'The Filter ... Is Powerful': Obama on Race, Media, and What It Took to Win
The first in a series of interviews between Ta-Nehisi Coates and the president
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 first of those four encounters, which took place on September 27, 2016. Valerie Jarrett, the senior adviser to the president, was also present. You can find responses to the story, and to these conversations, here.
Barack Obama: All right, where do you want to start?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: You know, I was thinking about something today that I heard, and I wanted to see if you could confirm it, and if you could, whether you could talk about it. I was told that the night of the inauguration it was a huge, huge party here. Is that correct?
Obama: [Chuckles] That would be correct.
Valerie Jarrett: The second inauguration …
Obama: You’re talking about the second inauguration?
Coates: Was it the second? Celebrities, maybe Stevie Wonder and Usher?
Obama: First inauguration we had—you know, this is a good example of when you first arrive, you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. So there are all these state balls that take place, and we sort of assumed—we were told—well, you should go to all the balls. So …
Coates: Did you try that? Did you try to go to all of them?
Obama: We went to all of them. And you do a dance at each one.
Obama: No, no, not every state has one, but we went to 10 or 12. And by the time we were done, it was like 1 o’clock, so we had Wynton Marsalis here playing, and people had been hanging out, but by the time we got back Michelle’s feet were all hurting and swollen up, and I was exhausted, and we hung out here probably for half an hour, and went to bed. Now, the second inauguration, we had it a little more figured out. So we did, like, three balls and then got back here and had a DJ and, yeah, Usher and Stevie.
Coates: How late did you go?
Obama: Three-thirty? Four o’clock?
Coates: Was the second one more joyous for you—
Coates: It’s one thing you’re the first black president, but it’s like “Wow, this really—”
Obama: Yeah. I think the way to think about it is the first inauguration is like your wedding in the sense that it is a joyous moment and occasion, but you’re so busy and kind of stressed making sure that Aunt Such-and-Such and Uncle So-and-So and cousins are getting tickets that it ends up going by without you even really knowing what’s happening. The second one you could savor. But partly, as you indicated, for political reasons as well. Because we had gone through four of the toughest years this country has gone through since the ’30s. And to be able to win a majority of the vote the second time indicated that we had worked with a broad cross section of the country and they trusted what we were trying to do. And it wasn’t just a singular feel-good moment; it was an affirmation that people thought we had done a good job.
Coates: I think for those of us—and I certainly threw myself in this camp—I was telling Valerie the other day, the idea of a black president was a joke, in every black stand-up comic routine everywhere—
Obama: Right. A friend of mine gave me Head of State—remember [Chris Rock] and Bernie Mac?—when we were still running. Said, “Man, you got to see Head of State.” [Laughter]
Coates: Yeah, this was like a laugh-fest. But I think one of the things that did distinguish you was the ability to see it and to have the vision that, yes, this could happen, and then to have it again. I’m speaking specifically in terms of race … There were those of us who said, “It’s no way.” And to see it the first and second time must have really reaffirmed a lot of what you thought.
Obama: As I said, the second time, people had seen me work. They had seen me have victories, they had seen me have defeats, they had seen me make mistakes, they had seen me at some high moments but also some low moments. So they knew me, at that point, in the round. I wasn’t just a projection of whatever they hoped for. You know, we always cautioned each other, in the ’08 race, that people were projecting so much onto my campaign—you know, that this would solve every racial problem, or that this indicated that we were beyond race, or that we were going to magically usher in a new era of progressive politics, and that we had vanquished all the backward-looking politics of the past.
And for us to then be able to grind it out, to figure out how do we get out of this Great Recession, and what’s the process where we can finally get health care done even if it’s not pretty, and how do we deal with winding down two wars, and how do we clean up after an administration to reinvigorate things like the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. People had seen all that, and then had to make a judgment: Do we want to continue on this course, and do we continue to have faith in this person? And so it is true that, for me at least, in some ways the first race was lightning in a bottle. I saw it, I envisioned the possibility of it, but everything converged in a way that you couldn’t duplicate. The second race as a consequence felt more solid, because it was harder. And you know we didn’t have tailwinds, we had a lot more headwinds.
Coates: Yeah, I have my own theories about this, and I wonder what yours are. Why were you able to see it?
Obama: The first time?
Coates: Yeah. You said you were able to envision the possibility. Why? I mean, when you think about yourself—because obviously, as you know, a lot of African Americans could not—what’s the difference?
