Why Obama Fears for Our Democracy
In an exclusive interview, the former president identifies the greatest threats to the American experiment, explains why he’s still hopeful, and opens up about his new book.
Barack Obama was describing to me the manner in which the Mongol emperor and war-crimes innovator Genghis Khan would besiege a town. “They gave you two choices,” he said. “‘If you open the gates, we’ll just kill you quickly and take your women and enslave your children, but we won’t slaughter them. But if you hold out, then we’ll slowly boil you in oil and peel off your skin.’”
This was not meant to be commentary on the Trump presidency—not directly, at least. In any case, Obama has more respect for Genghis Khan than he has for Donald Trump. He raised the subject of Genghis Khan in order to make a specific, extremely Obama-like point: If you think today’s world is grim, simply cast your mind back 800 years to the steppes of Central Asia. “Compare the degree of brutality and venality and corruption and just sheer folly that you see across human history with how things are now,” he said. “It’s not even close.”
We were sitting at opposite ends of a long table in his office suite in the West End district of Washington. The offices were empty, except for a couple of aides and a discreet Secret Service detail. Obama was in a good mood, happy to discuss the work that has consumed him for more than three years: the writing of A Promised Land, his presidential memoir—or what turns out to be (because he has much to say about many things) the first of two volumes of his presidential memoir. The first volume’s 768 pages carry him from childhood to the bin Laden raid of 2011. A publication date for the next installment, which will presumably cover such issues as the Syrian civil war, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Iran nuclear deal, has not yet been announced.
A Promised Land is an unusual presidential memoir in many ways: unusually interior, unusually self-critical, unusually modern (this is the first presidential memoir, I believe, to use the term ethereal bisexual to describe an unrequited love interest), and unusually well written. The book does suffer at times from a general too-muchness, and it has its arid stretches, although to be fair, no one has yet invented a way to inject poetry into extended explanations of cap-and-trade, or Mitch McConnell’s motivations.
We covered a lot of ground in our face-to-face discussion, which took place on Wednesday, and in a follow-up call on Friday. The broadest subject of our conversation was the arc of the moral universe: Does it still bend toward justice? Does it even exist? When Obama was elected 12 years ago, the arc seemed more readily visible, at least to that swath of the country interested in seeing someone other than a white male become president. But he now recognizes that the change he represented triggered an almost instantaneous backlash, one that culminated in the “birther” conspiracy that catapulted its prime propagandist, Donald Trump, to the White House.
“What I think is indisputable is that I signified a shift in power. Just my mere presence worried folks, in some cases explicitly, in some cases subconsciously,” Obama said. “And then there were folks around to exploit that and tap into that. If a Fox News talking head asks, when Michelle and I dap, give each other a fist bump, ‘Is that a terrorist fist bump?,’ that’s not a particularly subtle reference. If there’s a sign in opposition to the ACA in which I’m dressed as an African witch doctor with a bone through my nose, that’s not a hard thing to interpret.”
For Obama, though, the overarching story of America, and all humanity, is one of fitful progress—and nothing about the past four years has seemed to change his mind. Joe Biden’s election is proof that America moves forward; the persistence of racial animus and resentment-driven populism represents the difficulty of maintaining momentum.
Obama’s you-think-you-have-it-so-bad invocation of Genghis Khan was prompted by a passage I read aloud to him. It is a brief peak-Obama, “Ozymandias”-inflected passage about a visit to Egypt. Obama recalls brooding over a face of a forgotten figure etched into an ancient wall, a face that resembled his. “All of it was forgotten now, none of it mattered, the pharaoh, the slave, and the vandal all long turned to dust. Just as every speech I’d delivered, every law I passed and decision I made, would be forgotten. Just as I and all those I loved would someday turn to dust.”
I noted the presence in this passage of a kind of paralyzing self-awareness (“True,” he said), but he told me he included this rumination to make a point about the long view. “That scene of me going through the pyramids—it’s not an empty exercise; there’s a purpose to it. So much of whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic depends on the time frame,” he said, invoking the specter of Genghis Khan. He went on: “What I’ve always believed is that humanity has the capacity to be kinder, more just, more fair, more rational, more reasonable, more tolerant. It is not inevitable. History does not move in a straight line. But if you have enough people of goodwill who are willing to work on behalf of those values, then things can get better.”
Which brought him to his main point: “America as an experiment is genuinely important to the world not because of the accidents of history that made us the most powerful nation on Earth, but because America is the first real experiment in building a large, multiethnic, multicultural democracy. And we don’t know yet if that can hold. There haven’t been enough of them around for long enough to say for certain that it’s going to work,” he said.
The threats to American democracy—and to the broader cause of freedom—are many, he said. He was withering on the subject of Donald Trump, but acknowledged that Trump himself is not the root of the issue. “I’m not surprised that somebody like Trump could get traction in our political life,” he said. “He’s a symptom as much as an accelerant. But if we were going to have a right-wing populist in this country, I would have expected somebody a little more appealing.”
Trump, Obama noted, is not exactly an exemplar of traditional American manhood. “I think about the classic male hero in American culture when you and I were growing up: the John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter. There was a code … the code of masculinity that I grew up with that harkens back to the ’30s and ’40s and before that. There’s a notion that a man is true to his word, that he takes responsibility, that he doesn’t complain, that he isn’t a bully—in fact he defends the vulnerable against bullies. And so even if you are someone who is annoyed by wokeness and political correctness and wants men to be men again and is tired about everyone complaining about the patriarchy, I thought that the model wouldn’t be Richie Rich—the complaining, lying, doesn’t-take-responsibility-for-anything type of figure.”
Two issues that run deeper for Obama than Trump’s personal deficiencies concern the changes he sees in the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement. “I did not believe how easily the Republican establishment, people who had been in Washington for a long time and had professed a belief in certain institutional values and norms, would just cave” to Trumpian populism, he said.
He traces the populist shift inside the Republican Party to the election that made him president. It was Sarah Palin, John McCain’s 2008 running mate, he said, who helped unleash the populist wave: “The power of Palin’s rallies compared with McCain’s rallies—just contrast the excitement you would see in the Republican base. I think this hinted at the degree to which appeals around identity politics, around nativism, conspiracies, were gaining traction.”
