In “My President Was Black,” The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates examined Barack Obama’s tenure in office, and his legacy. The story was built, in part, around a series of conversations he had with the president. This is a transcript of the second of those four encounters, which took place on October 19, 2016. Valerie Jarrett, the senior adviser to the president, was also present. You can find the other interviews, as well as responses to the story and to these conversations, here.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I’ve talked to Marty [Nesbitt], I talked to Mama Kaye [Wilson], I talked to Eric Holder, so I’ve been making the rounds. I’ve got all the goods.
Barack Obama: You’ve got all the goods.
Coates: I’ve got all the goods. Talked to [David] Axelrod, talked to [David] Plouffe.
Obama: I’m ready to just fill in the gaps.
Coates: I thought we’d talk about policy today. I wanted to start by getting a sense of your mind-set coming into the job, and as I’ve understood you—and you can reject this—your perspective is that a mixture of universalist policies, in combination with an increased level of personal responsibility and communal responsibility among African Americans, when we talk about these gaps that we see between black and white America, that that really is the way forward. Is that a correct summation?
Obama: I think it’s a three-legged stool and you left out one, which is vigorous enforcement of antidiscrimination laws. So the way we thought about it when we came in is that—and obviously we came in during crisis, so how we might have structured our policy sequencing if, when we came in, the economy was okay, and we weren’t potentially going into a great recession, and folks weren’t all losing their homes, might have been different. But as a general matter, my view would be that if you want to get at African American poverty, the income gap, wealth gap, achievement gap, that the most important thing is to make sure that the society as a whole does right by people who are poor, are working class, are aspiring to a better life for their kids. Higher minimum wages, full-employment programs, early-childhood education: Those kinds of programs are, by design, universal, but by definition, because they are helping folks who are in the worst economic situations, are most likely to disproportionately impact and benefit African Americans. They also have the benefit of being sellable to a majority of the body politic.
Step No. 2, and this is where I think policies do need to be somewhat race-specific, is making sure that institutions are not discriminatory. So you’ve got something like the FHA [Federal Housing Administration], which was on its face a universal program that involved a huge mechanism for wealth accumulation and people entering into the middle class. But if, in its application, black folks were excluded from it, then you have to override that by going after those discriminatory practices. The same would be true for something like Social Security, where historically, if you just read the law and the fact that it excluded domestic workers or agricultural workers, you might not see race in it, unless you knew that that covered a huge chunk of African Americans, particularly in the South. So reinvigorating the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, making sure that in our Department of Education, where we see evidence of black boys being suspended at substantially higher rates than white boys for the same behavior, in the absence of that kind of rigorous enforcement of the nondiscrimination principle, then the long-standing biases that I believe have weakened, but are still clearly present in our society, assert themselves in ways that usually disadvantage African Americans.
If you’ve got those two things right—if those two things are happening—then a third leg of the stool is, how do we in the African American community build a culture in which we are saying to our kids, “Here’s what it takes to succeed. Here’s the sacrifices you need to make to be able to get ahead. Here’s how we support each other. Here’s how we look out for each other.” And it is my view that if society was doing the right thing with respect to you, [and there were] programs targeted at helping people rise into the middle class and have a good income and be able to save and send their kids to school, and you’ve got a vigorous enforcement of antidiscrimination laws, then I have confidence in the black community’s capabilities to then move forward.
Now, does that mean that all vestiges of past discrimination would be eliminated, that the income gap or the wealth gap or the education gap would be erased in five years or 10 years? Probably not, and so this is obviously a discussion we’ve had before when you talk about something like reparations. Theoretically, you can make, obviously, a powerful argument that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination are the primary cause for all those gaps. That those were wrongs done to the black community as a whole, and black families specifically, and that in order to close that gap, a society has a moral obligation to make a large, aggressive investment, even if it’s not in the form of individual reparations checks, but in the form of a Marshall Plan, in order to close those gaps. It is easy to make that theoretical argument. But as a practical matter, it is hard to think of any society in human history in which a majority population has said that as a consequence of historic wrongs, we are now going to take a big chunk of the nation’s resources over a long period of time to make that right. You can look at examples like postwar Germany, where reparations were paid to Holocaust victims and families, but—
Coates: They lost the war.
