Coates: So it didn’t surprise you at all?
Obama: No. I think, and look, Ta-Nehisi, I don’t want to discount those criticisms, but offsetting those criticisms is that I have 90 percent or 95 percent support in the African American community and it’s not sort of “Well, he’s black, so it’s okay. We’re not going to say anything even though we’re seething.” And I hang out with a lot of middle-aged black women, and they’re not casual in their support of me. There’s a lot of love forthcoming. Partly because they understand the constraints of this society. They know that this is hard. And they also, I think, see me and Michelle trying. It’s one thing if they were watching and we were not working on poverty issues, and we weren’t working on education issues, and we weren’t working on health-care issues. You know, they’re pretty sophisticated; they understand that I’m trying to move an aircraft carrier here, I’m not just steering the speedboat. And so part of it is, I think, intellectual, and part of it is obviously emotional as well. But that support has been so constant and gracious and loving. Michelle and I have never felt as if, at any stage, folks didn’t have our backs. And as a consequence, I think that just spurred us on that much more to make us want to do the right thing, and do our best in the positions that we have.
Coates: So perhaps more substantive than that early-on critique, for instance—and Valerie [Jarrett] and I talked a little bit about this—when you attempted to bring in some of the Black Lives Matter activists and folks refused. And I heard you address this at Howard, too. What I would say—did you understand why some of them refused? Could you comprehend it?
Obama: Oh, I absolutely could comprehend it. A couple of them refused because they’re 20, or 21. I mean, that’s why they refused. It’s the same as when we were working on immigration reform and there was a young Latino man, young immigration activist here who, in the Roosevelt Room, refused to shake my hand.
Coates: Are you serious?
Obama: Absolutely. And I’m going around the table shaking everybody’s hand. And he made a point of saying, “I can’t shake your hand; you’re deporting too many people.” And I just said to him, “Young man, I’m glad that you feel so passionately about this issue, but you’re with the president right now in the White House. You’ve got to think about what’s going to be most effective in getting what you need, what you’re trying to accomplish. Because this may not be your best strategy.”
Coates: How did he respond?
Obama: Like a 21-year-old would, which is sort of a mixture of defiance and uncertainty and embarrassment. Which is fine. Look, so I guess I don’t—one of the things you understand, and it’s hard to do, but you—and I’m not saying I’m impervious to criticism—but one of the things that you come pretty early on to understand in this job, and you start figuring out even during the course of the campaign, is that there’s Barack Obama the person and there’s Barack Obama the symbol, or the office holder, or what people are seeing on television, or just a representative of power. And so when people criticize or respond negatively to me, usually they’re responding to this character that they’re seeing on TV called Barack Obama, or to the office of the presidency and the White House and what that represents. And so you don’t take it personally. You understand that if people are angry that somehow the government is failing, then they are going to look to the guy who represents government. And that applies, by the way, even to some of the folks who are now Trump supporters. They’re responding to a fictional character named Barack Obama who they see on Fox News or who they hear about through Rush Limbaugh.