The populist wave was abetted by Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, he said, and encouraged to spread by social-media companies uninterested in exploring their impact on democracy. “I don’t hold the tech companies entirely responsible,” he said, “because this predates social media. It was already there. But social media has turbocharged it. I know most of these folks. I’ve talked to them about it. The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic, I do not think is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not. The First Amendment doesn’t require private companies to provide a platform for any view that is out there.”
He went on to say, “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”
We talked about much more: the Iowa caucus; Ta-Nehisi Coates; climate change; the art and science of presidential memoir-writing; Michelle’s views on race and optimism. It’s all below. The Q-and-A is long but, I think, useful, if only as a reminder of what a thoughtful president sounds like. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.
1. The Cost of Donald Trump’s Petulance
Jeffrey Goldberg: How much of the death and destruction we’ve seen—over the past five or six months especially, after the beginning of the pandemic—do you blame on President Trump?
Barack Obama: This would have been a really hard thing to deal with for any president, and we’ve seen countries that have acted responsibly and taken the right steps and they’re still seeing an uptick, because we haven’t seen this disease before. This is a really well-designed virus to maximize damage. This is not as deadly as Ebola, it doesn’t transmit as rapidly, but it is just deadly enough that it takes a huge toll.
What I think is fair is to take a look at what’s happened in Canada, where they still have had big problems but their death rate per capita is about 61 percent lower than ours. There are a whole set of explanations around that—universal health care in Canada, and in some areas they may not have the same population densities. But it is a comparable country on the same continent.
There is little doubt that if we had had a White House that from the start had said, “Let’s follow the science, let’s take this seriously”—if they had reinforced the message coming from people like [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director] Dr. Fauci and not politicized basic preventive measures like wearing masks, if they had not been intent on rushing the reopening and downplaying the severity of the pandemic across the primary channels that a big chunk of the country gets its news from—some lives could have been saved and we would have had better control of this.
It’s also fair to say that had we taken better steps to contact-trace and set up testing protocols earlier, it is likely that we would not have seen severe outbreaks everywhere and we might have been able to reduce the severity of the pandemic in certain portions of the country.
The good news is that Joe Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, was my point person on Ebola. He knows how to work on these big public-health issues, and they’ve already surrounded themselves with the right people who are going to be applying the very best science and technology and organizational measures to this problem. The vaccine looks hopeful. It’s going to be a challenge both distributing it and also overcoming some of the mistrust that has developed from misinformation and bad messaging early on. We’ll get through this. But we’re making it harder than it should be. It would have been hard no matter what, but we’ve made it harder.
Goldberg: Talk about the transition issues.
Obama: For all the differences between myself and George W. Bush, he and his administration could not have been more gracious and intentional about ensuring a smooth handoff. One of the really distressing things about the current situation is the amount of time that is being lost because of Donald Trump’s petulance and the unwillingness of other Republicans to call him on it.
2. Sarah Palin Brings Nativism and Conspiracism to Mainstream Politics
Goldberg: Let’s get to the book. What didn’t you know about your presidency until you started writing?
Obama: I have to say that when I came to the end of the book and I looked back, my views on my presidency were surprisingly consistent. When I started, I had a basic sense of trajectory of the presidency and the narrative I wanted to write, and during the course of it I didn’t find myself thinking, Huh, I didn’t think of that, or Gosh, upon reflection I feel this. The thing that did surprise me was the degree to which the undertow of resistance to the idea of my presidency dates back to Sarah Palin during the campaign, and emerges through the Tea Party all the way until the end of the book, which ends with the bin Laden raid.
Goldberg: This wasn’t clear during your presidency?
Obama: During that time, we were so busy and so focused. I also think I very much internalized and believed that presidents can whine privately but not publicly.
Goldberg: Billionaires and presidents.
Obama: People are going through much more serious struggles than anything you’re going through. We had all internalized that idea. But when I wrote about the Joe Wilson incident, a congressman yelling “You lie!” in the middle of a joint address to Congress—
Goldberg: That was novel.
Obama: It had never happened. I remember our general attitude was “On to the next thing.” But as you’re writing, you think, Was that indicative of something that was building and growing? And I’m writing in the middle of the Trump presidency, and I’m seeing that many of the things that had happened in my presidency foreshadowed what would happen during the Trump presidency.
Goldberg: In the book it’s very clear that for you Sarah Palin was the first horsewoman of the apocalypse and Rick Santelli, the CNBC reporter who helped spark the Tea Party, was the second horseman. And then the cast grows.
Obama: At the time that it’s happening, you get a sense that this is a strain within the Republican Party or the conservative movement that has always been there. It dates back to the Birchers and elements in the Goldwater campaign, but you also sort of feel that all of this is behind us.
Goldberg: Your presidency was supposed to be proof in a kind of way that America was moving on.
Obama: Right. But what happened is that these things unleash or liberate some of that energy. The power of Palin’s rallies compared with McCain’s rallies—just contrast the excitement you would see in the Republican base. I think this hinted at the degree to which appeals around identity politics, around nativism, conspiracies, were gaining traction. As I was writing, the clarity of those patterns became more obvious.
A corresponding concern as I was writing was the realization that the structural impediments of the U.S. Senate and the filibuster in particular were preventing big things from happening and causing a cynicism to arise, a realization that even after a landslide victory in 2008, or in the midst of a huge crisis, it’s still really hard with big majorities to move a legislative agenda forward. This is something that, by 2011, we had overlearned, from [Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell’s behavior. It was hard to anticipate just how quickly McConnell and the Republican caucus in the Senate would shut things down and the degree to which that kind of obstruction for the sake of obstruction would become the norm.
Goldberg: I’m thinking about the moment when you had to demonstrate to [then–Democratic Senator] Max Baucus that [Iowa Republican Senator] Chuck Grassley was just not going to support you on health care, no matter what you conceded to him.