Obama: Yeah. I’d say a couple things. The first was that I had been elected as the senator of Illinois, and Illinois is the most demographically representative state in the country. If you took all the percentages of black, white, Latino, rural, urban, agricultural, manufacturing—[if] you took that cross section across the country, and you shrank it, it would be Illinois. So when I ran for the Senate I had to go into southern Illinois, downstate Illinois, farming communities—some with very tough racial histories, some areas where there just were no African Americans of any number, and I had seen my ability to connect with those communities and those people against some pretty formidable opponents.
When I ran for the Senate, I was one of seven candidates. One of them, Dan Hynes, was already the state comptroller, was the son of the former Senate president and chair of the Democratic Party, a well-established Irish family in the state, who got the endorsement, I think, of 100 out of 103 county chairs as well as the AFL-CIO endorsement. And you had a multimillionaire hedge-fund manager who was spending huge amounts of money. And when we won that race, not just an African American from Chicago, but an African American with an exotic history and a name Barack Hussein Obama, could connect with and appeal to a much broader audience.
And then, keep in mind, that the response of the 2004 convention speech was admittedly over the top, and so I had for two years seen the response I would get when we traveled all around the country. I had campaigned on behalf of other Democrats. Ben Nelson, one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, from Nebraska, would only bring in one national Democrat to campaign for him, because typically he tried to distance himself from Democrats—and it was me. And so part of the reason I was willing to run and saw the possibility was that I had had two years in which we were generating enormous crowds all across the country—and the majority of those crowds were not African American; and they were in pretty remote places, or unlikely places. They weren’t just big cities or they weren’t just liberal enclaves. So what that told me was, it was possible.
Coates: Did you have doubts?
Coates: You did have doubts?
Obama: Look, I think Valerie remembers us sitting around our kitchen table—a group of friends of mine, some political advisers, Michelle—and I think our basic assessment was maybe we had a 20, 25 percent chance of winning.
Coates: The presidency?
Obama: The presidency, yeah. Because I did think given the problems President Bush had had, that whoever won the Democratic nomination would win the presidency. And so the issue really was, could I get the nomination, particularly with a formidable candidate like Hillary Clinton already preparing to run? And my view was not that this was a sure thing, but what I never doubted was my ability to get white support.
Coates: You never doubted that?
Obama: No. And I think that in addition to the proof of my Senate race, if you want to go a little deeper, there is no doubt that as a mixed child, as the child of an African and a white woman, who was very close to white grandparents who came from Kansas, that I think the working assumption of discrimination, the working assumption that white people would not treat me right or give me an opportunity, or judge me on the basis of merit—that kind of working assumption is less embedded in my psyche than it is, say, with Michelle. There is a little bit of a biographical element to this. I had as a child seen at least a small cross section of white people, but the people who were closest to me loved me more than anything. And so even as an adult, even by the time I’m 40, 45, 50, that set of memories meant that if I walked into a room and it’s a bunch of white farmers, trade unionists, middle age—I’m not walking in thinking, Man, I’ve got to show them that I’m normal. I walk in there, I think, with a set of assumptions: like, these people look just like my grandparents. And I see the same the same Jell-O mold that my grandmother served, and they’ve got the same, you know, little stuff on their mantelpieces. And so I am maybe disarming them by just assuming that we’re okay. And if anything, my concern had more to do with I’m really young. I mean, when I look back at the pictures of me running in ’08, I look like a kid. And so my insecurities going into the race had more to do with the fact I had only been in the Senate two years. Three, four years earlier I had been a state legislator, and I was now running for the highest office in the land.
Coates: I want to stay with this for a second. You know, to prepare for this piece I’ve been going back and reading some of your writings. And one of the things I noticed going through Dreams From My Father, which I read a long time ago—it’s very different reading it.
Obama: The second time?
Coates: Yeah, and then after eight years. Yeah, and then—
Obama: After seeing how things played out.
Coates: Right. And one of the things I saw in there: Your grandfather has this black dude come over who’s interested in his daughter, and he’s accepting.
Obama: Yeah, listen, I’m always kind of surprised by that. Like I said, it wasn’t Harry Belafonte. This was like an African African. And he was like a blue-black brother. Nilotic. [Laughter] And so, yeah, I will always give my grandparents credit for that. I’m not saying they were happy about it. I’m not saying that they were not, after the guy leaves, looking at each other like, ‘What the heck?’ But whatever misgivings they had, they never expressed to me, never spilled over into how they interacted with me.
