What was President Obama thinking in the moments just before he handed off power to Donald Trump? It’s a question that millions must have wondered about last January.
Now they have an answer.
In Obama’s first major interview as a private citizen, he told Prince Harry of Wales, the British royal, that he felt thankful for his spouse and unexpected serenity as his term ended; that presidents aren’t afforded the luxury of long reflection on thorny challenges; that he feels as though he is now like a coach on the sidelines rather than a player on the court; that life after leaving the White House unfolds in slow motion; and that free speech remains vital in spite of hate speech.
Last January, as many Democrats watched the inauguration of Donald Trump with anger, uncertainty and foreboding, Obama was reflecting on his partner and their journey:
Prince Harry: Can I take you back to the 20th of January 2017? You sat in Marine One, the presidential helicopter, flying over Washington. You sat through the inauguration with your game face on. You weren't giving much emotion away, as we saw. What's going through your mind?
President Obama: The first thing that went through my mind was, sitting across from Michelle, how thankful I was that she had been my partner through that whole process ... She is not someone who was naturally inclined to politics, so despite the fact that she was as good of a First Lady as there has ever been, she did this largely in support of my decision to run. And for us to be able to come out of that intact—our marriage is strong, we're still each other's best friends, our daughters turning into amazing young women—the sense that there was a completion and that we had done the work in a way that preserved our integrity and left us whole and that we hadn't fundamentally changed was a satisfying feeling. Now, that was mixed with all of the work that was still undone and the concerns about how the country moves forward. But overall there was a serenity there more than I would have expected.
One of the metaphors that was used for the presidency is that you are a relay runner. There is a sense sometimes in any position of leadership that you by yourself do certain things and then it's over, but I always viewed it as taking the baton from a whole range of people who had come before me, some of whom had been heroic, some of whom had screwed up.
But wherever you were in the race, if you ran hard and you did your best, and then you were able to pass that baton off successfully, with the country or the world a little bit better off than when you got there, then you could take some pride in that, and I think that we were able to do that.
Asked about the transition from seeking a series of elective offices to post-presidential retirement, Obama expressed thanks that he only became famous in his 40s:
So despite this whirlwind you described, by the time I was elected to the Senate and I was a national figure, I was a grown man. I was settled. I was a parent. I had changed diapers. I had struggled with figuring out how we were going to pay the bills. We had made sacrifices. Michelle and I had the arguments that married couples have. And so I think that although the process was in some ways surreal because it happened so quickly, we were pretty steady in knowing who we were and what we believed in … And when I got off the treadmill so to speak it didn't feel like my identity was wrapped up in having this position. My relationship with my family and my friends, the values that I cared about, felt pretty consistent. So the break did not feel as abrupt.
I think American politics is unique in that there is a perpetual campaigning taking place. So the idea that I don't have to go raise money for television ads, that felt really good. The idea that there were certain elements of the job that were largely ceremonial and that I always tried to do as best I could, but that weren't things I necessarily would do on my own, the fact that I was freed up from some of that, from the pomp and circumstance of the presidency, that actually felt good.
Leaving the White House “gives you the ability to reflect and study in a way that sometimes as president you couldn't do the way you wanted because you had to move very, very quickly,” Obama said. “My life had been so accelerated. Everything felt and still feels to some degree as if it is moving in slow motion—not necessarily in a bad way. I was talking to my lawyer and he was saying we have to meet with somebody right away because they really want to get something done. I said, okay, how about tomorrow? He said, ‘Well no, it's going to take at least two weeks.’ And I had to explain, ‘Where I'm from, right away means if we don't do something in half an hour somebody dies.’ So there's just a lower intensity level. Sometimes it means you don't have the same adrenaline rush. But it also means you can be more reflective and deliberate about the kinds of things you want to get done.”
What’s occupying Obama’s time and attention now?
“I'm really obsessed now with training the next generation of leaders to be able to make their mark on the world,” he said. “One way I've described it is that I think when you're in politics directly, then you're a player on the field, and there's some element of that you'll never be able to duplicate—the excitement and the thrill and sometimes the agony that goes along with being on the field. And now I'm making that transition to some degree as a coach. And that has its own demands and its own responsibilities and its own impact. Being a great coach is often times as satisfying as being a great player but it's a different role. That's how I'm transitioning.”
