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.”