Now, part of it, as I say in my book, was we were in this unique environment in Hawaii where I think it was much easier. I don’t know if it would have been as easy for them if they were living in Chicago at the time, because the lines just weren’t as sharply drawn in Hawaii as they were on the mainland. But I do think that at the end of the day, some of my confidence that people are people and that the very specific historical experience and sociological reality of racism in this country has made for significant differences between black and white populations, but that people’s basic human impulses are the same. I mean, that just grows out of who I am. It’s a biological necessity for me to believe that, right? And so my politics ultimately would reflect that.
There’s one last point about this, though, that then bears on my presidency that I think I should point out in terms of both my confidence that I could win in ’08 but also the fact that I was lucky and maybe a little bit naive: In 2008 I was never subjected to the kind of concentrated vilification of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the whole conservative-media ecosystem, and so as a consequence, even for my first two years as a senator I was polling at 70 percent. And it was because people basically saw me unfiltered. I was at a town-hall meeting, or I was talking to people directly, or they had met me, or I would speak at a university or go to a VFW hall. But they weren’t seeing some image of me as trying to take away their stuff and give it to black people, and coddle criminals, and all the stereotypes of not just African American politicians but liberal politicians. You started to see that kind of prism being established towards the end of the 2008 race, particularly once Sarah Palin was the nominee. And obviously almost immediately after I was elected, it was deployed in full force. And it had an impact in terms of how a large portion of white voters would see me.
And what that speaks to—and this is something I still strongly believe—is that the suspicion between races, the way it can manifest itself in politics, in part comes out of people’s daily interactions and the fact that we’re segregated by communities, and by schools, and our churches, and people’s memories passed down through generations. But some of it is constructed on a constant basis; it’s being created all the time. And I think what I did not fully appreciate when I first came into this office was the degree to which that reality would be the only thing that a large chunk of the electorate, particularly the white electorate, would see.
You know, Bill Clinton told me an interesting story. He went back to Arkansas with a former aide of his when he was governor and when he was running, who ended up running for Congress and was about to retire from Congress. This was one of the last blue dogs. And as they were traveling around ,this former member of Congress said to Bill, “You know, I don’t think you could win Arkansas today.” And he said, “Well, why not?” He says, “You know, when we used to run, you and I would drive around to these small towns and communities out there, and you’d meet with the publisher and editor of the little small-town paper, and you’d have a conversation with them. And they were fairly knowledgeable about some of the issues, and they had their quirks and blind spots, but basically you as a Democrat could talk about civil rights and the need to invest in communities and they understood that. Except now those papers are all gone and if you go into any bar, you go into any barbershop, the only thing that’s on is Fox News.” And it has shaped an entire generation of voters and tapped into their deepest anxieties …
Coates: Just as a counterpoint to that, I wonder about another argument one might make—that you were more likable to these folks before you had power. In other words, once you literally became a black president, that was a real thing. And that activated their fears—
Obama: Yeah, yeah. Look, I think that the— [long pause]
Coates: Like, that they needed Fox News.
Obama: Yeah, but what I would argue would be that the folks for whom that is true—they hadn’t voted for me in the first place. I mean, what I’m arguing is not that the concerns or suspicions or fears around changing demographics and increased diversity aren’t right there on the surface for a lot of voters. They are. But what I’m saying is that they are shaped and influenced depending on what they see day to day. And they are more malleable, and they can go in a better direction or a worse direction. And if what they are seeing and what they are taking as truth is that this black president is trying to hurt you or take something from you and looking out for “his own,” then they will respond differently than if they hear that this president is trying to help you. But it’s hard. And here are the issues involved and here are the choices that he’s having to make.
There’s no better example of that than the whole debate around Obamacare, where the whole way in which it got framed as ‘He’s trying to take something from you to give free stuff’—in this case free health care but it could also be free phones, or free cheese, or whatever—ended up dominating the debate even in those communities that stood to benefit most from this program. But part of that was the story, the narrative that they were receiving. And people don’t have the ability to fact-check and, you know, sort through what’s true and what’s not, especially on a complicated social program like this.
Coates: Do you think that holds true even in an era right now when we have so much access to information?