Obama: By that time I had already figured it out. Max Baucus hadn’t yet figured it out. This is something I had understood before I started writing the book, but the examples kept coming as I was writing. The combination of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh—the entire right-wing media ecosystem—had changed the Republican base in such a way that Republican elected officials did not feel as if they could afford to cooperate with me or cooperate with Democrats. They couldn’t take anything less than a hard line; they had to tolerate conspiracy theorizing that they knew wasn’t true—obviously that’s pertinent today.
We’re looking at the aftermath of an election now in which Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won pretty decisively. It wasn’t a blowout, but it was as clear a win as I ended up having in 2012.
And almost every Republican elected official knows that. There were no howls of voting irregularities the first day or two. They waited to get the signal from Trump.
Goldberg: In The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum and others have been writing about the issue of complicity. I’m wondering what you think of people who are smarter than Donald Trump—Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, these sorts of politicians—and their role in all of this.
Obama: This is the thing that has surprised me the most over the past four years. Donald Trump’s character and behavior haven’t surprised me. This was all evident before the 2016 election. I didn’t expect him to significantly change.
I did not believe how easily the Republican establishment, people who had been in Washington for a long time and had professed a belief in certain institutional values and norms, would just cave. You think about John McCain: For all my differences with him, you would not have seen John McCain excuse a president cozying up to Vladimir Putin, or preferring Russian interpretations of events over those of his own intelligence agencies. And to see figures in the Republican Party do a complete 180 on everything they claimed to believe previously is troubling.
I’ve said this before: The problem facing the Republican Party, the conservative movement, whatever you want to call it, goes back to the attitudes of the base—attitudes that have been shaped by right-wing media. And so essentially what Republican elected officials have done is to say to themselves that in order to survive, we have to go along with conspiracy theorizing, false assertion, fantasies that Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh and others in that echo chamber have concocted, because people believe them.
Goldberg: In the book, you describe what Santelli did on CNBC—his call for a new Boston Tea Party—as “bullshit.”
Obama: You can tell if you watch it that it’s shtick. It’s no different than Celebrity Apprentice. It’s entertainment. Except what I noticed watching that clip at the time, and rewatching it as I was writing the book, is that the traders—he’s doing this shtick at the Chicago Board of Trade—the traders believe it. The sense of grievance, the sense that “we”—and define we however you want: white Americans, working-class white Americans, conservatives—“we” are the aggrieved party and that “we” are being victimized, that sense is notable. You have billionaires and CEOs starting to feel like they’re being victimized. And it was interesting to recognize how powerful that impulse was, how readily people would embrace this kind of aggrievement and anger, the resentment that Palin and Santelli were peddling.
So the Tea Party becomes a genuine manifestation of that. It’s rooted in very real frustrations that folks are having about stagnant wages and communities that are deindustrialized. Folks feel like the insiders are taking advantage of them, and there’s a sense of loss of status and identity. It was becoming apparent very early in my presidency that you could take anger and frustration and direct it in what I consider to be a pretty unhealthy direction.
3. Trump Is Richie Rich, not John Wayne
Goldberg: Have you explained to yourself the Trump phenomenon in such a way that doesn’t cause you to write off the Americans who voted for him?
Obama: I will say that I’m not surprised that somebody like Trump could get traction in our political life. He’s a symptom as much as an accelerant. But if we were going to have a right-wing populist in this country, I would have expected somebody a little more appealing.
Goldberg: Not a man-child?
Obama: Yes. If you think about populists from the past, someone like Huey Long—he wasn’t from the right; he was a classic populist, rooted in the earth; he knows the lives of the people he is rallying; he genuinely understands them. I guess I would not have expected someone who has complete disdain for ordinary people to be able to get attention and then the following from those very same people.
I guess I’m also surprised by, and this is not an original thought on my part—but I think about the classic male hero in American culture when you and I were growing up: the John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter. There was a code. This is something I always emphasize. I may be African American but I’m African and American. This is part of me. The code of masculinity that I grew up with that harkens back to the ’30s and ’40s and before that—there’s a notion that a man is true to his word, that he takes responsibility, that he doesn’t complain, that he isn’t a bully; in fact he defends the vulnerable against bullies. And so even if you are someone who is annoyed by wokeness and political correctness and wants men to be men again and is tired about everyone complaining about the patriarchy, I thought that the model wouldn’t be Richie Rich—the complaining, lying, doesn’t-take-responsibility-for-anything type of figure.
I think that indicates the power of television in the culture that sometimes I miss because I don’t watch a lot of TV. I certainly don’t watch reality shows. And sometimes I’d miss things that were phenomena. But I thought there was a shift there. I write about it to some degree. I actually have great admiration for a lot of those traditions, what were ascribed to be masculine qualities. When you think about the Greatest Generation, you think about sacrifice.
Goldberg: A colleague of mine says that in some ways you’re a never-Trump conservative.
Obama: I understand that. There’s this sense of probity, honesty, responsibility, of homespun values, that I admire. That’s the Kansas side of me. My grandmother’s a stand-in for that. The folks we celebrate at Normandy, including my Uncle Charlie, who was a member of one of the units that liberated parts of Buchenwald, those were men who, whatever their limits, whatever their constraints in terms of their emotions because of what they were told they could and couldn’t feel and be as men, however their relationship with women was skewed by all this—they sacrificed for others. And they never bragged, and certainly they would never make cheating others or taking advantage of them a calling card. So I guess the answer to your question is, I’m not surprised there was a market for populism, not just in the United States but around the world. Globalism is—
Goldberg: You’re just surprised by the horse populism rode in on.
Obama: Yes, and it’s this indication of parts of popular culture that I’ve missed. It’s interesting—people are writing about the fact that Trump increased his support among Black men [in the 2020 presidential election], and the occasional rapper who supported Trump. I have to remind myself that if you listen to rap music, it’s all about the bling, the women, the money. A lot of rap videos are using the same measures of what it means to be successful as Donald Trump is. Everything is gold-plated. That insinuates itself and seeps into the culture.
Michelle and I were talking about the fact that although we grew up in very different places, we were both very much working-class, lower-middle-class, in terms of income, and we weren’t subject day-to-day to the sense that if you don’t have this stuff then you are somehow not worthy. America has always had a caste system—rich and poor, not just racially but economically—but it wasn’t in your face most of the time when I was growing up. Then you start seeing Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, that sense that either you’ve got it or you’re a loser. And Donald Trump epitomizes that cultural movement that is deeply ingrained now in American culture.
