In a wide-ranging interview with All Things Considered host Michel Martin, former President Barack Obama talks about his new book, A Promised Land, the 2020 election results, President Trump’s refusal to concede to President-elect Joe Biden, racial hostility in America and the role race played in his presidency.
Michel Martin: So thank you for having us. Thank you for receiving us here at your office, which is amazing.
Former President Barack Obama: It’s wonderful to have you.
Have you developed any interesting COVID habits? Like some people are gardening. Mrs. Obama indicated she was learning to knit. Some of us who would kill any plant have somehow managed to manage a garden this year. Not talking about anybody in particular, just hypothetically. How about you?
I have to say Michelle is not just starting to knit. She’s become this extraordinary knitter, which, I told her the other day, it’s kind of weird how good you’ve gotten at this thing. She’s making sweaters and scarves and caps and —
OK. But what about you?
I cannot claim to have cultivated a new hobby, partly because I was busy finishing the book up until a couple of months ago. And then we had this campaign that I had to participate in a little more than I had anticipated. So, who knows? I may start up something.
Well, let’s talk about the campaign. How do you understand the election results? I mean, by that I mean, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris win the White House, but Republicans make gains in the House. And in fact, Republicans now control more state legislatures than at any point in U.S. history. They control both legislative houses in 32 states. And of course, we are speaking at a time when there are more than 10 million COVID cases in the United States, 240,000 people have died. This is as, just as we are speaking now. Yet 70 million people voted for the incumbent who presided over all this. So what do you thinks going on here? How do you understand it?
Look, I think there’s no doubt that the country is deeply divided right now. And, you know, when I think back even to my own first presidential election in 2008, the country didn’t feel this divided, what some people have called the great sort in which you have a combination of a political, cultural, ideological, in some cases, religious and geographical divide that seems to be deeper than just differences in policy. A lot of that I think has to do with changes in how people get information. I’ve spoken about this before, I write about this in my book. If you watch Fox News, you perceive a different reality than if you read The New York Times and that didn’t use to be as stark because you had local newspapers and you had people overlapping in terms of where they got information. But now partly because of social media and sort of the echo chamber, a lot of the people who voted for Donald Trump do not believe that in fact COVID was mishandled, contrary to the facts that now you or I might assert, those aren’t the facts that they accept. And I think that until we can start having a common baseline of facts from which to discuss the direction of the country, we’re going to continue to have some of these issues. Now part of it is also the fact that the Republican Party — because you mentioned state legislatures — Democrats tend to now be primarily in metropolitan areas, not just cities, but surrounding suburbs, metro areas and Republicans are spread out more in less densely populated rural areas. That gives them a huge advantage automatically in the Senate. It gives them a big advantage with respect to state legislative races and even gives them some advantage in congressional races. So, Joe Biden can win by 5 million votes in the popular vote, but because of how those votes are distributed, Democrats are going to be at a disadvantage. All of which means that I am thrilled that Joe and Kamala have won. I believe that they will restore a bunch of norms — respect for science, respect for facts, respect for rule of law that I think have been breached over the last four years — but some of the bigger challenges in bringing the country together, that’s going to be a project that goes beyond just one election.
I want to talk more about that at the end of our conversation, but as we are speaking now, President Trump is refusing to concede, and he’s refusing to even to cooperate with the transition. How do you understand that? What do you think that is? Some people are calling it a tantrum, other people take it a lot more seriously. How do you understand it?
I take it seriously. I don’t think he’ll be successful in denying reality. And you’re starting to see a few Republican elected officials go ahead and say, “Look, Joe Biden has been elected and we need to move on in the transition.” I’m distressed that you haven’t seen more Republican leadership make this clear because the amount of time that’s being lost of in this transition process has real-world effects. Look, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. We’re in the middle of an economic crisis. We have serious national security issues.
And as I describe when I was elected for all the differences that I had with George W. Bush, he and his administration could not have been more gracious and effective in working with us to facilitate a smooth transition. And since we were in the middle of a big financial crisis, at that point, my ability to get fully briefed from a Hank Paulson, my abilities — since we were in the middle of two wars — to get immediately briefed on what was happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, what terrorist threats were out there that meant we hit the ground running and allowed us to be more effective in our responses. And so, it is yet one more example of how Donald Trump’s breach of basic democratic norms is hurting the American people.