Obama: They lost the war. Small population, finite amount of money that it was going to cost. Not multiple generations but people, in some cases, who are still alive, who can point to, “That was my house. Those were my paintings. Those were my mother’s family jewels.” If you look at countries like South Africa, where you had a black majority, there have been efforts to tax and help that black majority, but it hasn’t come in the form of a formal reparations program. You have countries like India that have tried to help untouchables, with essentially affirmative-action programs, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the structure of their societies.
So the bottom line is that it’s hard to find a model in which you can practically administer and sustain political support for those kinds of efforts. And what makes America complicated as well is the degree to which this is not just a black/white society, and it is becoming less so every year. So how do Latinos feel if there’s a big investment just in the African American community, and they’re looking around and saying, “We’re poor as well. What kind of help are we getting?” Or Asian Americans who say, “Look, I’m a first-generation immigrant, and clearly I didn’t have anything to do with what was taking place.” And now you start getting into trying to calibrate—
Coates: Isn’t there just—not to cut you off—isn’t there, and this is out of the role of U.S. president, I’m almost speaking to you as a law professor now, an intellectual, in fact—
Obama: Well, that’s how I was answering the question, because if you want me to talk about politics, I’ll be much more blunt about it.
Coates: I figured that. I thought that was what I was getting.
Obama: I was giving the benefit of playing out, theoretically, how you could think about that.
Coates: And I appreciate that. And the question I would ask is in that situation, to the immigrant who comes here, first generation, and says, “I didn’t do any of this,” but the country is largely here because of that. In other words, many of the benefits that you will actually enjoy are, in fact, in part—I won’t say largely—in part here because of the past. So when you want the benefits, when you invoke the past, that thus you inherit the debt, too—
Obama: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I guess, here’s the way—probably the best way of saying it is that you can make a theoretical, abstract argument in favor of something like reparations. And maybe I’m just not being sufficiently optimistic or imaginative enough—
Coates: You’re supposed to be optimistic!
Obama: Well, I thought I was, but I’m not so optimistic as to think that you would ever be able to garner a majority of an American Congress that would make those kinds of investments above and beyond the kinds of investments that could be made in a progressive program for lifting up all people. So to restate it: I have much more confidence in my ability, or any president or any leader’s ability, to mobilize the American people around a multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment to help every child in poverty in this country than I am in being able to mobilize the country around providing a benefit specific to African Americans as a consequence of slavery and Jim Crow. Now, we can debate the justness of that. But I feel pretty confident in that assessment politically. And, you know, I think that part of my optimism comes from the belief that we as a people could actually, regardless of all the disadvantage of the past, regardless of the fact that a lot of other folks got a head start in the race, if we were able to make the race fair right now, and—
Coates: You think we could catch up?
Obama: We were able to make sure that it stayed fair for a long time and that children going forward were not encumbered by some of that same bias of the past, I think it would not take long at all, because we are a talented, resourceful people. Just play this out as a thought experiment: Imagine if you had genuine, high-quality early-childhood education for every child, and suddenly every black child in America—but also every poor white child or Latino [child], but just stick with every black child in America—is getting a really good education. And they’re graduating from high school at the same rates that whites are, and they are going to college at the same rates that whites are, and they are able to afford college at the same rates because the government has universal programs that say that you’re not going to be barred from school just because of how much money your parents have. So now they’re all graduating. And let’s also say that the Justice Department and the courts are making sure, as I’ve said in a speech before, that when Jamal sends his résumé in, he’s getting treated the same as when Johnny sends his résumé in.