You mentioned earlier that I’m in some ways a never-Trump conservative. That’s not quite right, but what is true is that temperamentally I am sympathetic to a certain strain of conservatism in the sense that I’m not just a materialist. I’m not an economic determinist. I think it’s important, but I think there are things other than stuff and money and income—the religious critique of modern society, that we’ve lost that sense of community.
Here’s my optimistic view. This gives me some hope that it’s possible to make common cause with a certain strand of evangelical or conservative who essentially wants to restore a sense of meaning and purpose and spirituality … a person who believes in notions like stewardship and caring for the least of these: They share this with those on the left who have those same nonmaterialistic impulses but express themselves through a nonreligious prism.
When you look at the younger generation, Malia and Sasha’s generation, you see that more clearly. It’s more often articulated, what they want out of life. They’re much less likely to have a need to be on Wall Street by such-and-such date. That is not how they seem to be defining themselves quite as much. That makes me more optimistic.
4. How Power Actually Works
Goldberg: I want to talk a bit about the writing, and writing choices. By the way, I went back and looked at Ulysses S. Grant and he definitely did not use the expression “ethereal bisexual’ in his memoir. I believe you’re the first president to use this expression—
Obama: Maybe the last.
Goldberg: I’ll let the readers of the book find the reference to an ethereal bisexual for themselves.
On writing choices, one of my questions has to do with the tremendous amount of contextualization you do, and specifically the way you contextualize your opponents. This book feels like a hinge between a distant political past and the political present. You generally represent your positions with restraint; you contextualize everything, including the positions of your enemies—you are actually nicer to your enemies than Trump is to his friends. Maybe this is just characterological, or maybe this is a choice to be “presidential” in your writing style? I’m thinking about this scene on your first Inauguration Day when you’re in the car with President Bush, people are jeering him, and you’re feeling sympathy for him.
Obama: There is no doubt that one of the themes of the book is me just wanting to hang on to who I am—my soul, my sense of right and wrong, my character—while operating at the highest level of politics.
Goldberg: This is the question of how any president stays human, given the absurd nature of the job.
Obama: There is the father, the friend, the husband. The title of the first section is “The Bet”—I’m making a bet first about the nature of America and the power of democracy, a belief that it is possible that a big, diverse, contentious, multiracial, multiethnic country can make its union a little more perfect and set an example for the world. And the second big bet is that I can participate in this process without being hopelessly corrupted. And so some of what you see in the book is me grappling with the inevitable choices and compromises that come up.
Goldberg: Starting with your first campaign—
Obama: Starting with my first political race, having to decide whether to try to knock someone off the ballot who had gone back on her word to me but at the same time didn’t have the signatures to run. This is a ballot-access issue. Signatures were used to help insiders stay on the inside—how do I feel about that? And this goes all the way to the end of the book, and to the end of my presidency.
Part of what you’re sensing here are times when I make decisions to be gracious, when I assume the best in people, not because I’m naive but because this is how I choose to operate in the world, because I think the world would be better if more people operated that way. Sometimes I fall short and am disappointed in myself, but at least I think it’s important to be anchored in ethics and morality and basic human decency in how you behave.
People during my presidency oftentimes had a misunderstanding of what the effect of wielding power is. They thought that bluster and being nasty somehow get more stuff done. And I remember parts of my presidency when my own base would get frustrated, at least among the intelligentsia. They would contrast me with Lyndon Johnson: “Even though he was a son of a bitch he got the Voting Rights Act passed,” and so on. “And that’s how you need to be, Obama, you’re too nice”—
Goldberg: Hyde Park law professor—
Obama: Yes, what have you. And not publicly, but privately, I would remind people that Lyndon Johnson got stuff done because he had the votes. Simple. FDR got stuff done when he had the votes. And the truth of the matter is that most of the time, what we think of as arm-twisting and brow-beating—what it really comes down to most of the time is: Do you have the votes? When you look at getting the Affordable Care Act passed, not just getting it through the Senate but then working with Nancy Pelosi to get House Democrats to pass a Senate bill that they thought was not progressive enough, I worked my caucus effectively, and not once did I grab someone by the lapels in an elevator or engage in a bunch of dirty tricks to get someone to do something.
It turns out that where I fell short in getting everything I wanted, it really comes down to the factors we’ve already discussed—the filibuster in place in the Senate, which meant you had to get 60 votes on everything. That was true in my first month in office. We had a huge and an obvious economic crisis, and we were able to squeak out a few Republican votes to get [the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] passed. And one of those Republicans, Arlen Specter, was chased out of the party for having voted for an emergency package that we know now Republicans didn’t ideologically oppose, because they just passed a $2 trillion relief package with a Republican as president.
Goldberg: There will be renewed Republican interest in deficits come January 21.
Obama: Absolutely. As I was writing the book, there wasn’t a time when I was reflecting back and thought that I was too nice here or there.
Goldberg: Should you have been caught trying more?
Obama: What do you mean?
Goldberg: Meaning, drinking with McConnell more often, working the opposition—
Obama: Look, this comes out more in volume two, and I will be more explicit on this, but take [former House Speaker] John Boehner for example. He and I had a perfectly good relationship, but he had to act a certain way for his caucus. He would badmouth many of them to me, in private. Much as John McCain did. The issue was never personal—Mitch McConnell is not buddy-buddy with anyone. I’m enjoying reading now about how Joe Biden and Mitch have been friends for a long time. They’ve known each other for a long time. I have quotes from Biden about his interactions with Mitch McConnell. The issue with Republicans is not that I didn’t court them enough. We would invite them to everything: movie nights, state dinners, Camp David, you name it. The issue was not a lack of schmoozing. The issue was that they found it politically advantageous to demonize me and the Democratic Party. This was amplified by media outlets like Fox News. Their voters believed this, and over time Republicans became so successful in their demonization that it became very difficult for them to compromise, or even be seen being friendly.
Goldberg: Charlie Crist in Florida is an example.
