President Barack Obama in NBC special talks legacy, how he 'worked really hard' for America

A tide of hope and change swept a young junior senator from Illinois into the White House eight years ago. But the bright idealism that Barack Obama represented dimmed into a stark reality: the most powerful job in the world required more than unwavering optimism.

Obama, who is winding down his second term before President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20, spoke about the accomplishments and setbacks of his historic tenure in a wide-ranging interview with NBC News' Lester Holt.

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The best moments and photos from President Obama's last year
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The best moments and photos from President Obama's last year

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill January 12, 2016 in Washington, D.C. In his final State of the Union, President Obama reflected on the past seven years in office and spoke on topics including climate change, gun control, immigration and income inequality.

(Photo by Evan Vucci - Pool/Getty Images)

Cuban President Raul Castro (R) raises US President Barack Obama's hand during a joint press conference at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. Cuba's Communist President Raul Castro on Monday stood next to Barack Obama and hailed his opposition to a long-standing economic 'blockade,' but said it would need to end before ties are fully normalized.

(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama touches the coffin of former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres after speaking during his funeral at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl national cemetery on September 30, 2016.

(ABIR SULTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama arrives to speak during a closing session at the Nuclear Security Summit April 1, 2016 in Washington, D.C. After a spate of terrorist attacks from Europe to Africa, Obama is rallying international support during the summit for an effort to keep Islamic State and similar groups from obtaining nuclear material and other weapons of mass destruction.

(Photo By Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty Images)

First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. President Barack Obama wait for leaders to arrive for the Nordic state dinner on the North Portico at the White House, May 13, 2016, in Washington, DC. Leaders from Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland were invited to the White House for the U.S.-Nordic leaders summit.

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama wears a traditional blanket and hat given to him during the 2016 White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, DC, September 26, 2016.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama arrives with US first lady Michelle Obama to speak during a reception to mark Black History Month in the East Room of the White House February 18, 2016 in Washington, DC.

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama holds a baby during a State Arrival ceremony for Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, August 2, 2016.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton hugs U.S. President Barack Obama as she arrives onstage at the end of his speech on the third night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., July 27, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

U.S. President Barack Obama drinks a glass of filtered water from Flint, a city struggling with the effects of lead-poisoned drinking water, as he delivers remarks at North Western, in Flint, Michigan May 4, 2016.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks to the 2016 graduating class at High Point Solutions Stadium during Rutgers University's 250th commencement exercises, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, May 15, 2016.

(REUTERS/Mike Theiler)

U.S. President Barack Obama blows bubbles during the 2016 White House Science Fair in Washington, April 13, 2016. The bubble maker was made on a 3D printer by Jacob Leggette, 9, of Baltimore, Maryland.

(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

U.S. President Barack Obama gestures during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Germany, November 17, 2016.

(REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (L) in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., November 22, 2016.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

U.S. President Barack Obama congratulates his daughter Malia on her birthday during the Independence Day celebration at the White House in Washington U.S., July 4, 2016.

(REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) hugs with atomic bomb survivor Shigeaki Mori as he visits Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan May 27, 2016.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama serve Thanksgiving dinner to residents of the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH) in Washington, U.S., November 23, 2016.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Malia Obama's hair flies into the air as a cold wind hits her and U.S. President Barack Obama while descending the steps of Air Force One upon their arrival at O'Hare Airport in Chicago April 7, 2016.

(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

First lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama perform a reading of the children's book "Where the Wild Things Are" for children gathered for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, March 28, 2016.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

US President Barack Obama and Republican President-elect Donald Trump shake hands during a transition planning meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on November 10, 2016 in Washington,DC.

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama speaks as he attends a campaign rally in support of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the University of Central Florida on October 28, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. Election day for the presidential candidates is 10 days away.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Cuban President Raul Castro talk before the start of an exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Major League Baseball team Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the Estado Latinoamericano March 22, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first time a sitting president has visited Cuba in 88 years.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, September 5, 2016.

(Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Druzhinin/via REUTERS)

(L-R) Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands while posing for the family photo at the North American Leaders' Summit in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 29, 2016.

(REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

With tears running down his cheeks, U.S. President Barack Obama talks about the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and about his efforts to increase federal gun control in the East Room of the White House January 5, 2016 in Washington, DC. Without approval from Congress, Obama is sidestepping the legislative process with executive actions to expand background checks for some firearm purchases and step up federal enforcement of existing gun laws.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama reacts after pardoning the National Thanksgiving turkey during the 69th annual presentation of the turkey in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S. November 23, 2016.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

U.S. President Barack Obama greets supporters at a rally for Hillary Clinton's campaign in Las Vegas, Nevada October 23, 2016.

(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

US President Barack Obama votes early at the Cook County Office Building in Chicago, Illinois, October 7, 2016. Obama cast an early ballot on Friday, highlighting a Democratic drive to get voters to the polls even before November 8. During an unannounced visit, Obama stood before a voting machine at the Chicago Board of Elections office, punched in his choice and smirked when asked who he had voted for.