Obama: Yeah. You know, in some ways the access to all this information has made it easier to set up narratives that are entirely separate from fact. I mean witness the current election and what Trump is doing. There is no grounding in fact. But because, with all the proliferation of websites, and blogs, and digital content, you can just create your own hermetically sealed world where people are never going outside of their existing assumptions, I think it’s a bigger problem, not a worse problem. I guess the point being that: Was there always a certain quotient of people who, even if it was hard for them to admit, would not vote for me because I was African American? Absolutely. That was true when I was running for the U.S. Senate and that would be true if I was trying to catch a cab. Do I believe that’s the majority of white Americans? Absolutely not. And I think my elections proved that.
Do I think that good people who are not instinctively afraid or concerned about an African American in authority can be made afraid, and suspicious, and fearful, because of what they are seeing, hearing, and reading if it’s not attached to the facts, and evidence, and reality? I think that can have a big impact.
Coates: One of the things that I think also is here is not just your ability to envision the presidency, just the optimism for the country you have in general. I think, at this kind of young age you really saw—if I may say so—the best of white America in a very sort of direct way—
Coates: Which I think is very different than most African Americans. I didn’t really grow up around white people, but even the abstract construction was as a malignant force in my life, which I had to make my way out of much, much later in life, in my 20s, when I had intimate contact. And I wonder how much of that general optimism you think emanates from your biography. The exposure too, the cosmopolitan nature of all you’ve seen.
Obama: Yeah. I mean, look, I think all of the above. I think I was deeply loved by my mom and my grandparents. I felt that, and I carried that with me. I spent time outside of the United States, which gives you a perspective on how people of all kinds of different races, and ethnicities, and religions, and backgrounds can figure out ways to divide themselves and try to be superior to others. So that I ended up looking at race in America as one example of a broader human problem, rather than something that was unique and I was trapped in. Right? But I also, I think, benefited from the very particular era that I was growing up in, because in some ways, the last 55 years—the years I’ve been on this Earth—have a very particular trajectory of progress that is incomplete, is partial, that middle-class African Americans enjoy in ways that really impoverished African Americans do not yet feel. But that trend would feed my optimism as well.
Now, you know, what’s interesting is the work that I did as an organizer in Chicago would help to temper that optimism and ground it so that it wasn’t just a bunch of happy talk. And it’s one of the reasons why, for the generation just ahead of me, I would learn of the anger, frustration, bitterness of my elders and respect it and understand it even if I ultimately did not agree with it.
Coates: Did you right off the bat, when you first encountered it?
Obama: Yeah. And part of it was just because, you know, I had sort of steeped myself in it, although as still an intellectual exercise. I remember reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I remember reading it, even as a young person, and saying to myself, Now, if this had happened to me, I’d have a very different attitude. Right? And that’s part of what I tried to explain in my race speech in Philadelphia when the Reverend Wright controversies came out. He’s of a different generation. He had different experiences. And that sense of being trapped and caged and witnessing brilliant people broken by an unjust system—family members beaten or jailed, or just harassed, or unable to realize their potential—could drive you crazy. And so I think I not only was mindful enough of it by the time I had moved to Chicago, but even in my relatively sheltered and unique circumstances, I had the experiences that every African American has. Which is somebody in front of a restaurant will hand you the keys, thinking you’re there to park their car.
Or—I write about this in Dreams From My Father—being in a tennis tournament and the tennis coach, who is supposed to look out for all the kids, telling me, ‘Don’t put your finger on the draw that’s been posted about who’s playing who, because you might make it dirty.’ And when you’re 12 years old and look up at some guy, you think: What? Or walking into an elevator and having some woman who you know lives on your floor or above you walk out of the elevator because she’s worried about riding with you even though you’re a kid. So, you know, you have enough there to have a sense of how anger could pool and well up and, in some cases, consume you.
But I also, I think, by that point would have benefited from enough circumstances in which assuming the best in people had paid off—where there had been a teacher who had really been helpful and looked out for me even when I didn’t completely deserve it. Or, you know, just witnessing the example of a Dr. King, or an Arthur Ashe. And so I’m coming of age at a time where you’ve got the strength and defiance of a Malcolm or an Ali, and you’ve also got the soulfulness and the moral strength of a King. And those things are speaking to each other. They’re in a conversation. And you’re saying to yourself, I can draw from both of those traditions. And there may be times where it is right to be angry and defiant. And there may be times where you’ve got to give the country and white people the benefit of the doubt. And if you’re so eager to give them the benefit of the doubt that they slap you down and you don’t know it, that’s a problem. But if you’re so invested in the anger that you don’t seen when somebody is putting out their hand in a sincere gesture of friendship, then you’ve now become your own jailer. It’s not just someone else jailing you.