Now, are we going to have suddenly the same number of CEOs, billionaires, etc., as the white community? In 10 years? Probably not, maybe not even in 20 years. But I guarantee you that we would be thriving, we would be succeeding. We wouldn’t have huge numbers of young African American men in jail. We’d have more family formation as college-graduated girls are meeting boys who are their peers, which then in turn means the next generation of kids are growing up that much better. And suddenly you’ve got a whole generation that’s in a position to start using the incredible creativity that we see in music, and sports, and frankly even on the streets, channeled into starting all kinds of businesses. I feel pretty good about our odds in that situation.
And my point has always been: We’re so far from that. Why are we even having the abstract conversation when we’ve got a big fight on our hands just to get strong, universal antipoverty programs and social programs in place, and we’re still fighting to make sure that basic antidiscrimination laws are enforced, not just at the federal level, by the way, but throughout government and throughout the private sector? And those are fights that we can win because—and this is where I do believe America has changed—the majority, not by any means 100 percent, but the majority of Americans believe in the idea of nondiscrimination. They believe in the idea that Jamal and Johnny should be treated equally. They believe in the idea that a child shouldn’t be consigned to poverty just because of circumstances of their birth. Now, in practice, in daily social interactions, etc., there may be all kinds of biases and prejudices that are unspoken, that people aren’t aware of, that affect who’s hired, and who gets loans, and how kids are treated in school. But it’s a powerful thing if you have on your side an idea that the overwhelming majority of people believe in because that’s how you can build a consensus that’s lasting. And that’s how you avoid an argument that “I’m being treated unfairly because you are treating somebody differently than me.” Everybody potentially can make the claim that we should all be treated fairly. As opposed to getting into arguments about, well, these folks have been treated fairly so now we’re going to be doing things that, very easily in the minds of a lot Americans feel like, “Now I’m being treated unfairly.”
Coates: One of the things I would say—the first thing I want to say is—I don’t want to draw this into an either-or argument, that if you make the reparations argument, you therefore don’t support everything else that you said.
Obama: I’m well aware of that.
Coates: Okay. The second part, you’re talking about how the country has changed, and the consciousness, and I think we both agree that 150 years ago that wasn’t true. And I wonder, is it the work, perhaps maybe not of presidents but certainly of people outside of government, to change that mind-set? And if one can come to see, for instance, that, yeah, it is true that nondiscrimination should be a basic value that we share, that, as I would put it, responsibility for our history is one, too?
Obama: Right. And I think that it is. I want my children—I want Malia and Sasha—to understand that they’ve got responsibilities beyond just what they themselves have done. That they have a responsibility to the larger community and the larger nation, that they should be sensitive to and extra thoughtful about the plight of people who have been oppressed in the past, are oppressed currently. So that’s a wisdom that I want to transmit to my kids. And it may be that we found an area where you’re more optimistic than me. But I would say that’s a high level of enlightenment that you’re looking to have from a majority of the society. And it may be something that future generations are more open to, but I am pretty confident that for the foreseeable future, using the argument of nondiscrimination, and “Let’s get it right for the kids who are here right now,” and giving them the best chance possible, is going to be a more persuasive argument.
One of the things you learn as president is, as powerful as this office is, you have limited bandwidth. And the time goes by really quickly and you’re constantly making choices, and there are pressures on you from all different directions—pressures on your attention, not just pressures from different constituencies. And so you have to be pretty focused about where can you have the biggest, quickest impact. And I always tell my staff, “Better is good.” I’ll take better every time, because better is hard. Better may not be as good as the best, but better is surprisingly hard to obtain. And better is actually harder than worse. [Laughter]
It requires enormous energy for us to cut the African American uninsured rate by a third. A lot of scars. Bernie Sanders would say, “You still have millions of African Americans who aren’t insured, and if we had a single-payer system, that wouldn’t be the case.” And that’s true. But it is my judgment that had I spent the first two years trying to get a single-payer system, all those folks who now have health insurance that didn’t have it would still be uninsured. And those are millions of people whose lives are impacted right now. I get letters from them right now. “You saved my child’s life.” “I did not have to sell my home when my wife got sick.” And that is what, as a policy maker, I’m trying to achieve during the short period of time that I’m here.