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama plays with a baby after speaking at Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, November 4, 2016, during a Hillary for America campaign event.

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Lawmakers watch as US President Barack Obama signs H.R. 2576, the 'Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act at the White House campus June 22, 2016 in Washington, DC.

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the National Park Service at Yosemite National Park, California, U.S., June 18, 2016.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

U.S. President Barack Obama tries virtual reality glasses and he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel tour Hanover Messe Trade Fair in Hanover, Germany April 25, 2016.

(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden (L) enter the Oval Office after Obama spoke about the election results that saw Donald Trump become President-elect from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., November 9, 2016.

(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

U.S. President Barack Obama hugs his wife Michelle as Vice-President Joe Biden and his wife Jill look on after the President delivered a farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. January 10, 2017.

(REUTERS/John Gress)

U.S. President Barack Obama says "Obama out!" at the White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner in Washington, U.S., April 30, 2016.

(REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

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The one-hour "Dateline NBC" special, "Barack Obama: The Reality of Hope," aired 10 p.m. ET Friday.

Holt was given rare access aboard Air Force One and to Obama ahead of the president's farewell speech in Chicago this week. The pair sat down to discuss Obama's legacy in health care and education, his disappointment in failing to get gun control legislation passed after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 and how he considers America stronger and more prosperous than when he took office.

"I never got weary," Obama said. "Every day I woke up and I worked really hard. And I worked really hard on the things that the American people cared about and on the things that are most important for our future."

A national dialogue about race was at the forefront in 2015 after the massacre of nine black worshipers by a white gunman in the name of racist ideology. His response as the country's first African-American president highlighted the good that can still spring from such tragedy.

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Malia and Sasha Obama through the years
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Malia and Sasha Obama through the years

Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Democrat Barack Obama (2nd R), wife Michelle and their daughters Malia (R), 3, and Sasha (L), 6, spend time in their Chicago hotel room, November 2, 2004. Obama faces Republican candidate Alan Keys in the first Senate race with two African American candidates.

(REUTERS/John Gress)

Michelle Obama and her daughters Sasha and Malia (R) listen as her husband Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks during a campaign stop in Oskaloosa, Iowa, July 4, 2007. REUTERS/Keith Bedford (UNITED STATES)
Sasha Obama walks from Jorge's Sombrero restaurant after a meal with her father U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and her sister Malia and mother Michelle in Pueblo, Colorado November 1, 2008. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) is cheered by supporters after winning the Democratic Iowa caucuses in Des Moines, Iowa January 3, 2008. Obama is seen with his wife Michelle and daughters Malia (L) and Sasha.

(REUTERS/Jim Young/UNITED STATES)

'U.S. first lady Michelle Obama laughs while her daughter Malia reads a book to patients at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington. Also is Obama's other daughter Sasha.

(Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

U..S President Barack Obama's daughters Malia and Sasha Obama watch the inaugural parade from their father's reviewing stand in Washington January 20, 2009. Barack Obama became the first black U.S. president on Tuesday and declared it is time to set aside petty differences and embark on a new era of responsibility to repair the country and its image abroad.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/UNITED STATES)

Sasha Obama, the youngest daughter of U.S. President Barack Obama, smiles as she looks at her sister Malia as they wait to collect takeout lunch at Nancy's restaurant in Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard, August 26, 2009.

(REUTERS/Jason Reed/UNITED STATES POLITICS)

U.S. President Barack Obama's daughters Malia (L) and Sasha play with the first family's dog Bo as they wait for Obama's return to Washington after a day trip to Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he participated in economic rallies, September 15, 2009.

(REUTERS/Mike Theiler)

President Barack Obama speaks onstage as Michelle Obama, Sasha Obama and Malia Obama look on during TNT's 'Christmas in Washington 2010' at the National Building Museum on December 12, 2010 in Washington, DC.

(Theo Wargo via Getty Images)

Malia Obama and Sasha Obama attend the first White House Dance Series with their mother, First Lady Michelle Obama, in the East Room of the White House September 7, 2010 in Washington, DC. The dance event was a tribute to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Artistic Director Judith Jamison, a famous modern dancer, choreographer and muse to Alvin Ailey.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama enjoys a "shaved ice" with his daughter Malia at Island Snow Hawaii while on vacation in Kailua January1, 2010.

(REUTERS/Hugh Gentry)

U.S. President Barack Obama walks with his daughter, Sasha, as they look at the White-Handed Gibbon at the Honolulu Zoo in Hawaii January 3, 2010.

(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, sit for a family portrait in the Oval Office, Dec. 11, 2011.

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

(Photo by Pete Souza/White House/Handout/Corbis via Getty Images)

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First Lady Michelle Obama, first daughters Malia and Sasha and first dog Bo receive the 2012 Christmas Tree.

(Photo by ImageCatcher News Service/Corbis via Getty Images)

11/21/12- The White House- Washington, DC

President Barack Obama and his daughters Malia and Sasha.