Obama: This happens very early. You asked me what surprised me when I wrote the book. I had forgotten how fast everything takes place here. I am sworn in, and within a month we pass the Recovery Act. In two to three months we had bailed out the auto industry; we had fixed the banking system so that it didn’t collapse. And I meet Charlie Crist, at the time a very popular Republican governor known for bipartisanship, and me shaking his hand and giving him a modified bro hug, it destroys him in the party. That was within a month of me being sworn in, at a time when my approval ratings were still around 63, 65 percent. I am, at that point, a very popular president in the midst of his honeymoon, and congratulating somebody, and just being polite and courteous to them. This is a person whose state is hemorrhaging, and he chooses to support an economic-bailout package that will save jobs and homes in his own state. He is immediately vilified and driven out of the party. And that’s the beginning of Marco Rubio’s career, going after Charlie Crist as a RINO, a “Republican in name only.”
And John McCain giving a standard platitude, saying, after an election, “I’m praying for President Obama’s success,” this gets an immediate rejoinder from Rush Limbaugh, which echoes through the conservative media-sphere. This notion that this stuff wasn’t baked in, that if I’d just had a few more scotches with Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan, that that would have done it …
5. What’s the Matter With Iowa?
Goldberg: It’s obvious from the writing that you have great enthusiasm for Iowa. It’s the state that really launched you, but it’s more than that. It’s a moment in time before we seem to enter a different phase of history, and it’s also, at least to my reading, a chapter about the last unalloyed good time you had in the run-up to the presidency and the presidency itself.
Obama: Iowa is this golden moment, when it feels the way you want politics, and the way you want America, to feel. I really enjoyed writing that chapter. It moved me. And Iowa still moves me. You’ve got this band of kids from every walk of life: Black kids from Brooklyn, Asian American kids from California, farm kids from the Midwest. We’re just dropping them off with a duffel bag or a suitcase in a bunch of little towns in Iowa—places that would very much be considered part of red America. And these kids set up card tables in front of grocery stores and go to Rotary Clubs, and they’re coaching Little League, and they just win over a town by listening and caring and making connections. And we ended up creating this movement that was premised on the idea of participatory democracy. It’s this movement that catapults me into being a credible presidential candidate.
Goldberg: Iowa subsequently went for Trump twice.
Obama: I don’t want to get cynical that fast. I won Iowa twice. I won Iowa when unemployment was still 8.5 percent, in 2012. And the demographics of Iowa have not changed. I won Iowa comfortably. This notion that somehow everything in this country has flipped—I think it’s more complicated than that.
Iowa was the last time I was able to interact directly with voters who might not immediately be predisposed to vote for me. The first time I did that was when I was running for the Senate. Downstate Illinois is like Kentucky or southern Ohio or Indiana or much of Iowa. And what I discovered in that Senate race—and this was repeated twice in Iowa—is that I could go into culturally conservative, rural or small-town, disproportionately white working-class communities and I could make a connection, and I could win those votes. The reason I could is that I didn’t have a filter between me and them.
The notion of me just being a decent person and courteous, and telling people my story and me listening to theirs—that was still possible in Iowa because it was all retail politics. That’s part of the irony to me, the idea of me not schmoozing enough in Washington. It probably is true that there is a certain Washington establishment that I didn’t give enough love to compared with the love I gave to people in Iowa. They reminded me of my grandparents and Michelle’s parents. There is an affinity that is there.
What I discovered post-Iowa is that you’re running nationally. It’s heady stuff, to be filling auditoriums of 20,000, 50,000 people.
Goldberg: You become this symbol.
Obama: This is what [David] Axelrod would call, dismissively, “Obama the icon,” because he knew that this was dangerous. What happens is that they see you through the dominant filters and news sources, and those news sources have changed. Even as late as 2008, typically when I went into a small town, there’s a small-town newspaper, and the owner or editor is a conservative guy with a crew cut, maybe, and a bow tie, and he’s been a Republican for years. He doesn’t have a lot of patience for tax-and-spend liberals, but he’ll take a meeting with me, and he’ll write an editorial that says, “He’s a liberal Chicago lawyer, but he seems like a decent enough guy, had some good ideas”; and the local TV station will cover me straight. But you go into those communities today and the newspapers are gone. If Fox News isn’t on every television in every barbershop and VFW hall, then it might be a Sinclair-owned station, and the presuppositions that exist there, about who I am and what I believe, are so fundamentally different, have changed so much, that it’s difficult to break through.
I come out of this book very worried about the degree to which we do not have a common baseline of fact and a common story. We don’t have a Walter Cronkite describing the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination but also saying to supporters and detractors alike of the Vietnam War that this is not going the way the generals and the White House are telling us. Without this common narrative, democracy becomes very tough.
Remember, after Iowa my candidacy survives Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright, and two minutes of videotape in which my pastor is in kente cloth cursing out America. And the fact is that I was able to provide context for that, and I ended up winning over a huge swath of the country that has never set foot on the South Side of Chicago and was troubled by what he said. I mean, that’s an indicator of a different media environment.
Now you have a situation in which large swaths of the country genuinely believe that the Democratic Party is a front for a pedophile ring. This stuff takes root. I was talking to a volunteer who was going door-to-door in Philadelphia in low-income African American communities, and was getting questions about QAnon conspiracy theories. The fact is that there is still a large portion of the country that was taken in by a carnival barker.
6. Tech Companies vs. Democracy
Goldberg: Is this new malevolent information architecture bending the moral arc away from justice?
Obama: I think it is the single biggest threat to our democracy. I think Donald Trump is a creature of this, but he did not create it. He may be an accelerant of it, but it preceded him and will outlast him. I am deeply troubled by how we address it, because back in those Walter Cronkite days—
Goldberg: Forget Walter Cronkite days; how about 2008 Iowa? I’m not sure that a person with your name and your background could walk into Iowa today and get a 10-minute fair shake.
