The President’s Candid Garage Interview

In an appearance on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, President Obama spoke frankly about the nations slow progress on racism, as well as his changing personal mindset seven years into the job.

Pete Souza / The White House

Marc Maron has long excelled at putting his interview subjects at ease. His podcast WTF with Marc Maron sees the comedian chat with guests in the garage of his East L.A. home, often drawing out candid opinions or previously untold personal truths. The informality of the setting, and Maron’s own propensity to overshare, both work to his advantage.

The show typically features other comedians, so when President Obama dropped by, he made for an atypical guest (Maron talked about the intense security measures that come with a visit from POTUS, down to the snipers perched on the garage roof.) But unconventional interviews seem to be the president’s favorite kind—he’s spent time with Zach Galifianakis on the satirical web series Between Two Ferns, and even switched roles when he grilled David Simon about The Wire and incarceration rates at the White House earlier this year. Obama’s interview with Maron retained WTF’s characteristic informality, allowing the President to bring a little more candor to topics he’s wrangled with since taking office.

The most widely highlighted aspect of the interview was the President’s blunt language in talking about the country’s legacy of racism and its sometimes-superficial standards of progress. “We’re not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200 or 300 years prior,” he said. It was quickly noted as his first public use of the racial slur, prompting rapid pundit debates that perhaps underlined his point: that the primary manifestation of racism isn't merely impolite public discourse, as America wrestles with the profound tragedy in Charleston.

Obama’s remarks didn’t come off as pithy, nor as some shocking move intended to prove a point, but rather felt like a byproduct of Maron’s relaxed interview environment. The setting gave the president a chance to ruminate without having to respect the familiar boundary of the day’s talking points. “I always tell young people, in particular, do not say that nothing has changed when it comes to race in America, unless you've lived through being a black man in the 1950s or ‘60s or ‘70s,” Obama said. “It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours.”

While focusing on a single word might miss the forest for the trees, Obama’s frankness was still notable, particularly two days after the attack in Charleston. It’s easy to imagine that, earlier in his presidency, Obama might have canceled a seemingly frivolous interview appearance during a sensitive moment for the nation. But his appearance on WTF underlined his foray into more offbeat media spheres as his presidency winds down, and he acknowledged his shift in mindset as his talk with Maron came to a close. Having served one-and-a-half of his two terms in office, Obama said, “I know what I’m doing, and I’m fearless. You’re not pretending to be fearless … that’s such a liberating feeling.”

Rather than just repeatedly touring the studios of Meet the Press and This Week, the President has slow-jammed the news on The Tonight Show, showed up on Bill Simmons’ sports-centric B.S. Report and plugged Obamacare on Between Two Ferns, seemingly trying to reach a wider and younger audience. Critics might complain about the softball approach that comes with a less politically seasoned interviewer, but that didn’t stop Galifianakis from asking him, “What’s it like to be the last black president?”

Nor did it stop Maron from probing interesting personal matters with his guest, even if the interviewer steered away from some of his usual favorite topics (caring for his four cats, perhaps, or his opinion on Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels). Talking about his relationship with his wife, the President recalled that his propensity for lateness was an early point of conflict in their relationship, before he realized the deep-seated reasons why Michelle was so irked with him. She grew up with a father who had multiple sclerosis, he recalled, and who had to wake up an hour earlier just because the task of dressing for work was so laborious for him. “That mentality of not wanting to stand out, and not wanting to miss something, instilled in her a very emotional thing.”

Maron did get to ask his most common query, perhaps his simplest: “How are you crazy?” Also, “Tell me your most deep-seated insecurities or quirks.” It came in the middle of a conversation about Obama’s growing up without a father, and the president’s answer was one millions of Americans could no doubt relate to: that he wanted to make sure his children had the opposite experience, akin to the Leave it to Beaver lifestyle Michelle grew up in, he said. None of this is breaking news—Obama wrote about his relationship with his absent parent years before his election in his memoir Dreams from My Father—but it was delivered plainly and relatably, one guy chatting to another in a garage—the gift of a format most political interviews could never replicate.