The former president also discusses aliens, winning over Trump voters and three of his favorite books.
Produced by ‘The Ezra Klein Show’
“My entire politics is premised on the fact that we are these tiny organisms on this little speck floating in the middle of space,” Barack Obama told me, sitting in his office in Washington, D.C.
To be fair, I was the one who had introduced the cosmic scale, asking how proof of alien life would change his politics. But Obama, in a philosophical mood, used the question to trace his view of humanity. “The differences we have on this planet are real,” he said. “They’re profound. And they cause enormous tragedy as well as joy. But we’re just a bunch of humans with doubts and confusion. We do the best we can. And the best thing we can do is treat each other better, because we’re all we got.”
Before our interview, I’d read “A Promised Land,” the first volume of Obama’s presidential memoirs. It had left me thinking about the central paradox of Obama’s political career. He accomplished one of the most remarkable acts of political persuasion in American history, convincing the country to vote, twice, for a liberal Black man named Barack Hussein Obama during the era of the war on terror. But he left behind a country that is less persuadable, more polarized, and more divided. The Republican Party, of course, became a vessel for the Tea Party, for Sarah Palin, for Donald Trump — a direct challenge to the pluralistic, democratic politics Obama practiced. But the left, too, has struggled with the limits of Obama’s presidency, coming to embrace a more confrontational and unsparing approach to politics.
So this is a conversation with Obama about both the successes and failures of his presidency. We talk about his unusual approach to persuasion, when it’s best to leave some truths unsaid, the media dynamics that helped fuel both his and Trump’s campaigns, how to reduce educational polarization, why he believes Americans have become less politically persuadable, the mistakes he believes were made in the design of the 2009 stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, the ways in which Biden is completing the policy changes begun in the Obama administration, what humans are doing now that we will be judged for most harshly in 100 years, and more.
You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Google Podcasts or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. An edited transcript follows.
Something I noticed again and again in the book is this very particular approach to persuasion that you have.
I think the normal way most of us think about persuasion is you are trying to win an argument with someone. You seem to approach it with this first step of making yourself a person that the other person will feel able to listen to, which means sympathizing with their argument, sanding off some of the edges of your own. Tell me a bit about how you think about that.
Now, that’s interesting. I forget whether it was Clarence Darrow, or Abraham Lincoln, or some apocryphal figure in the past who said the best way to win an argument is to first be able to make the other person’s argument better than they can. For me, what that meant was that I had to understand their worldview.
And I couldn’t expect them to understand mine if I wasn’t extending myself to understand theirs.
Now why that is the way I think about things generally is no doubt partly temperament. Partly it’s biographical. If you’re a kid whose parents are from Kansas and Kenya, and you’re born in Hawaii, and you live in Indonesia, you are naturally having to figure out, well, how did all these pieces fit together?
How do all these perspectives, cultures, blind spots, biases, how do you reconcile them to approximate something true? And I think that carries over into my adulthood and into my politics. It’s how I approach the world generally.
It presumes that none of us have a monopoly on truth. It admits doubt, in terms of our own perspectives. But if you practice it long enough, at least for me, it actually allows you to not always persuade others, but at least have some solid ground that you can stand on — you can, with confidence say, I know what I think. I know what I believe. It actually gives me more conviction, rather than less, if I’d listened to somebody else’s argument rather than just shutting it off.
One of the things that strikes me about it, though, is it sometimes means not calling out arguments that you think are kind of really wrong. In a section of the book about the Tea Party, you mull over whether the reaction they had to you was racist. It’s clear that it at least partly was. And then you say “whatever my instincts might tell me, whatever truth the history books might suggest, I knew I wasn’t going to win over any voters by labeling my opponents racist.” How do you decide when the cost of that kind of truth outweighs the value of it?
Well, now you’re describing something a little bit different, which is how do you move large segments of the population politically towards an outcome you want? Versus, how I might persuade somebody one on one?
The premise of persuading somebody who you can build some trust with and have a history with — there might be times where you say, you know what, you’re just full of it and let me tell you why. And you can be very logical and incisive about how you want to dismantle their arguments. Although I should add, by the way, don’t, do not try that at home. Because that’s not a recipe for winning arguments with Michelle. But when you’re dealing with 300 million people, with enormous regional, and racial, and religious, and cultural differences, then now you are having to make some calculations.
So let’s take the example you used. I write extensively about the emergence of the Tea Party. And we could see that happening with Sarah Palin — she was a prototype for the politics that led to the Tea Party, that, in turn, ultimately led to Donald Trump, and that we’re still seeing today. There were times where calling it out would have given me great satisfaction personally. But it wouldn’t have necessarily won the political day in terms of me getting a bill passed.
I think every president has to deal with this. It may have been more noticeable with me — in part because, as the first African American president, there was a presumption, not incorrect, that there were times wher e I was biting my tongue. That’s why the skit that Key and Peele did with the anger translator, Luther, was funny. Because people assumed Barack’s thinking something other than what he’s saying in certain circumstances.
A lot of times, one of the ways I would measure it would be: Is it more important for me to tell a basic, historical truth, let’s say about racism in America right now? Or is it more important for me to get a bill passed that provides a lot of people with health care that didn’t have it before?
There’s a psychic cost to not always just telling the truth. And I think there were times where supporters of mine would get frustrated if I wasn’t being as forthright about certain things as I might otherwise be. Then there are also just institutional constraints that I think every president has to follow on some of these issues. And it was sort of on a case-by-case basis where you try to make decisions.
Sometimes you’d get sufficiently disappointed, let’s say, for example, with gun-safety issues. But after Newtown, for example, and Congress’s complete unwillingness to do anything about the slaughter of children, here were times where I would just go off. Because I felt that deeply about how wrongheaded we were in a basic fundamental way. But that was, let’s face it, after I had exhausted every other possibility of trying to get Congress to move on those issues.
Something that really struck me about the book is how much it lives in paradoxes. How much you’re comfortable with the idea that something and its opposite are true at the same time. And I think of persuasion as being the central paradox of your presidency.
So you’ve accomplished this massive act of persuasion, winning the presidency twice as a Black man with the middle name Hussein. Now, in retrospect, it’s like, ‘Of course, Barack Obama was president.’
I think it’s fair to say that wasn’t a given.
It wasn’t as obvious then. But your presidency also made the Republican Party less persuadable. It opened the door in some ways to Sarah Palin, to Donald Trump. And it further closed the door on the kind of pluralistic politics that you try to practice. I’m curious how you hold both of those outcomes together.
That’s been the history of America, right? There is abolition, and the Civil War, and then there’s backlash, and the rise of the K.K.K., and then Reconstruction ends, and Jim Crow arises, and then you have a civil rights movement, a modern civil rights movement, and desegregation. And that in turn leads to push back and ultimately Nixon’s Southern strategy. What I take comfort from is that in the traditional two steps forward, one step back, as long as you’re getting the two steps, then the one step back, you know, is the price of doing business.
In my case, I get elected. We have a spurt of activity that gets things done. Even after we lose Congress during the course of those eight years, we manage the government, restore some sense that it can work on behalf of people. We regain credibility internationally. But you’re right, it helps to precipitate a shift in the Republican Party that was already there, but probably accelerates it.
On the other hand, during that period, you’ve got an entire generation that’s grown up and taking for granted, as you just described, that you’ve got a Black family in the White House, taking for granted that administration can be competent, and have integrity, and not be wrought with scandal. And it serves as a marker, right? It’s planted a flag from which then the next generation builds. And by the way, the next generation can then look back and say, yeah, we do take that for granted. We can do a lot better and go even further.
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