So I’m not going to ask you what advice you’d give to Joe Biden, because presumably you would tell him yourself, but you’re a proponent, you’ve always been a proponent of people power. Is there something that you think citizens should be doing right now?
Well, look, getting a handle on this public health issue is going to require all of our cooperation. It’s been tough for the American people because they haven’t been getting one clear set of guidelines and information, and all of us, no matter how well-informed or conscientious we’ve been, have at times been confused with a bunch of conflicting notions of how we should be dealing with this.
I think priority No. 1 — and I’m confident Joe will do this. He’s got Ron Klain as chief of staff who was my point person for dealing with the Ebola crisis, understands this stuff. All of us as citizens need to work and get behind a clear plan for getting this pandemic under control. Because if we can get the pandemic under control, the economy then is in a position to start bouncing back. But beyond that, what I think all of us as citizens are going to have to do is to really start examining what can each of us do, whether it’s at the local level, in our own families, to step back from the demonization of each other, the bitter partisan divides that we’re seeing, and ask ourselves: What role can we play in rebuilding social trust? And look, it’s a hard thing to do. And again, I don’t want to make mass media as the boogeyman. But, when you look at these information silos in Facebook and other social media and the rabbit holes that people are following, the denial of facts, the belief in wild conspiracy theories like QAnon getting real traction, each of us have some responsibilities to start thinking carefully about not being so gullible and just accepting whatever it is that we’re seeing pop up on our phones.
To that end, I was struck in reading the book by the parallels of this moment with when you took office, your first months in office were spent, as you said, focusing on economic recovery, H1N1, remember that, developing the Affordable Care Act, and President-elect Biden starts with a similar set of challenges: a global health crisis, an economic crisis that flows from sort of that health crisis. He also has a similar commitment to being bipartisan. And as with your presidency, it does seem that there’s an effort to deny him legitimacy as with your presidency. And we actually heard it with our reporters in the field over election night, there were people saying, I will never recognize Joe Biden as my president, which certainly has to sound familiar to you.
And I think that the lesson that some people are going to draw from your experience is don’t do it: This idea of being bipartisan is a fool’s errand and that the only thing that really works is expanding your base, keeping it fired up and trying to take it all. I mean, how do you respond to that?
I think it’s fair to conclude from my experience in ’08, ’09, 2010 that we should always reach out to try to get bipartisan cooperation because the Democrats are not going to have a supermajority in the Senate. They’re not going to be able to break filibusters routinely. And so if you want to get some stuff done, Joe Biden is going to have to work with some Republican colleagues in the Senate.
But I think it is a fair critique to say that if you are seeing constant obstruction just for the sake of obstruction, where there doesn’t seem a desire to cooperate even on issues or policies that Republicans previously themselves promoted as happened during my presidency — I’m very careful to remind everybody that the model for the Affordable Care Act was a plan that Mitt Romney had successfully passed with Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts.
And when I start talking about climate change issues, I describe how the cap-and-trade system was a policy that George H.W. Bush, a Republican, had implemented in solving other environmental issues.
If you start getting a sense that it is just a pure power play, then you don’t want to be Lucy and Charlie Brown, where you just keep on kicking the football and not learning from experience that is going to be pulled out from under you. But I think that there is a way to reach out and not be a sap. There’s a way of consistently offering the possibility of cooperation, but recognizing that if Mitch McConnell or others are refusing to cooperate, at some point, you’ve got to take it to the court of public opinion.
The issue, the challenge that I discovered in 2009, 2010, is that an obstructionist strategy oftentimes is not punished by voters in the polls. And so, one big piece of advice I’m going to have for not just Democrats but anybody who just wants to see a functioning effective government is you’re going to have to stay involved, not just in this election where we had record turnout — you gotta stay involved all the way through the midterms. Because [what] really hurt us was Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, discovered that they could block everything, throw sand in the gears, and then were rewarded in the midterms. And so their attitude was “Well, we’re just gonna keep on doing this” and they did it throughout my presidency.
