Democracy Is ‘Strained’ But Not ‘Broken,’ Former President Obama Tells ‘Fresh Air’

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Former President Barack Obama speaks at a Biden-Harris drive-in rally in Miami on Oct. 24, 2020.

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Books
Obama Calls Trump’s Refusal To Concede Another ‘Breach Of Basic Democratic Norms’


Politics
Transcript: NPR’s Full Interview With Former President Barack Obama

Though Obama sees Trump as a major source of that strain, he notes that the problem is larger than one man: «What I was surprised by over the last four years is the complicity of other Republican elected officials and their unwillingness to call [Trump out] when he was breaking norms or straining some of our democratic institutions.»

Obama reflects on his own journey to the Oval Office and the first four years of his presidency in the new memoir, A Promised Land. Though he sometimes misses the camaraderie and policy work of his White House years, he says the founders were wise to limit presidents to two terms.

«It is a healthy aspect of our democracy that you get eight years, at most, and then it’s time for some fresh legs,» he says.

Obama likens the presidency to a relay race: «You get the baton. You run your race, then you hand off the baton and all you have control over is that portion of the race that you run. And I could say unequivocally that the country was much better off by the time I finished my race than when I started.»

Interview highlights

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A Promised Land by Barack Obama

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Book Reviews
Former President Obama Tells His Story His Way — And Makes His Case For History

Even in those areas where Donald Trump completely reversed course, the fact [is] that we set a baseline — for example, that universal health care is something that the American people should expect — that changes the conversation going forward in ways that then the next bunch of climbers can build upon. At least that’s what I tell myself. Now, look, do I occasionally curse when I’m reading the headlines over the last four years? Yes, I do. Have I had some venting or ranting on occasion with Michelle over the dinner table? Absolutely.

On the racist conspiracy perpetuated by the media (and Donald Trump) that he was born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to be president — and when he started to have to take it seriously

It seemed silly at first. It seemed silly in the middle and it seems silly at the end. But despite initially treating it as a bad joke, what I was forced to acknowledge was that it was consuming time and energy and bandwidth on my staff and that, ultimately, I ended up having to address it directly in the White House briefing room just to get it to stop so that we could get on with the business of discussing budgets and the Afghan war and other important issues. …


Politics
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Politics
Biden Talks Trump, Faith And Fate In Front Of A Live ‘Fresh Air’ Audience

It wasn’t just the Fox Newses of the world or the Rush Limbaughs of the world that were amplifying this baseless and, ultimately, racist claim. It was mainstream media. I mean, some of the same folks who are very critical now of Donald Trump and have been critical throughout his presidency regularly had him on their show because he boosted ratings and they thought, «Well, this is a spectacle that attracts eyeballs.» And that was frustrating to me. And it gave me a sense of the danger of, in this mass media environment, if somebody is willing and able to just consistently repeat a falsehood, particularly one that taps into maybe pre-existing anxieties that certain segments of the American people feel, then it can end up getting traction — and the Internet has made it even worse. …

I think [former Breitbart chief and Trump adviser] Steve Bannon explicitly said we’re just going to fill up the information pipeline with excrement and it’ll get very cloudy. It doesn’t really matter whether ultimately what we’re saying is disproven, it creates confusion and uncertainty in the minds of voters, and that’s enough for our purposes of getting power.

On his decision, as president, to not watch news coverage and not see how he was being portrayed in the media

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Obama runs down a corridor with Bo, the family dog.

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Photography
Photographer Pete Souza Reflects On 8 Years (And 1.9 Million Photos) Of Obama

Probably there was a little bit of a disadvantage for me in not following as carefully what was going on on television. There would be moments during my presidency where there would be something I thought we were handling well and yet my press secretaries or communications folks would have to come and say, «Listen, this is a problem.» And I’d say, «Well, why? I don’t understand. Actually, we’re doing everything we’re supposed to do.» And they were tracking how the media environment was telling the story. And I wasn’t always as attuned to that as I probably would have been if I was a more regular television watcher.

On his temperament and if felt like he had to be cautious with his words or deeds because he’s a Black man

There’s a famous story about why Jackie Robinson was chosen by Branch Rickey to be the first Black Major League ballplayer — and it wasn’t just because he was an outstanding baseball player. It was also because Rickey felt that Jackie Robinson had the temperament to keep his cool. And there was probably some element in how I operated that just has to do with my temperament. I’m not somebody who’s quick to rise or gets too low. Some of that probably has to do with having been born in Hawaii. You don’t have a lot of reason to complain if it’s 80 degrees and sunny, the beach is close by. Part of it I attribute to my grandmother, who is a major character in this book and was a plainspoken, no-nonsense woman from Kansas who embodied, I think, a lot of that Midwestern stoicism and not fussing about stuff. And that’s part of who I am.

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Obama and Rep. John Lewis walk across across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Ala.

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Author Interviews
‘I Basically Ran On Adrenaline’: A Staffer Remembers Obama’s White House

And in fact … one of the recurring conversations we’d have in the African American community when I decided to run was people expressing fear either to me or Michelle about the potential danger to us. There were a lot of Black folks who were pretty sure that America’s not going to have a Black person as president. Look, they had seen Martin Luther King shot. They had seen Malcolm X shot. It’s not as if there is not some history of violence directed at African American leaders. So I think there was a real sense of wanting to protect us. Once you decide to run, though, you can’t be carrying that around with you in your head at all times. And I was very grateful, and continue to be, for the incredible job that Secret Service did. Once Secret Service was around, I had confidence that they knew what they were doing and it wasn’t something that I thought about on a day-to-day basis.

On what went through his mind when he saw the police attack Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington

I was outraged, and it was an example of a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes America great and special and important and exceptional, and that is our ability to uphold ideals like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, not just as empty words, but in practice.

I was outraged, and it was an example of a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes America great and special and important and exceptional, and that is our ability to uphold ideals like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, not just as empty words, but in practice. And that the president of the United States has sworn to uphold the Constitution and the various officers in government that are sworn to uphold the Constitution, that they abide by those ideals and values, even when it’s not politically convenient for you to do so. Even when you think it’s wrongheaded. And I think one of the most worrying things I saw during the course of this presidency were efforts — ultimately, I think, unsuccessful — to politicize our military, to politicize our criminal justice system. And the effort, I think, in this administration to rupture that core tradition that is vital to any democracy, I think, was one of the more troubling things that I saw.

On why he titled his book A Promised Land after the African American spiritual

Dr. King has a very famous speech where he talks about Exodus and Moses getting to the mountaintop and he can see in the distance that promised land, but he never gets there. And the Israelites wander for 40 years in the wilderness. And Exodus has always been central to the African American experience, naturally, given the bondage that they were experiencing, this idea that somehow, some way, we’re going to get there.


Politics
A Former Speechwriter Looks Back On His ‘Hopey, Changey’ Years With Obama

And that’s how I think about America, not just for the African American experience, but for the country as a whole. That there is this extraordinary promise, this possibility of a more perfect union and each generation does its part to travel a little further down that road, to get a little bit closer, and inevitably we’re going to fall short and there’s still going to be racism and there’s still going to be gender discrimination and inequality and suffering and pain that’s unnecessary. But if we embrace the journey, if we embrace the possibility that we can better see each other as having common fears and common dreams and being one people, that we can get a little closer to that promised land.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

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