The second half of the interview focused largely on online culture, social media and the opportunities and challenges that digitally connected lives place before young people.
Harry: You managed to get people to use technology to take real action when you were elected. Part of me wants to ask how you managed that. At the same time, the social media landscape has changed dramatically since then: issues of trolling, extremism, fake news, bullying ... Is there more that you could've done as president to get ahead of some of these issues?
Obama: Well, most of this is happening outside of government. In the United States in particular, we have a very strong First Amendment. As a former constitutional lawyer, I am pretty firm about the merits of free speech and the question, I think, really has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices and a diversity of views but doesn't lead to a balkanization of our society, but rather promotes ways of finding common ground. I'm not sure government can legislate that. But what I do believe is that all of us in leadership have to find ways in which we can recreate a common space on the internet.
One danger of the internet, Obama continued, “is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases.
“One of the things I discovered even back in 2007 and 2008 is that a good way of fighting against that is making sure that online communities don't just stay online––that they move offline,” he continued. “I think that social media is a really powerful tool for people of common interests to convene and get to know each other, but then it's important for them to get off line, meet in a pub, meet at a place of worship, meet in a neighborhood. On the Internet everything is simplified. And when you meet people face to face it turns out that they are complicated. There may be someone who you think is diametrically opposed to you because of their political views, but you root for the same sports team. Or you notice that they're really good parents.”(An illustration of that insight was just published in Mother Jones.)
“It's also harder to be as obnoxious and cruel in person as people can be anonymously on the Internet,” Obama said. “One of the things we want to do when we're working with young people to build up platforms for social change is to make sure they don't think just sending out a hashtag, in and of itself, is bringing about change… You have to get on the ground and you actually have to do something.”
Obama then reiterated his support for freedom of speech:
Harry: On social media, educate or regulate?
Obama: I'm big on education, because the notion that we are going to be able to corral, that we are going to be able to contain, what's said and what's not on the Internet seems unachievable—and contrary to the values of an open society that the United States and Great Britain and most of the advanced world adheres to. I don't want to live in a world in which the state is making a decision about who says what.
In the last question he answered at length, Obama reassured Harry that there are reasons to maintain optimism about the future despite today’s problems:
Harry: Can you give people a reason to feel optimistic about the year ahead? Please?
Obama: Well, I don't think in terms of one year, but I can tell people what I genuinely believe: if we take responsibility for being involved in our own fate, if we participate, if we engage, if we speak out, if we work in our communities, if we volunteer, if we see the joy that comes from service to others, then all the problems that we face are solvable despite all the terrible news that we see, despite all the genuine cruelty, pain and hardship that people are experiencing around the world at any given moment. If you had to choose a moment in human history in which you wanted to be born and you didn't know at the time whether you were going to be Prince Harry or Barack Obama or a small child in rural Africa or India, you'd choose today, because the fact is the world is healthier, wealthier, better educated, more tolerant, more sophisticated, and less violent than just about any other time in human history.
You think about the history of the United States. It was only a few generations ago when someone who looked like me was in bondage, or if not in bondage, then in servitude … It was just a few generations ago that women couldn't aspire to anything beyond caring for their children—the most noble thing you can do, but I want my daughters to be able to do other things, and they can do other things, while still raising a family.
It was just a few generations ago, at a time when your grandmother, Her Majesty, was already an adult when half the world was aflame and 60 million people were killed in a great global war. And when you think about the strides we've made just in my lifetime—I have some gray hair, but in the scale of human history, I'm a blink of an eye—you think about how much things have changed and gotten better, that has to make you optimistic, as long as you don't think that any of us can sit back passively and assume progress continues. History doesn't just run forwards, it runs backways and sideways, and it requires us to continually push.
Love or hate him, Obama has always made an effort to be constructive in his public statements. I appreciate that quality more now than I did before he left office.