Obama: It’s a pretty drastic change. Part of the common narrative was a function of the three major networks and a handful of papers that were disproportionately influential. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. You’re not going to eliminate the internet; you’re not going to eliminate the thousand stations on the air with niche viewerships designed for every political preference. Without this it becomes very difficult for us to tackle big things. It becomes hard for us to say, “Hey, we have a pandemic here; it’s deadly; it’s serious; let’s put partisanship aside; let’s listen to Anthony Fauci because he’s been studying stuff like this for a long time. We may not get everything exactly right, because science works iteratively, but let’s hew as closely as we can to the science. Let’s do what science tells us to do to save lives.” That becomes harder to do.
Goldberg: Do you hold the companies responsible?
Obama: I don’t hold the tech companies entirely responsible, because this predates social media. It was already there. But social media has turbocharged it. I know most of these folks. I’ve talked to them about it. The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic, I do not think is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not. The First Amendment doesn’t require private companies to provide a platform for any view that is out there. At the end of the day, we’re going to have to find a combination of government regulations and corporate practices that address this, because it’s going to get worse. If you can perpetrate crazy lies and conspiracy theories just with texts, imagine what you can do when you can make it look like you or me saying anything on video. We’re pretty close to that now.
Goldberg: It’s that famous Steve Bannon strategy: flood the zone with shit.
Obama: If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.
I can have an argument with you about what to do about climate change. I can even accept somebody making an argument that, based on what I know about human nature, it’s too late to do anything serious about this—the Chinese aren’t going to do it, the Indians aren’t going to do it—and that the best we can do is adapt. I disagree with that, but I accept that it’s a coherent argument. I don’t know what to say if you simply say, “This is a hoax that the liberals have cooked up, and the scientists are cooking the books. And that footage of glaciers dropping off the shelves of Antarctica and Greenland are all phony.” Where do I start trying to figure out where to do something?
7. What Genghis Khan Teaches Us About Life Today
Goldberg: Let’s stay on the subject of the optimism-pessimism continuum. I’m just trying to figure out where you are. Sometimes it’s confusing. You have this “Ozymandias” moment at one point. You’re visiting Egypt, you’re staring at this ancient etching of a face that looks something like you, and you write about the ephemerality of everything: “All of it was forgotten now, none of it mattered, the pharaoh, the slave, and the vandal all long turned to dust. Just as every speech I’d delivered, every law I passed and decision I made, would be forgotten. Just as I and all those I loved would someday turn to dust.”
I mean, putting aside the fact that this level of self-awareness can be paralyzing—
Goldberg: —You’re also still what could be called a realistic optimist. You make it clear at the beginning of the book that you haven’t swerved from the belief that America is imperfect but perfectible, that there’s more good than bad in the American story, and that tomorrow can be better than today. But even with Biden’s win, how does Trump as a phenomenon change your view of what America is?
Obama: That scene of me going through the pyramids—it’s not an empty exercise; there’s a purpose to it. So much of whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic depends on the time frame. If you were looking across millennia, then humans have advanced. Read a biography of Genghis Khan, who led a superpower for a long time—they were a superpower for longer than America’s been around. You know, when they raided a town, they gave you two choices: If you open the gates, we’ll just kill you quickly and take your women and enslave your children, but we won’t slaughter them. But if you hold out, we’ll slowly boil you in oil and peel off your skin. Compare the degree of brutality and venality and corruption and just sheer folly that you see across human history with how things are now. It’s not even close.
Let’s take this particular golden age right after World War II, when America was unified but the rest of the world was in rubble. Every economic indicator was on an upward trajectory. Everyone’s life was improving constantly. But maybe things didn’t look as good if you were Black or a woman or a gay person. Things definitely look better now than they did in that golden era. A lot of what looks optimistic or pessimistic depends on what we’re measuring against.
What I’ve always believed is that humanity has the capacity to be kinder, more just, more fair, more rational, more reasonable, more tolerant. It is not inevitable. History does not move in a straight line. But if you have enough people of goodwill who are willing to work on behalf of those values, then things can get better. America as an experiment is genuinely important to the world not because of the accidents of history that made us the most powerful nation on Earth, but because America is the first real experiment in building a large, multiethnic, multicultural democracy. And we don’t know yet if that can hold.
There haven’t been enough of them around for long enough to say for certain that it’s going to work, but if it can work, that’s a good thing, because we’ve got almost 8 billion people on the planet, and because of all this technology, and because of the stresses and pressures of climate change, we’re going to be all up on one another. We have to figure out how to live together, and we have to figure out if we can do this free of caste systems and the inevitable conflict that the kind of social stratification that has existed for most of human history creates. That genie is out. We’re past the time in which some peasant in a feudal system is starving and looks up on the palace and there’s a king somewhere, and the peasant thinks, Yeah, that’s okay. Now all those peasants have phones and they can see how the lord of the manor is eating, and some of them are going to say, “Why him instead of me?” The willingness to accept one’s fate or lot in life because of your skin color or gender or religion or sexual orientation—that you are going to accept being less than someone else—that’s over.
Goldberg: There’s a small irony here. You write about the first year of your presidency, of keeping the pitchfork brigade at bay when they’re coming for the Jamie Dimons, for the leaders of the financial industry.
Obama: Yeah, and they weren’t that grateful.
I think it is possible to be optimistic as a choice without being naive, and that is how I’m built temperamentally. And Michelle, as I write in the book, tends to be a little bit more pessimistic about human nature—
Goldberg: Hawaii versus Chicago?
Obama: It might be. It might just be the way we’re wired.
You do raise something that connects to this question about whether we should feel pessimistic or optimistic, or how our system can function or not function in a global economy.
One of the things I was reminded of in writing the book was just how many of my earliest choices were premised on the very specific circumstances of being in a global financial meltdown and trying to avert a depression and the political costs I paid. I would probably make those same choices again, because averting a depression is a good thing. But it did hamstring me. For example, I actually think that it is entirely legitimate to push China much harder on trade issues. I didn’t come into office as a knee-jerk anti-trade guy, but if you looked at the facts, China consistently ran mercantilist policies that violated international trade rules to help build up their economy from the late ’80s through today. And if we hadn’t been going through a financial crisis, my posture toward China would have been more explicitly contentious around trade issues. But I couldn’t have a trade war in 2009 or 2010. At that point I needed the cooperation of China as well as Europe as well as every other potential engine, just to restart the global economy.