Now, you as a thinker, you as a writer, you as a philosopher, you want to stretch the boundaries of thinking, because you’re not constrained by trying to move the levers of power right now. And so I think that these are all worthy topics of conversation. Sometimes I wonder how much of these debates have to do with the desire, the legitimate desire, for that history to be recognized. Because there is a psychic power to the recognition that is not satisfied with a universal program, it’s not satisfied by the Affordable Care Act, or an expansion of Pell grants, or an expansion of the earned-income tax credit. It doesn’t speak to the hurt, and the sense of injustice, and the self-doubt that arises out of the fact that we’re behind now, and it makes us sometimes feel as if there must be something wrong with us, unless you’re able to see the history and say, “It’s amazing we got this far given what we went through.” So part of, I think, the argument sometimes that I’ve had with folks who are much more interested in sort of race-specific programs is less an argument about what is practically achievable and sometimes maybe more an argument of “We want society to see what’s happened, and internalize it, and answer it in demonstrable ways.” And those impulses I very much understand, but my hope would be that, as we’re moving through the world right now, we’re able to get that psychological or emotional peace by seeing very concretely our kids doing better and being more hopeful and having greater opportunities. And your son thriving at some United Nations model conference, and me seeing Malia and Sasha doing amazing things. And some of the mentees that I was talking to at A and T overcome incredible disadvantages and starting to gain confidence in what they can do in the world. And I’ll stop there.
Coates: You know, Mr. President, I think largely what a lot of us fear, everything you described—Pell grants, health care, all the programs—that’s the world—let me speak for myself, not for anybody—that’s a world I’d want to live in whether black or not. That just speaks to society’s commitment to its citizens. What we fear is that the gap will never close. Or let me rephrase that: The gap will close, but it will never actually be equal. There will always be carrying this. That without some sort of specific acknowledgment—you know, when I was working on this piece about race, the theory—fine. Going to a 90-year-old’s house in Lawndale in Chicago, and I’m not supposing you don’t have more experience with this, because you read letters and travel and you see, but as a journalist to sit there and see somebody who fought in World War II, and to hear him talk about how they had done everything right—basically obeyed their side of the social contract—and to hear them basically say, “And what I got was ripped off.” And then to have in my city in Baltimore, right now about 10 years ago during the housing crisis, to see Wells Fargo going to these black folks who just want to buy homes, who just want to be part of the basic American dream, social contract, and to see them being ripped off, not in the same fashion but the same idea—taking from them. We fear without any sort of direct engagement of that question, it won’t stop.
Obama: Well, this is why the antidiscrimination principle being enforced is important. Because it won’t stop if some of the underlying biases aren’t challenged and surfaced. And that in and of itself creates backlash and denial. This is what I mean when I say better is hard. Just making sure that right now folks aren’t being ripped off—that’s a challenge. I remember when I was in Chicago and data started coming out that when black folks walk into an auto dealership, and women, too, to some degree, they are automatically given higher quotes, worse deals. And this was just documented extensively across auto dealerships around the country. There was a tax being imposed on black folks. By collecting that data, you can construct policies to combat that. And that’s potentially thousands of dollars in people’s pockets that are being taken away right now. But it’s hard to do. It requires an effective government agency, and data collection, and pushing, and shoving, and litigation until finally you start getting new norms and new practices.