Do you feel that you played some role in that? Is there something you would’ve done differently?
You know —
And the success of that — not, not in their decision-making now, but the success of that strategy being the “party of no,” as was so commonly said.
When I look back, it was interesting, while I was writing the book. I mentioned this in certain passages. In my first couple of years in office, I think I had a unwarranted faith that if we did the right thing and implemented good policies, then people would know. And we didn’t sell it hard enough. Now, part of it I have to cut myself and my team a little bit of slack — we had so much stuff coming at us at one time. Right? We had the worst financial crisis in history. We have the banks about to go under, we had the auto industry about to go under, we had two wars, we still had a very active Al-Qaida. And so, as we used to call it, we’re drinking from a firehose. And so we didn’t have time to do a bunch of victory laps or carefully stage PR campaigns around what we did.
The Recovery Act, I think, is the best example where we had a big and what proved ultimately successful stimulus package. But most people had no idea that the reason the teachers in their schools hadn’t lost their jobs or that folks were still working in construction, repairing roads in their communities that that was because of the Recovery Act. They just thought, “Well, this is just politicians wasting money on a bunch of pork projects.”
So I guess one piece of advice that I would give Joe that I think he will internalize ’cause he was there and helped preside over the Recovery Act is there is no such thing as building a better mouse trap and people will suddenly show up. You have to constantly market and explain what you are doing, and we figured that out but a little bit later than we probably should have.
That leads me to my next question, is the other thing and reading the book is that it reminded me of the personal connection that people felt with you. Like you’d see it on the campaign. It’s not just that people wanted to get close to you and touch you, they wanted to give you things. They wanted to give you their service medals. They wanted to give you their lucky charms. You have to admit that Trump evoked something similar, albeit with different people — obviously different people to some degree, but why do you think that is?
And it does make me wonder whether there was something about our system that may or may not be broken that requires this sort of outsized personality or personal connection with people. You say in the book, the most important things you did were things that nobody saw, but maybe is that possible that that’s not true, that they’ve got to see it to believe it or something. I mean, I am curious about your take on why it is that people seem to react to some people, different people but people reacted to Trump in the same way. They want it to be next to him.
I do think that because we’re not in a parliamentary system, because unlike places like Great Britain where you separate out the head of state from the head of government — you’ve got the queen, who’s the ceremonial, figurehead and symbol of the country and then you’ve got a prime minister who’s grinding away and just doing policy. Here those roles are combined and the president ends up being not just the chief executive of the federal government but also is expected to be a cheerleader, pastor, coach, entertainer. And some of that is how dominant media now is in getting people elected. And what that means is that if you are able to make a connection with people, through television and now the Internet, you can get a lot of power even if you’re not necessarily paying a lot of attention to what’s happening from a governance perspective.
That was true with Ronald Reagan. That was true with others. The question then is, alright, let me put it this way, I think the big difference between a Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump is at least Reagan presided over an era where he still understood it was important to have people around him who knew what they were doing and were paying attention, to running the government. What you saw over the last four years with Donald Trump, I think is just celebrity for celebrity’s sake and all the pomp and all the sizzle and not much of the steak, but —
But nearly 70 million people voted for him. So, the question becomes, is there something broken that needs to be fixed?
Well, I think what it indicates is the degree to which it’s important for us not to place all our eggs in a presidential basket.
And who’s the “we” in that sentence?
The American people. You know when I look at — and I discussed this in my book — I was obviously, thrilled, humbled and moved by, the connection that you describe, particularly in that first campaign, right, where people put so much, invested so many of their dreams and hopes into getting me elected. I could not have won had it not been for that passion and spirit that people invested in me. But as I note during the book, there’s a danger in thinking this is just about one person as opposed to this is about government across the board: members of Congress and governors and state legislators and district attorneys. Because we start thinking that just one person can solve all these problems, when in fact, by design our democracy disperses power across the board.
But what’s going to persuade people to think that way?