8. Is There a Moral Arc to the Universe, and Does It Bend Toward Justice?
Goldberg: I’ve been witness for a long time to your intermittent argument with our friend Ta-Nehisi Coates, the argument about whether the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, or whether there is even a discernible moral arc. Ta-Nehisi’s view, I think, is that if there is an arc at all, maybe it just bends toward chaos.
I’m still trying to place you on this optimism-pessimism continuum. When you were in the White House, it was easy for you to win the argument. We’re in the Roosevelt Room and you can say, “By the way, Ta-Nehisi, there’s a Black president.” But now, in the Trump era, it seems as if maybe Ta-Nehisi had more of a point.
Obama: First of all, I love Ta-Nehisi. I love his writing; I love him personally. He’s such a gracious, thoughtful, humble person. He’s a good-hearted person, very open-minded, trying to figure this stuff out. I think the world of him.
I think the dialogue he and I had is one I have with myself. Being optimistic doesn’t mean that five times a day I don’t say, “We’re doomed.” You would not be paying attention if you weren’t concerned about how in the heck we are going to get our act together in order to avert a climate disaster. How are we ever going to figure out how to do a true accounting of the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow and segregation, and truly provide equal opportunity to the tens of millions of kids trapped in poverty across this country? You can’t just blithely say, “Oh, we’ll figure this out” without taking a look at all the institutional, economic, structural, and psychological barriers to us solving those problems. You’re operating in fantasyland if you do that.
The point I’ve always made to Ta-Nehisi, the point I sometimes make to Michelle, the point I sometimes make to my own kids—the question is, for me, “Can we make things better?”
I used to explain to my staff after we had a long policy debate about anything, and we had to make a decision about X or Y, “Well, if we do this I understand we’re not getting everything we’re hoping for, but is this better?” And they say yes, and I say, “Well, better is good. Nothing wrong with better.”
The discussion I had with Ta-Nehisi typically revolved around the basic belief that, in fact, things had gotten better. This is not a cause for complacency but rather a spur to action. It doesn’t mean that things can’t get worse, either.
Let’s take it out of the American context. When I came into office in 2008, even in the midst of a global financial crisis and recession, the continent of Europe was probably enjoying a level of peace and prosperity unmatched by any group of people in human history. So you cannot argue that Europe is not better than it was in the 1800s or in 1920. That’s not subject to debate. This doesn’t negate the fact that the continent went through unimaginable tragedy and anguish and human folly before things got better. Both things can be true. And so the issue is not whether things can get better; the question is how much pain do we have to go through to get there? How much more racism, how much more callousness, how much more disappointment, how many more wasted lives, how much more backlash? How much of that do we have to endure before things get better?
This goes back to the issue of time frames. If you’re an African American in 1866, maybe you’re feeling optimistic. If you’re an African American 15 years later, you’re not feeling so optimistic. That’s the issue. Within the time we’re here on this Earth, can we keep things getting better?
Goldberg: So there’s nothing that would cause you to give up hope?
Obama: I mean, anyone who reads this book will recognize the stress and discouragement I sometimes feel. I’m fighting this with gallows humor. My staff in the White House, we all had a little bit of that—using laughter to fight off despair. This will come in the second volume, but after Sandy Hook, when Congress would not do anything—that was one of those moments when I thought, You know what? There’s something here I don’t understand. Maybe I’m just barking up the wrong tree.
I could not comprehend a society not responding at all to mass shootings generally. It’s bad enough, the daily toll this takes on Black male teenagers in the inner city, or just the cumulative anguish it’s causing families across the country. But to have 6-year-olds in the classroom gunned down mercilessly? The police and first responders had to take time off and get counseling, just having witnessed the aftermath. And we literally did nothing. My administration tried through executive orders to do something, but legislatively we did nothing.
There are moments like that where you think, I’m not sure whether the basic premises I’ve been operating under still hold. But then something happens where you make things a little better and someone comes up to you and says, “My kid had a job that didn’t have insurance, and the ACA passes and I nag him and he gets a checkup and he’s got a tumor, and it’s removed and now my grandkid is being born next week.”
9.The Role Racism Plays in Politics
Goldberg: There’s an amazing moment in this book when Michelle turns to you and says, “It’s a trip, isn’t it? That they’re scared of you. Scared of us.”
By the way, there’s a move you have where you always give the best lines to Michelle or Reggie Love, your body man.
Obama: Michelle always has the best lines because she has great lines. Reggie has the best lines even though he’s unaware he has the best lines. That’s the difference.
Goldberg: Your wife has always had a slightly different view on the salience of race here, and you don’t dwell on race in this volume, but how much of the opposition to you had to do with the fact that you’re a liberal Democrat, versus you being a Black president?
Obama: I actually write about how hard it is to allocate percentages here, because American history and culture are so shaped by our racial history. If someone is in favor of “states’ rights,” it’s very hard to disentangle this statement from race. Maybe they just believe in local government and local control. On the other hand, this debate started as far back as debates between northern and southern states and the maintenance of slavery, and Jim Crow and opposition to busing, you name it. It’s difficult to clearly say how much of this was race, as opposed to opposition to liberalism. The Clintons, for example, generated similar venomous attacks. A lot of that had to do with the culture wars that dated back to the ’60s—Vietnam, pot, sex, rock and roll, the debate between Phyllis Schlafly and Bella Abzug.
What I think is indisputable is that I signified a shift in power. Just my mere presence worried folks—in some cases explicitly, in some cases subconsciously. And then there were folks around to exploit that and tap into that. If a Fox News talking head asks, when Michelle and I dap, give each other a fist bump, “Is that a terrorist fist bump?,” that’s not a particularly subtle reference. If there’s a sign in opposition to the ACA in which I’m dressed as an African witch doctor with a bone through my nose, that’s not a hard thing to interpret. And look: Well into my presidency, you would have sitting Republican officials caught trafficking emails in which they’re comparing Michelle to animals or suggesting that I was the product of my mother’s bestiality—these were Republican officials, not just random folks. So that undercurrent is there.