And my argument—it’s not even an argument—my conviction is that those fights need to be fought right now and can be won. And if in fact we have finite political capital, energy, resources, we need to win those fights. And if we win all those fights, and now let’s say the income gap, and the wealth gap, and the education gap have for the most part been closed—let’s say hypothetically, knowing what we know now about public policy, that we could close the education gap so that it was only a couple percentage points, and we could make sure that hiring barriers and educational barriers had been leveled down, and unemployment among African Americans right now instead of being double was only 10 percent higher than white unemployment—if we got to that point, first of all, America as a whole would be a lot richer. Second of all, the African American community would not just be wealthier, but it would actually also be more politically empowered by virtue of having more resources. Third, I actually believe that some residue of discrimination would lessen, because it’s my view that there is a certain percentage of the white population that stereotypes and makes assumptions about African Americans because they don’t inject the history of slavery and Jim Crow into current incarceration rates, or crime rates, or poverty rates, or what have you—but if they started having more middle-class black kids who are friends with their kids, eating Cheerios in their kitchen, their attitudes start changing. If we achieve all that and there’s still a gap, at worst we’re much better positioned to pursue strategies to close that final gap. And at best we might surprise ourselves in terms of how well we’re doing.
So there’s going to—as I said before, it’s a generational project just to get America to live up fully to its ideals and to have the kind of society where everybody has a shot, and every kid is getting a good education, and people are getting living wages, and they have decent retirement. And if we got there and we looked up and we said, “You know what? Black folks are still doing a little bit worse off than whites, but it’s not like it was 20 years ago,” then we can have a discussion about how do we get that last little bit. But that’s a high-class problem to have. And to me the question right now is: How do I close that first three-quarters of the achievement gap, education gap, wealth gap? What gives me the best chance to do that? And I’m pretty darn sure that if America is a just society and treating people well right now, irrespective of past wrongs, that I’m going to close a big chunk of that gap. I’ve seen it.
This is what I always take away from something like My Brother’s Keeper—it’s almost an analogy. I look at some of the kids that I interact with, and they were born with so many disadvantages. And you could start off in your first interaction with them saying, “Unless they get a lot of compensatory help, they’re not going to be able to compete; they’re just so far behind, and they’re wounded and they’re hurt.” Think about that young man we were talking to: His mother was a drug addict, and his dad is in prison, and he has no sense of direction. And there’s no doubt that the more you did for him, probably the better he would do, but what’s always striking to me is he just got a little bit. He just had a few adults paying attention and telling him he was worth something while he’s in juvee, he’s just got somebody who is willing to pay his community-college fees, and suddenly you’ve got this young man sitting there who is so self-aware that to the president of the United States he can say, “Look even though I look like I’ve got my act together, I’ve still got pains, wounds, there’re issues I still have, and yet I’m going to be a teacher and I can tell my story, and here’s how I’m thinking about social change in the community.” And I’m thinking to myself, Wow. I believe he can close that gap, and my conclusion is that five years from now, if you ask me who has a better shot of being a great teacher in a school, that guy or some kid who grew up in an upper-middle-class community who out of all kinds of good-hearted impulses wants to be a teacher, I’m betting he ends up being the better teacher. That gap has been closed, even though you would think it wouldn’t be.
Now, I don’t want to exaggerate; having as many African American men as we’ve had in the criminal-justice system, and the amount of time it takes for the damage done by that to wash through our society and our communities, the disadvantages born out of kids being undiagnosed with mental-health problems early, or not getting the kind of exposure to reading and math when they’re 4 or 5 or 6 years old, that carries a cost. But I know that those gaps can be closed. And they can be closed substantially, more than I think we believe. So I guess maybe we can agree that in some ways you’re more optimistic than me, and in some ways I’m more optimistic than you. You’re maybe more optimistic than me in terms of the ability to persuade a society to make up for past injustices; but maybe I’m more optimistic than you about the ability to persuade a society to make up for current injustices and the capacity of the victims of those injustices to catch up pretty quickly.
Coates: Were you surprised relatively early on in your presidency when people criticized you for not having a quote-unquote “black agenda”?
Obama: No. I mean, I think if you worked at the community level in Chicago and then a politician on the South Side of Chicago, and worked at the state level, then you’re pretty familiar with all the variations of politics in the African American community and criticisms you may get. If you’re not familiar with those or you don’t have a thick enough skin to take it, then you probably wouldn’t have gotten here.