You are still a cultural figure. Look, I found this at the Target is a card. It’s a greeting card. I found this last week. You still have a big footprint in the culture and by every indication, so will Donald Trump. So what would persuade people to look to other structures to dissipate the power? I mean, you talk about in the book over and over again, how you tried to not make yourself the center of everything.
And you are telling us that that didn’t work.
Well I think part of it is investing more in getting folks to pay attention downstream. Look, there’s a reason why a big emphasis of my foundation, the work that I really want to be doing for the next 20 years, is investing in the next generation of leadership. And not just political leadership, but you know, civic leadership, people who are working on climate change, people who are working on criminal justice reform, because that’s where a lot of the change is going to happen.
I think one of the best examples for me was the whole issue of criminal justice reform. We saw this summer how powerful it was to see all these young people and some not-so-young people of every race and creed across the country, march after the George Floyd killing. And a lot of people are still asking me sometimes: “Why didn’t all that get fixed? We had a Black president.” Well, one of the reasons is, and I’ve done a lot of work with some of the activists reminding them the vast majority of criminal law is state law. The vast majority of criminal law enforcement and policing and decisions are local and state. And so who are district attorneys are, who’s appointing police chiefs, etc. That matters.
I think you’re starting to see greater awareness among the younger generation that those things are important. We just have to remind them more. But look, there’s no doubt that the presidency is still going to matter. And it is important for those who want to lead the country in a progressive direction have to think about how do you market your ideas because this is a culture that is used to a lot of salesmanship on TV.
We have to talk about the role that race played in your presidency. The book is filled with a lot of joy. I mean, it has to be said, a lot of joy, a lot of wonderful moments where you figured out who you were, what your purpose was, when you found your family and grew your family. But it’s also filled with a lot of frustration and pain. And a lot of the pain in that book does center on how the fact of your being the first Black president affected the country in some ways that were positive in some ways that clearly were not. I mean, to this day, there are some progressives who say that you laid the groundwork for the Trump era in part because of something you couldn’t control, which is racism, and something that you possibly could have. It’s just things weren’t changing fast enough. So, the question I’d have for you is what, what would break the fever? I mean, it’s almost as if it’s a fever, it’s like a virus that just keeps recurring. What would change that in your view?
Here’s one thing I never believed, right, was the fever of racism being broken by my election.
That I was pretty clear about. I never subscribed to the: We live in a post-racial era. But I think that what did happen during my presidency was yes, a backlash among some people who felt that somehow, I symbolized the possibility that they or their group were losing status not because of anything I did, but just by virtue of the fact that I didn’t look like all the other presidents previously. But, you know what? You also had a majority of the American people who seemed to say either, it’s a good thing that we’ve broken this barrier, or “I’m just going to judge this guy by whether or not my life’s getting better.” And you had a whole generation of kids who grew up not thinking it was weird or exceptional that the person who occupied the highest office in the land was Black.
It is remarkable though, and you say in the book, I think this was suspected at the time, but you confirm it in the book that the one event that caused the biggest single drop and your support among white voters — bigger than would come from any single event during the eight years of your presidency — was when you commented upon the arrest of the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates as he was trying to get into his own home in Cambridge. He got into it with a Cambridge police officer who was called by a neighbor to check on the situation. He apparently cussed out the police officer, the police officer wound up arresting him. After an hourlong press conference on health care policy, you commented on this.
And this is the single biggest event that caused a drop in white support in your eight years. What, how do you, what does that say?
Well, as I write it, particularly when you start looking at police issues, and that’s why I think what happened this summer with George Floyd was so important, where you saw at least some shift in the general population in recognizing that there’s real racial bias in how our criminal laws are applied and how policing operates in this country. But what I realized was that nothing touches a nerve more in terms of the relationship between the races in this country than issue of policing.
And why is that?
