CHICAGO—Barack Obama refused to answer directly when asked whether he could beat Donald Trump in a head-to-head race, but he said on Tuesday that he believes his vision of America is already more in touch with most Americans, and will win out in the end.
However, the man who burst onto the national political scene with his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech declaring that there’s no red or blue America agreed with his old political consultant David Axelrod that America is redder and bluer than ever.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, Obama said in a live interview for Axelrod’s Axe Files podcast, recorded at the University of Chicago. It’s just that he and President Trump “have contrasting visions of what America is, and that’s self-apparent.”
“What’s unique about America is our aspirations to be a large, successful, multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious pluralistic democracy,” Obama said. When Axelrod asked whether Obama felt that Trump shared that opinion, the former president said, “Obviously not.”
But Obama said he believes that his vision will ultimately win out over Trump’s.
“As divided as we appear right now,” Obama said, “the truth of the matter is that the majority of Americans think that people should be judged on the basis of their character, not their color or their gender. The majority of Americans believe that we are better off where our daughters have the same chances as our sons to succeed and do well, and where we should consistently do our best to make sure every child has equal opportunity in this society.”
When Axelrod asked how he reconciled this with Trump’s win in 2016, Obama chalked up much of it to persisting “issues in our society around race,” while cautioning that he was not saying all of his political opposition, or conservatives overall, were racist.
Obama pushed back, however, on the chatter that another candidate of color, or a woman, couldn’t be elected president.
“The idea that there’s some demographic or profile of a particular candidate that is the optimal one or the ideal one, that’s just not how I’ve seen politics work. People respond to candidates who speak to the moment in some fashion,” Obama said.
One point of agreement between the two presidents: Obama also thinks the Senate should scrap the filibuster, blaming the 60-vote threshold for the trouble he had passing legislation while in the White House, and marveling how “this extra-constitutional thing … that arose sort of as an accident” has become a given in American democracy.
Trump has also railed against the filibuster, urging the Senate to get rid of it entirely. The Senate so far has not, after Democratic moves in 2013 that began scaling it back by eliminating it around most presidential appointments and Republican moves in 2017 that scaled it back even further to eliminate it for Supreme Court nominees.
“You already have a range of counter-majoritarian structures embedded in the Constitution,” Obama said, saying the filibuster “has made it almost impossible for us to effectively govern at a time when you have at least one party that is not willing to compromise on issues.”
They also appeared to agree on Nancy Pelosi. Obama heaped praise on the minority leader’s bid to return as speaker, which Trump has also said he supports—though in Obama’s case, it was out of respect and admiration, and in Trump’s, it appears to at least partly involve trolling.
In his interview with Axelrod, Obama expressed clear frustration as he looked back on some elements of his presidency, which he said he’s been reflecting on while writing his memoir back home in Washington. Those elements include the Republican Senate majority’s refusal to consider his nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
“We couldn’t focus enough attention on the fact that the basic norms of governance that took place for prior presidents suddenly didn’t hold for us,” Obama said.
He noted that his administration had explored the possibility of a Garland recess appointment, but concluded that existing case law would likely have had it struck down.
Obama declined to pick a favorite Democrat in the 2020 race, but he said he agreed with Axelrod that there’s a need for the kind of blunt speaking and reaching out that Beto O’Rourke did in his run for Senate in Texas, calling him “an impressive young man who ran a terrific race.”
Every prospective Democratic presidential candidate should take note, the former president said. “You don’t assume, Oh well, that person’s not woke,” Obama said. “Let me tell you something: How are they going to wake up if you’re not having a conversation with them and listening to them and getting a sense of what they [care about]? And you may need to be awakened to how they’re feeling and what they’re going through.”
Meanwhile, Michelle Obama has been expressing rawer frustration in her new book, Becoming.
“Since Barack left office, I’ve read news stories that turn my stomach. I’ve lain awake at night, fuming over what’s come to pass,” she writes in the book’s epilogue. “It’s been distressing to see how the behavior and the political agenda of the current president have caused many Americans to doubt themselves and to doubt and fear one another. It’s been hard to watch as carefully built, compassionate policies have been rolled back, as we’ve alienated some of our closest allies and left vulnerable members of our society exposed and dehumanized.
“I sometimes wonder where the bottom might be,” she says, adding that she remains optimistic—and that optimism is “an antidote to fear.”