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.
Coates: What I’m trying to get at is a theory—you’re very unique in the sense that you are the president but you’ve also been an activist. You’ve actually occupied both roles. So what I’m getting at is, can you see how—
Obama: Is there utility—
Coates: In not being so close to power?
Obama: Yeah. And my argument would be: Yes, and it’s the reason why I am always interested in engaging in people who are pushing us and pushing against the status quo. But having been an activist, the only thing that I’m always encouraging activists to do is, once you have raised the issue, and even through controversial means, you have to come behind it with an agenda and the possibility of reconciliation if power meets your demands. And that was true during the civil-rights movement, that was true during the union movement, that’s always been true. And so the only time I get frustrated with activist criticism is if I have recognized them, and invited them to work with me to figure out how we solve this problem that they’re concerned about, and either they don’t engage out of the sense of purity—“I’m not going to shake his hand”—or you’re not sufficiently prepared so you don’t even know what to ask for, or you’re not being strategic as an activist and trying to figure out how the process has to work in order for you to get what you want.
So I’ll give you some specific examples just so that this isn’t too abstract: I thought Brittany Packnett, who was one of the Ferguson activists, really interesting, smart young lady, really impressive—you might want to talk with her. So she was one of the organizers of the Ferguson movement, ended up joining our task force. She came in here and she just knew her stuff. And I don’t think at any point backed off, even in our first meeting, saying, “Here’s what we’re concerned about; here’s where we’re disappointed in the Justice Department’s response; here’s what we need.” But she was sufficiently well-informed and engaged that it was very easy then to say, “You are right about this, you’re wrong I think about that, but I’m not sure, let’s sit down and see if we can hammer out a strategy that we agree with. And by the way, I want you talking to that police chief over there and that sheriff, because I think you might be able to persuade them if we break this down into its component parts.”
Now, in contrast, there have been times where, let’s say on LGBT issues, when we were trying to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and I got the Pentagon and Bob Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration, to authorize a study of how you might end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, headed up by Jeh Johnson, who at that time was a council to the Justice Department. And it was going to take a year to conduct that study, issue a report, and figure out how it might be implemented, what effect it would have on unit cohesion and military effectiveness. And I had laid out this strategy because if I could get the Pentagon’s imprimatur on this thing, then I knew that we could end up getting legislation passed to reverse the policy, and we could get the branches of all the military to implement it. But during the course of that year, probably every speech I gave, I’d have gay activists just screaming at me during rallies. And you just say, “Come on, man. Not only do I agree with you, but I’ve actually got a strategy to execute, we are executing it, and in what sense do you think that you yelling at me here is going to advance your cause?”
Coates: They don’t want you to forget.
Obama: Well, the theory was they didn’t want us to forget. But the problem was, and we saw some of this in the immigration-reform issues as well, was they hadn’t done sufficient homework to know that I didn’t have all the capacity they thought I did in order to just execute this through the stroke of a pen. So I think that where I’ve gotten frustrated during the course of my presidency has never been because I was getting pushed too hard by activists to see the justness of a cause or the essence of an issue; I think where I get frustrated at times was the belief that the president can do anything if he just decides he wants to do it. And that sort of lack of awareness on the part of an activist about the constraints of our political system and the constraints on this office, I think, sometimes would leave me to mutter under my breath. Very rarely did I lose it publicly. Yeah, usually I’d just smile. [Laughter] No, and the reason I say that is because those are the times where sometimes you feel actually a little bit hurt. Because you feel like saying to these folks, “[Don’t] you think if I could do it, I [would] have just done it. Do you think that the only problem is that I don’t care enough about the plight of poor people, or gay people, or immigrants, or …?”
Coates: But don’t they have some level of distrust towards you? I mean, that’s what I’m hearing: They don’t trust you to ultimately follow through. And isn’t that kind of the mind-set that the activist has to have?