Because I think the police are given a task in our society of keeping a lid on communities that are suffering from broader injustices. And we don’t like talking about those broader systemic injustices. We don’t like talking about the fact that if you grow up in a certain ZIP code, you’re much less likely to be able to get a good education, you’re much less likely to be able to be part of the networks that allow you ultimately to get a good job, you’re much less likely to get good social services in those areas. And that’s not the police’s fault. That’s society’s fault, but we like to distance ourselves from those responsibilities, lay it on the police to say: Just keep it away from us. And when you start seeing as a consequence of that failure to address deeper inequalities, the inevitable tensions, conflicts that pop up, then we’re confronted with stuff that we don’t like discussing and talking about. And the issue of the particular event between the police officer and a Black person who’s interacting with them becomes the focal point, but it really raises a broader question, which is why is it that we’re still living in a society in which such inequities exist. And that I think is a conversation that you started to see for the first time being addressed more honestly than any time in my lifetime, which makes me hopeful. But during my presidency, again and again, I think there was a tendency to want to say, even among those who felt good about having a Black president, we don’t want to open up all this big can of worms. You know, we want to kind of say, “Alright, this is progress and so let’s just look forward and let’s not look back.”
You know, you don’t acknowledge being disheartened by that. You allude to it and you ask after the whole beer summit people — remember you invited Officer Crowley and you invited Professor Gates. You got down and had a beer with the vice presiden, now President-elect Joe Biden, you had a beer, and your senior aide Valerie Jarrett came to check on you later that day and you asked like, “How are my folks doing? How are the staff taking this?” And she said that some of the young Black staffers are kind of just a little discouraged.
And you said, “Well, what about?” “They don’t like seeing you put in this position.” And you said, “What, me being Black or me being president?” And you had a laugh about it. And you write about these things with a lot of equanimity, which I think people would associate with your no-drama, Obama sort of character.
But a lot of people are deeply discouraged in this country. A lot of people are very disheartened by what they see, these open displays of racial hostility. Do you have some thoughts about that? And I don’t think it’s just younger people. I think a lot of older people, even if you had acknowledged as you just said that you never said you thought the society was post-racial. I think all kinds of analysts were jumping up and down when you were elected saying, “It’s not post-racial, it’s not, it’s structural, it’s not fixed, it’s not all fixed, that’s too much to put on one person.” Even having said that a lot of people are very discouraged right now. And I wonder if you see that and I wonder what you would say to them.
Absolutely. There are times where I am sad, where I’m angry, where I’m hurting, where I feel obliged to buck up my wife or my daughters when we see not just the kinds of shocking injustice is as we saw with George Floyd, but also when you see elected officials, people in positions of responsibility not simply ignore dismiss these things but actually seem to suggest that it’s OK. Yeah, I think it is completely understandable to feel discouraged and hurt and upset. I think the reason that I don’t plunge into despair probably has to do with the fact that I tend to take a long view on things. You know, when I talk to Michelle or my daughters about these issues, I have to remind them I was 6 years old when the Supreme Court determined that it was unconstitutional for states to say that my parents couldn’t marry. I mean, the Beatles were already the biggest musical group on Earth when anti-miscegenation laws are finally deemed unconstitutional [in] this country; it wasn’t that long ago. And so, when I look at my lifetime — and I’m gray, I’m getting older, but you know, I’m not ancient, I’m still pretty spry — and you think about the changes that took place in my lifetime. Not just me being elected president. Michel, you being on a national broadcast as a lead journalist. That just didn’t happen. Now that’s not considered exceptional. Our kids can aspire to things that our parents certainly couldn’t, and so that is not a cause for complacency, but it does give me some perspective. It would surprise me if you didn’t have a big cross-section of the country that was still carrying around a bunch of baggage and still a little disturbed by the advances that African Americans had made. It would surprise me if changing demographics and the growing Latino population didn’t scare a certain segment of this population, just because I know enough about American history to know that that’s always been a fault line in American history. That fever, as you said, that’s been a defining feature of a lot of our life. And the good news is, and it was reflected this summer, when you look at every indicator, every survey, if you just anecdotally look at popular culture, the younger generations are less impacted by those attitudes, are carrying around less of that baggage. Not none of it. There are white kids who were attracted to crazy white nationalist stuff on the Internet. But generally speaking, our kids’ generation, you talk to them, and their attitudes instinctively are more open and not just on racial issues but on gender issues, on sexual orientation issues. And that is why I tend not to despair, but I still take it seriously because what I do know is that history doesn’t move in a straight line. Attitudes can go backwards as well as forward. And all of us have to be vigilant in working as hard as we can to some of the better angels of our nature and put to rest some of the things that have been so destructive in American culture.