Coates: Right. It occurs to me, obviously, to have our first black president a product of the times, a product of certain things going around, a product in some part of the administration before—but have you ever thought you needed to be a certain person who had not had this sort of trauma at a young age? Who was capable of giving that sort of optimism—that it couldn’t just be, okay now the country’s ready, Joe Blow Black Dude steps up, and wins, with political gifts, obviously—but I think that optimism sticks out.
Obama: Yeah. Look, I have no doubt that the first African American president had to be somebody who could speak the way I did in the 2004 convention speech about the ideal of what America is. As opposed to—
Coates: What it isn’t. What it hadn’t done.
Obama: Right. But that’s true of just running for president generally. Very rarely has somebody won the presidency based on a dark, grim vision of what America is.
Coates: Well, we’re getting close.
Obama: Right. Well, we’ll see my proposition tested in this election cycle. Maybe the closest is Nixon, who employed the southern strategy and surfed the backlash coming out of both the antiwar movement and the civil-rights movement. But as a general proposition, it’s hard to run for president by telling people how terrible things are. Because at some level what the people want to feel is that the person leading them sees the best in them. And so, did the innate optimism that I carried with me both because of my upbringing and maybe just temperament help? Absolutely. But I’m not sure it had to be me. I’ve said before that Deval Patrick could have been the person who broke that particular barrier back in 2008. And it so happened that he had just run for governor and felt committed to finishing up his term. But he has the gifts and I think the persona that would have appealed at that time to the American public. And there are probably some other figures as well who might have pulled it off.
Coates: How did you feel when that optimism was directly challenged? I was telling Valerie this the other day: We’re at home watching the State of the Union and some guy stands up and yells, “You lie.”
Obama: [Laughing] Yeah, that was something.
Coates: And this is a guy from South Carolina—we know about South Carolina, he’s confirming everything we feel—
Obama: Yeah, that was something. I still remember looking at him like, Really? what are you doing? Sit down.
Coates: Were you angry?
Obama: You know, I’ve got to say, I wasn’t angry so much as I was just stunned. It was just so unexpected and raw that I didn’t—and to me just kind of ridiculous—that I couldn’t really generate anger.
Coates: And you didn’t feel insulted or … ?
Obama: Well … look. There is no doubt that there have been occasions during my presidency when I’ve said, ‘Y’all just would not do this with anybody else.’ Now, obviously the whole birth-certificate thing is the most salient example. I mean, there’ve been 43 other presidents. I don’t remember the issue of where somebody was born ever coming up before. And so there have been other instances like that. There was one time where I was making a statement out here. And in the middle of my statement, somebody just started yelling. It was a reporter—
Coates: It was a reporter from The Daily Caller. I remember this.
Obama: From The Daily Caller. And I was probably more mad on that one. Because—whereas Joe Wilson, you got a sense of just this weird impulsive action on his part—this felt orchestrated and showed a lack of respect for the office that I think was unprecedented in a Rose Garden statement. Part of what’s been difficult, though, during my presidency, is untangling the degree to which some of these issues are because of race and some of these issues being reflective of just a coarsening of the political culture and a sharpening of the political divides. Because I do remember watching Bill Clinton get impeached and Hillary Clinton being accused of killing Vince Foster. And if you ask them, I’m sure they would say, ‘No, actually, what you’re experiencing is not because you’re black, it’s because you’re a Democrat.’ And right around the beginning of Bill Clinton’s presidency and what corresponds with the rise of right-wing media, a lot of the old boundaries and rules of civility just broke down.
Now, one way to think about this is that issues of race and issues of political philosophy have always been entangled, and it’s hard to draw them out. Right? So when I think about the Tea Party or conservatives who’ve opposed my agenda, I have no doubt that there are those who oppose my agenda because they have a coherent and sincere view about the role of the federal government relative to the state governments; they believe that an overreaching federal power that is taxing, regulating, redistributing is contrary to the vision of freedom that the Founders intended—and they can believe those things independent of race.
