A president and a journalist: 17 interviews

A conversation with 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft about his 17 interviews with President Obama; and executive producer Jeff Fager's memories from behind the scenes

Kroft and Obama: 17 interviews
Kroft and Obama: 17 interviews 06:33

Earlier this week, President Obama walked into the State Dining Room at the White House where 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft was waiting to interview him. “Steve Kroft,” Mr. Obama said, “we’re just going to keep doing this until we get it right.”

It would be their 17th interview for 60 Minutes in the past decade.

60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft and President Barack Obama Aaron Tomlinson

Then the president and the journalist sat across from each other for one last time and engaged in a thoughtful, wide-ranging, and contentious exit interview. For Kroft, interviewing Mr. Obama has been “the longest gig I’ve ever had in 37 years,” he told 60 Minutes Overtime’s Ann Silvio in the video above.  

“I think he really likes the 60 Minutes audience--and who wouldn’t? It’s the largest news audience in the country,” says Kroft. “And it’s a long form, so he can answer questions in a way that he wouldn’t be able to answer them at news conferences.”

Barack Obama: Eight Years in the White House 41:26

Kroft first met Mr. Obama in Chicago in 2007. At the time, he was a relatively inexperienced junior senator preparing to announce his candidacy for president. Kroft also landed the first post-election interview with Mr. Obama in 2008, and he was the first to hear the president’s take on the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. In 2009, just after Mr. Obama addressed Congress about his controversial health-care plan, he turned to Kroft to talk about it on 60 Minutes.  

And now, as Mr. Obama prepares to depart the White House, it’s Steve Kroft who was there with him, strolling the hallways of the White House as Mr. Obama reminisced about the place where he raised his children and made decisions about war and peace.

“It’s not friends, but they’ve gotten to know each other over the years in a professional way-- and in a kidding way.” 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager

All told, the 60 Minutes broadcast has recorded about 30-40 hours of tape with the two men jousting over foreign policy, cyber war, the economy, Washington’s partisan divide, and everything in between. Kroft says he approaches the interviews with Mr. Obama like he would a chess match.

“The thing I found amazing is that, in all the times that I’ve interviewed him, I’ve never seen him groping for facts,” says Kroft. “I’ve never seen him have to turn to an aide and say, ‘Is that right?’ or ‘I don’t really know about that--I can find out.’ I mean, he has a real command of the material, and that’s very unusual for a politician.”

Kroft and Obama have a unique connection, says executive producer Jeff Fager in an interview with 60 Minutes Overtime’s Ann Silvio in the video above. “It’s not friends, but they’ve gotten to know each other over the years in a professional way-- and in a kidding way.”

President Obama jokes with 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, left, and Steve Kroft, center, that the broadcast will no longer take his calls once he’s out of office Aaron Tomlinson

“One of the criticisms I think people have had of him is that they think he’s a little aloof, that he’s uncomfortable talking to people,” Kroft says. “I’ve never found that to be the case.”

Fager says it’s rare for a single 60 Minutes correspondent to cover a president over the course of a decade, noting that correspondent Mike Wallace’s coverage of President Reagan came close.  

“I think what Steve has done really well, that reporters have a hard time doing, is to let someone talk, let them finish their thought-- and you have to be really patient to let Obama finish his thought,” says Fager. “But Steve never held back. There have been some tough moments.”

President Barack Obama and 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft CBS News

For the production of this week’s exit interview, Kroft worked with a team of 60 Minutes producers, some of whom had been reporting on the Obama beat at 60 Minutes since Kroft’s first story about him in 2007. The producer team, which included Frank Devine, Maria Gavrilovic, Michael Karzis, spent weeks reviewing past 60 Minutes interviews with Mr. Obama as they prepared questions.

“I found it really interesting going back and reading them because I don’t think he’s changed much,” Kroft says. “His heart, his core, his beliefs haven’t really changed. He’s kind of stubborn to begin with.”

The tenor of Kroft and Mr. Obama’s relationship has volleyed between playful teasing, thoughtful exchanges, and fiery debate. In this week’s interview, Kroft presses Mr. Obama firmly about his use of the phrase “red line,” his ultimatum about Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

“I thought I might be able to get him to admit that maybe he had made a mistake in saying something,” Kroft says. “He fought every step of the way.”

Kroft believes that Mr. Obama enjoys the verbal sparring of their interviews, however tense the conversation turns.

“I get that sense that he doesn’t hold grudges,” Kroft says. “Maybe he’ll hold a grudge on this one-- but, you know, I don’t have to interview him again.”

The video above is produced by Ann Silvio and Lisa Orlando. 

It was edited by Lisa Orlando, with assistance from Will Croxton, Sarah Shafer, Rebecca Chertok Gonsalves, and Susan Bieber. 

Warren Lustig also contributed to the production of this report.

Brit McCandless contributed to this article.