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 final of those four encounters, which took place by phone after the election, on November 17, 2016. You can find the other interviews, as well as responses to the story and to these conversations, here.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Hello.
Barack Obama: Hey, man, how are you doing?
Coates: I’m okay. How are you, Mr. President?
Obama: Well, I’m doing fine. I’m in Germany, so this is how I roll this week, I guess. I guess I’ve got some business back home in between doing my business out here.
Coates: Yeah, I guess it’s about 10 o’clock at night over there.
Obama: Yeah, but it’s all right. I’m a night owl. And I didn’t think this needed to be a long conversation. I just figured that after all our conversation before the election, and then in the wake of the election, that you might need a very brief follow-up question. And I wanted to make sure that you had a chance because I know that you had to finish that story.
Coates: Yeah, I appreciate that, and I did not think of this as a very long conversation, either. If you don’t mind, I have three questions. Is that okay?
Obama: If they’re too long or difficult, then I’ll pretend that we got cut off.
Coates: All right, well, I’ll try to get through this. I’ll see what I can do here. The first thing I would ask is, we had this conversation very early in our session, and you talked about the belief that what the American people most want from a candidate is an optimistic vision. And I believe you were referencing Donald Trump at the time, and it was your thought that it was hard to get elected with a gloom-and-doom message. And I just wonder what you take from this election given what happened, and how your theory reconciles with that.
Obama: Well, look, I think I am absolutely, you know, surprised like everybody else with the outcome. So, you know, I don’t want to pretend like I was anticipating the results. I do think, though, that when you look at the specifics of this race, it is hard to, I think, draw a grand theory from it, because there were just some very unusual circumstances. We ended up having a situation in which both candidates had very high negatives. I think the caricature of Hillary Clinton that developed as a consequence of all kinds of stuff, compounded in that last week with more news about emails, meant that people never really got to hear a positive, optimistic message. Hillary Clinton had all kinds of terrific policies, but that was just not the focus of coverage. And as a consequence, you ended up having not just a polarized electorate, but a fairly dispirited electorate. It meant that a lot of the people who voted for me didn’t turn out to vote—that a lot of people who, if the surveys are correct, approve of my work and my presidency didn’t vote or decided, You know what, let’s just shake it up this time. And you know, it’s just an indication of the structural challenges that progressive politics have always faced in this country.
You know, we are a country that makes it harder to vote than most countries. We are a country in which the campaigns are so long and so expensive that by the time you get to the end of it, negative campaigning dominates as opposed to a proactive set of proposals. We have an electoral college that mirrors, you know, the states’ power that was preserved in the design of the Senate, where, you know, small states, or more rural states, or states with, you know, large rural or less diverse populations have significantly more influence in some cases than massive states like California. And so, you know, you add all that up and you ended up getting the specific result that we got.
But as I have said publicly in all the interviews that I’ve conducted since the election, to be optimistic about the long-term trends of the United States doesn’t mean that everything is going to go in a smooth, direct, straight line. It, you know, goes forward sometimes, sometimes it goes back, sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it zigs and zags. And, you know, the important thing that I’m hoping everybody draws from this is anybody who thinks that opting out of the system is a smart protest move, anybody who thinks that disengaging from the political process because “both parties are the same” or “both candidates are the same” or “none of them are getting at the structural issues that are ultimately going to make the biggest difference”—you know, those approaches can result in Donald Trump being elected president.
Coates: I’m going to skip to my third question, because it’s important I get to it. I don’t want to get accidentally cut off here.
Obama: I was teasing. I wouldn’t actually—but I appreciate that you took it seriously.
Coates: I did. One of the things I wanted to ask you—and this really comes personally from my own concerns—we have this history in our country where national-security policy is directed at a certain foe—for instance, earlier in the 20th century at communism during the Cold War—and sometimes, when in the wrong hands, it expands out. And in the ’60s it expanded out into the civil-rights movement. In the post-9/11 world, the office of the presidency has accumulated quite a bit of powers in terms of national security. Are you concerned at all about that stuff—now that there’s somebody else—being directed at activists, at Black Lives Matter, people like that? Are you worried about that?