Obama: Well, I think, yes. Which is why I don’t get too hurt. I mean, I think there is a benefit to wanting to hold power’s feet to the fire until you actually see the goods. I get that. And I think it is important. And frankly, sometimes it’s useful for activists just to be out there to keep you mindful and not get complacent, even if ultimately you think some of their criticism is misguided.
I’ll give you an example that’s outside the issues of social justice, but the criticism that some on the left consistently have given us around drone strikes. The truth is that this technology really began to take off right at the beginning of my presidency. And it wasn’t until about a year, year and a half in where I began to realize that the Pentagon and our national-security apparatus and the CIA were all getting too comfortable with the technology as a tool to fight terrorism, and not being mindful enough about how that technology is being used and the dangers of a form of warfare that is so detached from what is actually happening on the ground. And so we initiated this big process to try to get it in a box, and checks and balances, and much higher standards about when they’re used. But the truth is that, in trying to get at terrorists who are in countries that either are unwilling or unable to capture those terrorists or disable them themselves, there are a lot of situations where the use of a drone is going to result in much fewer civilian casualties and much less collateral damage than if I send in a battalion of marines. And I think right now we probably have the balance about right.
Now, you wouldn’t know that if you talked to Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or some of the international activist organizations. Certainly you wouldn’t know that if you were talking to some of the writers who criticize our drone policy. But I’ve actually told my staff it’s probably good that they stay critical of this policy, even though I think right now we’re doing the best that we can in a dangerous world with terrorists who would gladly blow up a school bus full of American kids if they could. We probably have got it about right. But if suddenly all those organizations said, “Okay, the Obama administration’s got it right, and we don’t have a problem here,” the instinct towards starting to use it more, and then some of those checks and balances that we’ve built up starting to decay—that’s probably what would happen. So there’s an example of where I think, even if the criticism is not always perfectly informed and in some cases I would deem unfair, just the noise, attention, fuss probably keeps powerful officials or agencies on their toes. And they should be on their toes when it comes to the use of deadly force.
Coates: This actually ties right back in. I wanted to ask you about it, so I’m glad you brought that up. You know, you’re a great—and I don’t want this to come of as a “gotcha” question, I want to have a discussion here about this to the extent that we have time, a discussion about this—
Obama: Oh we better, I mean, we have time, we’ve spent a lot of time—
Valerie Jarrett (senior adviser to Obama): We have around 15.
Coates: You know you’ve talked quite a bit about your admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which is sincere and heartfelt. Have you thought much about how you reconcile that, not just with you yourself, but actually with the office of being president, which does involve killing—it’s part of it as commander in chief—do you think much about reconciling those two things?
Obama: Yeah. Absolutely. When you take on the position of president, you are committing yourself to, first and foremost, protecting the American people. You are accepting an institutional role that requires you to make hard decisions and hard choices, and as a consequence you have to take your moral sense and not put it aside, but rather take that moral sense and apply it to the particulars of a job that is going to test those ethical and moral precepts differently than if you’re a professor, or a business person, or a dad. And if I were not comfortable with the judicious use of our military to protect the American people, than I shouldn’t have run for president. And having said that, I do think that the wisdom of a King or a Gandhi can inform my decisions. I may not be able to follow their beliefs to their logical conclusions, but I can think about what Gandhi said or King said about violence begetting violence, and still be true to my job by asking myself the question whenever we’re confronted with a situation where some may be arguing for military action: Will this actually result in America being safer, or the most lives being saved?