(Photo by ImageCatcher News Service/Corbis via Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama celebrates with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia (R) and Sasha at their election night victory rally in Chicago, November 7, 2012.

(REUTERS/Jason Reed)

Sasha (L) and Malia Obama, daughters of US President Barack Obama, take a photo of themselves during the Presidential Inaugural Parade on January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC.

(JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama speaks to a cashier as he pays for books with daughter Malia at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington on November 30, 2013 as part of Small Business Saturday.

(NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama walks from Marine One with his daughter Sasha as they return to the White House in Washington January 5, 2014. Obama and his daughters were returning from a two week holiday vacation.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Malia Obama and Sasha Obama speak onstage at TNT Christmas in Washington 2014 at the National Building Museum on December 14, 2014 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage)

U.S. President Barack Obama's daughters Sasha (L) and Malia listen to their father during the pardoning of the National Thanksgiving Turkey "Cheese" at the White House in Washington November 26, 2014.

(REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

Sasha Obama, daughter of U.S. President Barack Obama, participates in the turkey pardoning ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House November 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. In a tradition dating back to 1947, the president pardons a turkey, sparing the tom -- and his alternate -- from becoming a Thanksgiving Day feast. This year, Americans were asked to choose which of two turkeys would be pardoned and to cast their votes on Twitter.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Malia Obama (R) and Sasha Obama after arrival at Malpensa Airport in Milan, on June 17, 2015.

(Photo by Andrea Spinelli/Corbis via Getty Images)

Malia Obama, daughter of U.S. President Barack Obama, participates in the turkey pardoning ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House November 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. In a tradition dating back to 1947, the president pardons a turkey, sparing the tom -- and his alternate -- from becoming a Thanksgiving Day feast. This year, Americans were asked to choose which of two turkeys would be pardoned and to cast their votes on Twitter.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Malia and Sasha Obama attend the national Christmas tree lighting ceremony on the Ellipse south of the White House December 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. The lighting of the tree is an annual tradition attended by the president and the first family.

(Photo by Olivier Douliery- Pool/Getty Images)

US President Barack Obama and daughter Malia make their way to board Air Force One before departing from Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on April 8, 2016. Obama is heading to San Francisco to take part in a Democratic National Committee roundtable discussion and to attend a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser.

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia (L) and Sasha (R) walk to Air Force One as they depart from Roswell, New Mexico, U.S., June 17, 2016.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

U.S. President Barack Obama and his daughter Malia walk from Marine One to board Air Force One upon their departure from O'Hare Airport in Chicago April 7, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama and First lady Michelle Obama's youngest daughter Sasha (C) picks up her food at the Z-burger chain during the "I'm with Hillary" promotion in Washington, U.S., October 28, 2016. Customers using the password received a free hamburger today. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Sasha (L) and Malia Obama, the daughters of U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama walk to Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., June 17, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Malia Obama attends the 2016 Budweiser Made in America Festival at Benjamin Franklin Parkway on September 4, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

(Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Anheuser-Busch)

HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 22: (L-R) Malia Obama, Sasha Obama, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama react to the first run scored during an exhibition game between the Cuban national baseball team and Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the Estado Latinoamericano March 22, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first time a sitting president has visited Cuba in 88 years.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Malia Obama (L) and Princess Lalla Meryem of Morocco attend an Iftar dinner at the royal palace in Marrakech, June 28, 2016. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Sasha Obama, daughter of U.S. President Barack Obama, attends her first State Dinner in honor of the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau at the White House in Washington March 10, 2016.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Malia Obama attends a State Dinner at the White House March 10, 2016 in Washington, D.C. Hosted by President and First Lady Obama, the dinner is in honor of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and First Lady Sophie Gregoire Trudeau of Canada.

(Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

U.S. President Barack Obama, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia (R) and Sasha (L) board Air Force One at Cape Cod Coast Guard Air Station in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, U.S., August 21, 2016.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

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"This was a moment when I think the entire country recognized — not just the evil that had been perpetrated — but also this amazing response on the part of these people in this church," Obama said.

His decision to sing "Amazing Grace" during an already emotional eulogy in Charleston was a freeing moment — born out of spontaneity, he said, and not political stagecraft.

Holt also spoke with Obama about the issues he's faced with in his final days, including the Russian government allegedly meddling in last year's election in order to help Trump win.

Obama declined to comment when asked about an unverified memo written by an ex-British spy that suggests the Russian government had compromising information on the president-elect. Obama told NBC News he ordered a report on the cyberattacks "because I felt it was important ... for everybody to understand exactly what happened in order to prevent it from happening again."

He said he hopes Congress and Trump will continue to investigate the claims even after he leaves office.

Key parts of Obama's legacy, including the Affordable Care Act and clean energy policies, face an uncertain future under a Trump administration. Obama said it will be up to successive generations to build upon the nation's "best impulses."

"We make progress, and then sometimes we take a step back ... before we start going forward again. But that's not a cause for despair," the president said. " That's a cause for hope."

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