Obama: Yeah, I have to say that this is an argument that I know was made in a New York Times article and you’ve heard in some progressive circles, and it’s just not accurate. Keep in mind that the capacity of the [National Security Agency] or other surveillance tools are specifically prohibited from being applied to U.S. citizens or U.S. persons without specific evidence of links to terrorist activity or other foreign-related activity. And those laws have been in place and have been strengthened, and the capacities that have been developed over the last eight years of my presidency mainly derive from changes in technology, not because we’ve somehow weakened oversight or expanded executive power. It just has to do with the fact that everybody is using a cellphone, everybody is using emails.
In terms of domestic surveillance of any sort, it’s probably harder to surveil or use these tools with a smartphone than it was getting a wiretap for a land phone. And both would be illegal without probable cause. So you know, I think this whole story line that somehow Big Brother has massively expanded and now that a new president is in place it’s this loaded gun ready to be used on domestic dissent is just not accurate. It doesn’t match up with how these things are organized. Now, I think it’s absolutely important to be concerned that our criminal-justice system, the FBI, the Justice Department, law enforcement take seriously civil liberties. Because the possibility of abuse by government officials always exists. The issue is not going to be that there are new tools available; the issue is making sure that the incoming administration, like my administration, takes the constraints on how we deal with U.S. citizens and persons seriously. And that’s not a technical issue; that’s the degree to which we abide by the law.
Coates: Right. Right. Okay, third, final question. In one of your speeches you made this very explicit appeal to black voters, and you mentioned if we didn’t come out, this would be an insult to your legacy. And at least in the early numbers, it looks like we did not—we certainly did not come out in the numbers that we came out in in 2008 or 2012.
Coates: How are you feeling? Is this campaign right? Do you feel insulted? Or what are you left with?
Obama: No, you know, I mean, I think that I was trying to make a very specific point, which is that you can’t rely on inspiration to take care of your business. If you were a strong supporter of me, and loved Michelle, and believed in everything we were doing, and stood in line for four hours to vote for us in ’08, and put up with some more lines in ’12, then you can’t stay at home in ’16 because we’re not on the ballot. That there’s a direct line between the work we did and the handoff we needed to make to the next administration to ensure that that progress was sustained. And ultimately, I’m not entirely surprised that there was some slippage. That wasn’t just among African American voters. It was among young voters, and, you know, those were costly in the places where it really mattered in some of the swing states. It just reflects the nature of our political process, where we do not think of voting and political participation as a routine responsibility and duty, but rather think of it as something we do when it’s exciting. Now, look, I don’t want to make generalizations across the board, because the truth is, the African American vote actually exceeded the white vote in terms of percentage—not absolute numbers, obviously, but the percentage who voted—in 2012. And that was probably not entirely sustainable.
On the other hand, we’ve got more ground to make up. We’ve got more schools that are underfunded. We’ve got more youth that are unemployed. We’ve got more people who are struggling to pay the bills. And, you know, one of the difficult truths of democracy is that the people who would benefit most from progressive policies like raising the minimum wage, and investment in infrastructure, and strengthening unions, and affordable child care, and help on college access and affordability—those are the folks also that, for a whole variety of reasons, are less likely to vote. And it requires an enormous amount of energy to overcome that historical fact. We were able to do it in 2008 and 2012, but it’s hard to sustain. And then one of things that I’ll be spending a lot of time thinking about once I’m out of office is: How do we change those habits? How do we make our engagement and involvement and interest an everyday thing rather than an every-four-years thing or an every-eight-years thing?
Obama: All right?
Coates: That’s it. Thank you so much, Mr. President. I appreciate you taking this time.