Having said that, a rudimentary knowledge of American history tells you that the relationship between the federal government and the states was very much mixed up with attitudes towards slavery, attitudes towards Jim Crow, attitudes towards antipoverty programs and who benefited and who didn’t. And so I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race. But what I do believe is that if somebody didn’t have a problem with their daddy being employed by the federal government, and didn’t have a problem with the Tennessee Valley Authority electrifying certain communities, and didn’t have a problem with the interstate highway system being built, and didn’t have a problem with the GI Bill, and didn’t have a problem with the [Federal Housing Administration] subsidizing the suburbanization of America, and that all helped you build wealth and create a middle class—and then suddenly as soon as African Americans or Latinos are interested in availing themselves of those same mechanisms as ladders into the middle class, you now have a violent opposition to them, then I think you at least have to ask yourself the question of how consistent you are and what’s different, what’s changed.
You know, I always talk about when I was doing civil-rights law and people would talk about the dearth of African Americans in police departments and fire departments around the country. And they would say, ‘Well, this should be a meritocracy, and everybody needs to take a test, and that’s objective, and anything else is affirmative action and unfair.’ And I’m thinking, Well, when Officer O’Malley or Officer Krupke was walking the beat, nobody said it was a meritocracy then. What happened? We’re suddenly now of the notion that somebody who’s a police officer or firefighter having some affinity and familiarity with the community they are serving is completely out of bounds. What changed? So I think that one of the things I’m always trying to do is to just promote a consistent philosophy and ethic about how government can help everybody and try to show that what worked for the majority community in previous generations would be likely to work now, too. And the burden is on those who oppose investments in these things to explain what’s changed.
Coates: I was caught because you said that you were the only person that Ben Nelson brought in to campaign for him. And maybe my memory is wrong, but I believe he was one of the harder folks to negotiate with in terms of getting the [Affordable Care Act] passed. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but as I recall, I heard in 2008 from your campaign that there was room to work across party lines, there was room for people who disagree to come together. If we just put forth intelligent proposals, folks would be able to come together. When did you realize it wasn’t quite going to go that way?
Obama: In the first two weeks. Mitch McConnell’s statement about how our No. 1 goal was to make sure Obama was a one-term president. That hadn’t surfaced publicly yet, but—
Coates: Did that surprise you when that got to you?
Obama: No, because by that time we had seen the behavior. But, and I’ve told this story before, the economy was in a free fall. And the one thing I anticipated was that we could get some bipartisan cooperation early on, at least to stop the bleeding, before normal politics kicked in. I mean, we were losing hundreds of thousands of jobs, folks were losing their homes everywhere, the financial system was locked up, the auto industry was melting down. And the risks of us going into 15 percent unemployment and a real catastrophic situation were reasonably high. And so speed was of the essence. And we put together this package, called the Recovery Act, which was basically a big stimulus package, and we designed it in such a way that we thought it would have some appeal to Republicans. Because we had infrastructure spending, and we had spending going directly to states to make sure they weren’t laying off teachers and police and firefighters, and we had a big tax cut for ordinary families, as well as spending for clean energy and education and a whole host of other things.
And I still remember the day that I’m scheduled to meet with the House Republican caucus, and I get into the car and we’re driving up, and I forget who it was, but one of my staff tells me that John Boehner has just announced that they are opposed to the Recovery Act. Before they had even seen it, before I had made a presentation, before I had had a conversation with them. This was going to be sort of the opening round of negotiations where I’m explaining to them the dire situation and asking for a bipartisan effort to help the American people. And they had shut it down. And that, I think, gave me an inkling of a different political environment than the one that we had seen in the past.
Now, again, I think it’s really important to understand that had there been a white president—had Hillary Clinton been president, or Joe Biden been president—it is entirely possible that they would have pursued the same strategy. Because the way politics had been structured at that point, where there was so much political gerrymandering, and the media has increasingly become so balkanized, there was an understandable political incentive for them not to cooperate.
You know, the genius of Mitch McConnell—and to some degree John Boehner—was a recognition that if we were about to go into a bad recession and the president had come in on this wave of good feeling, Democrats control the House, they control the Senate—if he’s completely successful in yanking us out of this and cleaning up a mess a Republican president had left behind, that we might lock in Democratic majorities for a very long time. But on the other hand, if Republicans didn’t cooperate, and there was not a portrait of bipartisan cooperation and a functional federal government, then the party in power would pay the price and that they could win back the Senate and/or the House. That wasn’t an inaccurate political calculation. And they executed well, and we got clobbered in 2010. So the lesson I drew there was a political lesson. It was not a racial lesson.
Coates: I just want to push this a little bit more. What about the idea that it’s not so much you as a black man as president, but the fact that we’re at a point in history where the Democratic Party, especially locally—the states—has become very racialized?
