law in the 1990s.
"They got beat up just as good, and they didn’t even get the thing done," he said.
The president admitted it was a "majority muscle move" to push through his signature healthcare law without any Republican votes. But he said it wasn't for lack of trying to work across the aisle.
After three or four months of trying to get Republican lawmakers on board, Obama realized that he wasn't going to attract any GOP support for the Affordable Care Act because party members opposed to expanding the size of government "poisoned the well" for those who wanted to get on board, he said.
"I remember the last conversation I had with a Republican whose name I won't mention — we had been talking for months, and we had taken every idea that he had suggested and we had said if this doesn’t work, is there another way you want to do it -- and he just finally turned to me -- I was sitting in the Oval Office — and he said, you know what, Mr. President, I got to admit there’s no change that allows me to vote for this thing," Obama said.
Asked if he could regain the reputation as a unifying and inspiring figure he had after his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Obama said it could happen one day.
"I suspect that when I’m done being president, suddenly people will start saying, 'Oh, that guy, he wasn’t a bad guy,' " he said.
"Some of our most revered presidents were hugely polarizing. And people cussed them and called them everything but a child of God," he added. "It comes with the territory. So I’m less worried about me."