OBAMA: Well, look, I’m from Illinois, and I spent eight years down in Springfield. So the location and the announcement, to some degree, made sense optically. My particular passion for Lincoln, though, dates back from my earliest memories of politics. And we’ve talked about this before—that there’s no one who I believe has ever captured the soul of America more profoundly than Abraham Lincoln has.
Not just his biography, of somebody who genuinely rose from nothing, self-taught, striking out along the borders of our Great Frontier. Somebody who worked with his hands and then worked with his mind, and somehow became one of the greatest writers in the English language. And I think, most importantly, somebody who was able to see humanity clearly, see the fundamental contradictions of the American experiment clearly, and yet still remain hopeful and still remain full of humor, and still have a basic sympathy for the human condition, even in the midst of a terrible war and having to make terrible decisions. And having a forgiving spirit.
I mean, I could go on and on for hours about Lincoln. For me, Lincoln is like just a handful of people—a Gandhi, or a Picasso, or a Martin Luther King Jr.—who is an original and captures something essential.
GOODWIN: When Lincoln was 23 years old, and running for office the first time, he said, “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.” And then, a decade later, when he was in the midst of a depression so severe that his friends took all the knives, razors, and other dangerous things from his room, he said he was more than willing to die but that he had “done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived.” Isn’t that incredible? So how would you describe your “peculiar ambition” that every man has? And when did it develop?
OBAMA: It’s always dangerous to amend the words of Abraham Lincoln, but let me see if this is a friendly amendment. I actually think, when you’re young, ambitions are somewhat common—you want to prove yourself. It may grow out of different life experiences. You may want to prove that you are worthy of the admiration of the demanding father. You may want to prove that you are worthy of the love of an absent father. You may want to prove that you’re worthy of other kids or neighbors who were wealthier than you and teased you. You may want to prove that you’re worthy of high expectations. But I do think that there is a youthful ambition that very much has to do with making your mark in the world. And I think that cuts across the experiences of a lot of people who end up achieving something significant in their field. I think, as you get older, that’s when your ambitions become “peculiar” …
GOODWIN: Oh, well said, sir. We can amend Lincoln.
OBAMA: … because I think that at a certain stage those early ambitions burn away, partly because you achieve something, you get something done, you get some notoriety. And then the particularities of who you are and what your deepest commitments are begin expressing themselves. You’re not just chasing the idea of “me” being important, but you, rather, are chasing a particular passion.
So, in my case, you could analyze me and say that my father leaving and being absent was a motivator for early ambition, trying to prove myself to this apparition who had vanished. You could argue that me being a mixed kid in a place where there weren’t a lot of black kids around might have spurred on my ambitions. You could go through a whole litany of things that sparked me wanting to do something important.
But as I got older, then my particular ambitions started cohering around creating a world in which people of different races or backgrounds or faiths can recognize each other’s humanity, or creating a world in which every kid, regardless of their background, can strive and achieve and fulfill their potential.
And those particular ambitions end up being rooted not just in me wanting to prove myself, but they end up being rooted in a particular worldview, a recognition that the world only makes sense to me given my life and my background if, in fact, we’re not just an assortment of tribes that can never understand each other, but that we’re, rather, one common humanity that can meet and learn and love each other.
OBAMA: And the team that you build here, the family that you build here, is powerful. But there is a reason why George Washington is always one of the top three presidents, and it’s not because of his prowess as a military leader; it’s not because of the incredible innovations in policy that he introduced. It’s because he knew when it was time to go. And he understood that part of the experiment we were setting up was this idea that you serve the nation and then it’s over, and then you’re a citizen again. And that “office of citizen” remains important, but your ability to let go is part of the duty that you have.