Obama: Well, I think what is true is that when the southern Democrats all flipped, and over the course of successive elections, dating back to ’68, you have a process whereby 90 percent African Americans are voting in the Democratic Party, and southern and many rural and western whites are increasingly voting Republican, and cultural issues become more prominent, that it helped to accelerate what has been called this great sorting. And when you combine that with political gerrymandering, when you combine that with the impact of the media, it makes it easier for Republicans not to cooperate, because there’s nobody in their districts that will punish them for not cooperating with a Democratic president. There is no doubt that that’s true.
Now, I leave it at this, and maybe we can pick it up in our next conversation: I think what was more of an early lesson around race was the Skip Gates incident. And the reason that was interesting to me was because I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, and I didn’t think my statement was particularly controversial. I don’t know if you know Skip, but Skip is a little guy who uses a cane and has a limp and is late 60s. And if he’s on his porch and he ends up being handcuffed, then my working assumption was, everybody would kind of think that was kind of an overreaction.
Now, Skip can be, you know, salty, so I have no doubt that—I wasn’t there, but I would not be surprised if Skip used some inappropriate language with the officer when the officer came up to question him. And, you know, this wasn’t some great civil-rights injustice. But it was interesting to see how what I thought was sort of an offhanded and fairly innocuous statement, which was, look, you know, this probably wasn’t—I think I said this: The Cambridge police probably handled this a little stupidly. And the fact of the matter is that part of the reason this becomes news is because there’s this underlying feeling on the part of a lot of African Americans that interaction with police is not always evenhanded.
To see the cultural reaction, and in retrospect to see how my poll numbers with white voters dropped really significantly off this one tempest in a teapot, that was instructive. Now, there are some who say that’s when Obama started trimming his sails on racial issues. That’s not accurate. That’s not accurate. The truth is that I wanted to make sure that we did not have a bunch of distractions at a time where I’m just putting out fires everywhere. I mean, I’ve got two wars, I’ve got an economic crisis of a proportion we haven’t seen since the Great Depression, and that was not the time, from my perspective, to just open up a big floodgate of conversation around race, which I did not think was going to be productive. What I did learn from that, though, were two things. One was—that was one lesson among many, in those first six months—about the magnification of my words. So if I look at the statement that I made at the time that I thought was pretty innocuous, using the word stupid would be a word I’d never use now, just because I’m president and everything gets magnified. So I could have made the same point in a way that would not have, I think, felt as visceral.
Coates: You think you could have got that across about it?
Obama: I think I could have got it across better. So that’s point No. 1. Point No. 2, though, is: What it also showed me was the degree to which the filter that I discussed earlier can completely shape a narrative in a way that will just run until you get some sort of circuit breaker going. And part of what I had to start teaching my staff was: not to overreact to that. Because what is absolutely true is that, you know, my press office freaked out around that in a way that I was not that freaked out about. There was a part of me that was like, ‘Okay, so the Cambridge police isn’t happy with me, but this really isn’t a big deal, we’ve got other stuff we’ve got to worry about.’ They were channeling what they were seeing coming at them suddenly in the press room and through news reports.
And what that meant then was that, on issues of race, certainly on issues of race as it relates to law enforcement, what I wanted to make sure of is that when we said something that was precise, that we were choosing those moments where we had the best chance of driving home the point and extracting real progress. And that we needed to think about how the narrative would be shaped in a way that was constructive rather than us just being on the defense all the time. You know, so it’s interesting for me to think about that moment and then all the subsequent issues that have come up.
Coates: Yeah, it got a lot worse than that, than being arrested on your porch.
Obama: Well, exactly. Right. But the dynamic around which everybody went to their respective corners on what was such a small incident, it foreshadowed the response that I would get later. And to this day, it does not matter how many times I will say, “You know what? Our police have a tough job and 99 percent of them are doing a great job,” etc., and I will get letters afterwards: “Why are you always throwing cops under the bus? Why do you hate police?” [Laughing] And I literally made my press office sort of put together a packet of something like 30 statements that I’ve made, highlighted in yellow, that I will send to constituents—because oftentimes, you know, these are the wives of police officers who are scared for their husbands, and I don’t want to ignore them. But it tells me what they’re seeing. It tells me what they’re hearing. The filter through which they are receiving information is powerful. And that was an early lesson about how powerful that filter was.