But these kinds of questions arise not just in the military sphere. Going back to the discussion we were having about immigration reform, some of the most challenging discussions I’ve had are with activists who essentially would argue that any immigrant from Central America, let’s say, who gets here to this country should be allowed to stay because their country is dangerous, their country is poor, and the opportunities for that mom and that kid are much greater here, and why would you send them back? And I remember—I think you were sitting in this discussion, Valerie—when I said to one young activist who herself was the daughter of an undocumented worker, and so could speak from a very personal and legitimate perspective—I remember saying to her: I agree with you, from a moral perspective, that a child from Honduras is worth the same as my daughter. God is not a respecter of boundaries; he’s not saying that American kids deserve a better life than Honduran kids. But I’m the president of the United States, and the nation-state by definition means that boundaries mean something and borders mean something. And I have to be able to implement a policy that doesn’t completely erase borders and boundaries. Not because I think that Honduran child who’s gotten here is less worthy of love, attention, opportunity than my child, but because I’m the president of the United States of America and I’m not speaking as a religious leader. I’ve got certain responsibilities that I have to carry out in a very specific institution and in a specific moment in time.
So why don’t you ask one last question? And then we can decide how much more you’ve got.
Coates: Okay. I wonder if part of this is the fact, as we talked about last time, that the idea of a black president was so remote to everybody that if it happened, it must mean that all these other things would be true about the world—the world would change. I don’t want to use the word postracial or anything like that. But the expectation of the idea of a black president was almost abstract to people.
Coates: And I wonder—I heard you talk about this very early in your presidency, but there was so much fervor, the crowds that you were getting—at what point did it occur to you: Oh, I’ve got to tamp this down a little bit. People are going to expect me to split the seas?
Obama: Well, we used to talk about this in the middle of the campaign. It’s interesting when you go back. I told this to Valerie: We had to get out of Chicago so quick. Election night happens, suddenly I’m talking to Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson and trying to figure out whether the world’s going to fly apart, and Michelle is trying to figure out where the girls are going to go to school. And we pack up and leave and basically our house in Chicago just became like a time capsule. My desk in my home office still had stacks of articles and bills and stuff from 2008. And probably last year I went back, maybe it was earlier this year, and I just start going through some stuff and there was an article—it was the [Time magazine “Person of the Year” issue], and this was at the height of Obama Hype, I mean I’d just been elected—
Coates: Were you tired of it? Were you like, “Please stop”?
Obama: Oh yeah. But I read the—there’s an interview of me in there—and I read through it, and what’s interesting was, I was pretty realistic to people about what we could get done, and the situation we were in, and trying to tamp down expectations. If you listen to my stump speeches, if you listen to what I said at Grant Park, I kept on saying, “Look, this is not just about me, this is not going to happen in one year, or one term, or even one presidency.” And we tried to layer into everything we were saying a sense of hope, but also realism. I don’t regret the excitement, because I do think that it helped us accomplish as much as we did. I don’t regret the fervor, because I do believe, in the African American community but also for other communities, and I know from talking to people, for communities around the world, the election of an African American to the most powerful office on Earth meant things had changed, and not just in superficial ways. That in some irreversible way the world was different.
But I can say with confidence that I never bought into the hype, and I made sure that the people around me didn’t buy into the hype, and I did not surround myself with people who fed me the hype. And I’m glad of that as well. Because I think we would have made a lot more mistakes and would have accomplished a lot less had we not been grounded in some basic truths.
And I would say this, I’ll go back to those black ladies I was talking about who love them some Barack and love Michelle even more—and by the way, they are not middle-aged anymore, because I’m now middle-aged. So they’re a little bit older. As fervent as they were, as excited and happy as they were when I was elected, they had to go to work the next morning. They still had trouble paying those bills. They might have still had a son who was in trouble with the law or couldn’t get a job because of a felony record. They didn’t stop being grounded. And in many ways they’re my touchstone, because they are what I meant when I talked about the audacity of hope. If you read that passage, it talks about not blind optimism, but it’s hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty—that’s what makes it audacious. Those are the ladies sitting in church. And in the same way that they might feel a joy and release on Sunday, they are still going to work on Monday. And that’s who I was listening to during this process. And if at the end of my presidency they feel like I did a pretty good job, then I’ll feel pretty good.
Obama: All right.
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