So a second volume is coming.
This volume ends with the raid on the bin Laden compound, where you, after a long effort by the U S military and at your direction found Osama bin Laden and he was killed in that, in that raid. Why did you end there?
You know, I thought it was a good place to stop. Originally, I was going to end with, uh, my reelection. But then, and I can’t take credit for this. It was actually a suggestion of Cody Keenan, one of my former speechwriters who had read my pages, my draft. And he pointed out that it with bin Laden what you have is not just sort of a culmination of a lot of the incredible counterterrorism work that our administration had embarked on and really going after al-Qaida. And not only was it an example of government at its most effective, cooperating across agencies to carry out a very difficult and dangerous operation, but it was also occurring at the precise same moment that the dominant news was around Donald Trump’s assertion that I was not born in this country and him seizing on the birther movement.
And so what I thought was this would be a good place to end the first volume because it indicates the contrast between the serious work of government and these incredible folks from the Navy SEALs to Bill McRaven, who’s the head of our special forces and engineers, this incredible operation, the diplomats, the intelligence officers, everybody who’s having to coordinate hundreds of people under the most severe stress executing this incredible operation.
And yet the news is completely dominated during this period by an entirely bogus assertion by what I called at the time, a carnival barker. And it wasn’t just Fox News that was obsessed with this. Every major media outlet. Some of the same people who later on would sort of decry Donald Trump and his very flimsy attachment to the truth were the same people who gave Donald Trump a big platform during this period. And so I’m sitting at the White House Correspondents’ dinner with Donald Trump in attendance, and that’s all anybody cares about at the same time as I’ve got people risking their lives about to take off to go to the Abbottabad compound.
And I thought that that was a good place to end the first volume because it describes a choice that I think we have as a country. And that is as I say in my preface, is not settled by one election. And that is: Can we take the incredible dedication, cooperation, patriotism focus that we applied in the bin Laden raid? Can we take that and apply that to reducing poverty among children? Can we take that to focus and sense of common effort around dealing with climate change? Can we take that to make sure that our economy works for everybody and not just a few, can we apply that kind of seriousness to our common public life? Or are we going to continue to be pulled into this kind of reality TV, phony controversies and seeing these big issues as just matter of sport, and we’ve got one team and the other team and they hate each other and we’re just going to go at it and it becomes a spectacle.
And as I said in my preface, I think that I place faith in this upcoming generation to make the right choice, but it is a choice that we’re going to have to make.
Before we let you go. Who is this book for?
It’s for your kids and my kids and the young people that I met, not just in this country but around the world, because part of the theme of the book is this contest of ideas. The way I describe it, these two visions: A vision that says that for all our differences, there is a common humanity and it is possible for us in a multiracial, multiethnic, highly diverse country and world, it is possible for us to see each other, understand each other and respect each other and work together.
And then there’s a contrasting idea that says we are a collection of tribes and we are inevitably at war and it’s a zero-sum game, and that there are winners and losers and there’s hierarchies of power and domination and subjugation. And it’s not just in America, but it’s around the world where those contrasting visions are duking it out.
And the truth is is that the vision of power and domination and subjugation, that’s been the dominant. That’s been the default of human societies for most of human history. This new way of doing things with democracy and individual rights and treating everybody as if they have worth and that have a voice in our government. That’s new. It’s an experiment that everybody’s still watching. And so this book is for the generation that’s coming up, these young people. I want them to understand that, in fact, they are going to be the ones who make the decision as to which way not only America goes, but the world goes, and that it is within their power to create a better world. And government is not something distant that happens to them, but it is something that they have a claim on and agency for and can shape and that’s part of the reason why the arc of this volume starts with me as a young person and showing them that it’s not like I was born inevitably to be president or that I was particularly good at all the aspects of public life, it was just that I hitched my wagon to something bigger and that I wasn’t any different than them, and that if I can have an impact, they can, too.
Mr. President, thank you so much for speaking with us.
It was great to talk to you. Thank you so much.
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