Do I think that it was determinative? No. I think these issues have been at the heart of this country’s debate for a very long time, around not just race but class—although we don’t like talking about class—around gender, around the sense that some people are more American than others, more worthy of citizenship than others. Who do we include under the label “We the People”? This has always been contested, even when you don’t have a Black president. Those themes have a lot of power.
10. Why This Book Took So Long to Write
Goldberg: Did this book take longer to write because you’re self-consciously a writer?
Obama: There was a time when I was writing when I was scolding myself because I was obsessing over a paragraph for a day. I realized, I do not have time to do this; I have to stop.
Goldberg: When you’re writing about cap-and-trade, did you just say to yourself, Okay, this is just going to be prose, no poetry here? Not that poetry about cap-and-trade might even be possible.
Obama: What I’m trying to accomplish in this book is both history and a story. There are certain things that, had I been just writing a narrative, I would have left out. If I was just writing a story, I wouldn’t get into the weeds of cap-and-trade. I wouldn’t need to venture into the weeds of Dodd-Frank. But as a historian I do need to provide those details. This is my best shot at giving future writers and historians and scholars at least some sense of how I was thinking. It’s my version of events, and I want to make sure people understand this.
Conversely, if I were just trying to provide a chronicle of events, then I wouldn’t be as concerned about whether this chapter ends on a cliffhanger so that people will turn the page, or did I accurately capture that particular tic of a world leader that makes the person seem more vivid and real. I think what ended up taking a long time was trying to do both. There are parts of the book where I’m explicitly sacrificing some narrative flow because I just need to explain this as clearly as possible. And then there are parts of the book where I just had a really nice description I wanted to leave in and the editor was like, “Do we really need this, like, do we really?” and I said, “Eh, I like it, sorry. That’s just a pretty description and I want to leave it.”
Goldberg: The crappy pens at the G20.
Obama: You’re at the G20 and you’re doing your thing, but you’re also thinking, How does this work? There’s a commemorative pad and pencil, and there are mints, and then there are these disappointing pens. I made the point because you’re at the G20 and there’s all this pomp—and, really, a lot of the conventions are not that different than the trade show at the convention center in Dubuque. There’s the tchotchkes and the cheesiness. I put all that in there to make things recognizable to people. I don’t want people to think of all this as foreign. It’s discernible and understandable.
Goldberg: I’m saving most of the foreign-policy talk for the next book, which is a way of noting that we’ve gone almost two hours without talking about Bibi Netanyahu. But I wanted to ask you a writing question about him, and other people you don’t like. I thought you were calibrating in your writing about Bibi, and McConnell, and some others, and doing so much extra contextualization.
Obama: It’s not a secret that Netanyahu and I did not share worldviews. The same with McConnell. But I think Bibi is a fascinating character the same way that Putin is a fascinating character. I think you can’t understand them, or Russia or Israel, without looking at the history out of which they arose, what shaped them. Providing that sense of context is not actually a matter of me trying to engage in political calculation. The nice thing about being an ex-president is that stuff doesn’t really matter. I want the reader not to just simply say that this guy and Obama are antagonistic, and since I’m reading Obama’s book I’m siding with him and the other guy must be a complete jerk. I want someone to read this and say, I understand how it is that the Israelis, given the world they are in, given the history they have experienced, and given the genuine threats that surround them, can turn to a figure who represents strength of a very particular kind and why that might clash with Obama’s views about certain things. My hope is that there is going to be some young future politician in Israel who is reading this book and is reading for this context and sees that I’m paying attention to this context.
Goldberg: Do you think you captured the cosmic weirdness of being president? Did you ever feel constrained by the fact that this is a presidential memoir?
Obama: The essential strangeness of the presidency is the isolation, both because of security issues and the nature of the job—suddenly you can’t go take a walk, or sit in a park and eat a sandwich, or go to a concert. I talk about a recurring dream I had during my presidency that simply involved me walking down a street and nobody knowing who I am. And you don’t fully appreciate some of the value of anonymity until you’ve lost it, just not being the object of attention. And look, this is a high-class problem to have; I’m not complaining about it. It’s an unusual experience.
Having said that, there is a gift given to a president, or someone running for president, in that you see a bigger cross section of the country, you meet more people and gain a better sense of the variety of our people and our commonality as a people. And that fills you up. All of those voices become a part of you, if you’re listening. And that is a profound gift, and it’s part of the basis for the optimism I continue to feel.
11. The Entire World Is High School
Goldberg: Actually there is one category of person you seem to have real contempt for: some of the Wall Street people in the financial crisis who are rich and just want to be richer, in your view.
Obama: If you read those sections over again, I am sympathetic to them. But they’re being oblivious. I do explain that they worked hard, they played by the rules as they understood them, but there is that sense of not understanding how the rest of us live, and not being interested. There’s a lack of curiosity there that is frustrating and dangerous. An example of that is the former head of BP during the oil spill, who explicitly says that all he wants to do is get back his life. He says this as fishermen’s livelihoods are being destroyed, the coastline is being destroyed. There is a cluelessness there.
But more than anything, I wanted this book to be a way in which people could better understand the world of politics and foreign policy, worlds that feel opaque and inaccessible. Part of my goal is describing quirks and people’s family backgrounds, just to remind people that these are humans and you can understand them and make judgments.
It’s interesting. You’re in high school and you see all the cliques and bullying and unfairness and superficiality, and you think, Once I’m grown up I won’t have to deal with that anymore. And then you get to the state legislature and you see all the nonsense and stupidity and pettiness. And then you get to Congress and then you get to the G20, and at each level you have this expectation that things are going to be more refined, more sophisticated, more thoughtful, rigorous, selfless, and it turns out it’s all still like high school. Human dynamics are surprisingly constant. They take different forms. It turns out that the same strengths people have—flaws and foibles that people have—run across cultures and are part of politics. This should be empowering for people. My ideal reader is some 25-year-old kid who is starting to be curious about the world and wants to do something that has some meaning. I want them to read this and say, “Okay, this is not all rocket science; this is something I could contribute to and make a difference in.”
*Painting by Jordan Casteel based on the Official White House Photo by Pete Souza