In This Episode
Former President Barack Obama joins Jon F. and Tommy to talk about the stakes of the 2020 election up and down the ballot, make his case for Joe Biden and share his vision for creating lasting progressive change in 2021 and beyond.
Jon Favreau On today’s show, the 44th President of the United States, our former boss, responsible for hiring the two of us, Barack Obama.
Barack Obama Still, still questioning that decision.
Jon Favreau Welcome back to the pod.
Barack Obama Good to be back. You guys look good.
Jon Favreau So, you know, I’m fairly confident that Pod Save America listeners know who they’re voting for at this point. But we have about three hundred thousand volunteers who are phone banking, text banking every day. A lot of the polling shows that the people who are still deciding who to vote for and especially whether to vote at all, tend to not have a college degree, tend to be younger. They tend to be voters of color. This cycle, they tend to be younger, black and Latino men specifically. These voters generally have a negative view of Trump, but they pay less attention to the news and are less likely to believe that voting will actually make a difference. What is your pitch to these voters?
Barack Obama Well, let’s take some examples just from this year. We know that COVID-19, disproportionately affects minorities. So those voters you just described, they’ve got a member of their family who may have been killed by COVID or disabled by COVID. Or laid off as a consequence of COVID. And whatever you think about whether the federal government can help on big major issues like systemic racism. One thing we know is that just basic competence can end up saving lives. And so, you know, one thing I would say to anybody who’s skeptical about what government can do generally is to just take the example of when we were in office. You might not have been happy with everything I did, all my policy choices. I didn’t eliminate poverty in America. But when we had a pandemic or the threat of pandemic, we had competent people in place who would deal with it. And that’s an example of the kind of thing that government can do and we’ve seen it do. And that, I think, is important.
Barack Obama For those who are concerned about the criminal justice system. As as you guys know, I’ve talked about this a lot. I am hugely proud of the demonstrations and activism that young people have displayed. And a lot of those folks may be skeptical about what the government can do. Some of them may have been frustrated about my failure to have completely transformed the criminal justice system, to eliminate racial bias. Part of that is because 90 percent of criminal sentencing typically is taking place at the state rather than the federal level. So the federal government doesn’t have power. But the truth of the matter is that, when I was in office, Eric Holder said to U.S. attorneys, ‘We’re not going to judge you on getting the maximum sentence every single time.’ He changed the criteria so that the federal government, in cases that were involving drug cases, for example, wasn’t throwing the book at folks and trying to maximize the number of people going to prison. That may not eliminate mass incarceration, but it does change the lives of potentially thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. Us initiating a consent decree in a place like Ferguson so that they can’t make a move if the terms of how their police department works without first clearing it with civil rights attorneys to make sure they’re not reinforcing bias. That makes a difference. And know, one of the things that I’ve been emphasizing is the degree to which it’s not just the presidential candidates that are on the ticket. You’ve got district attorneys and state’s attorneys who are going to be responsible for whether or not police misconduct is charged and departments are held accountable.
Barack Obama You’ve got mayors races in which the mayor is going to decide who the police chief is and what the contract is with the police and so on, on every issue that young people in particular care. Let’s, let’s agree, let’s stipulate that, yeah, the government’s items solve every problem overnight. But you know what? It can make it better and better means lives saved. Better means the air a little less polluted. You know, better means that maybe some people don’t get charged for crimes that they shouldn’t be charged for. And some people don’t get shot. And that’s worth fighting for. And the idea that you’d give away your power because you’re not getting 100 percent when you could get 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent better. That doesn’t make any sense. And that, I think, is the most important thing that I– I focus on when I’m talking to young people in particular. Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good in this situation. There are constraints in our system. Even a well-meaning president can’t solve everything, but they can make some things better. And just like the Affordable Care Act. You know, us getting 20 million people health insurance and locking in preexisting conditions and everybody being under 26, being able to be on their parents plan. You know, we still had millions of people without health insurance. But for those 20 million or those people with preexisting conditions that trying to get insurance, that was that was a lifeline. That was a a life support. And you can spend. You can spend fifteen minutes, half an hour voting to do that.
Tommy Vietor Good. Quick plug, if you go to VoteSaveAmerica.com, you can find your sample ballot and you can see all those down ballot races that are critical if you’re in California, you can see ballot initiatives. Check it out: votesaveamerica.com. Shameless plug. Mr. President, presidents have the most discretion when it comes to foreign policy. But those issues rarely get a lot of attention during the campaign. Voters may have heard that Joe Biden supported the war in Iraq back in the day, but not a lot else about him. You spent countless hours with Vice President Biden talking about national security. What did you learn about how he thinks about diplomacy and counterterrorism and the use of military force that others would not have seen?
Barack Obama Well, a couple of things. One, and I think this is most important, is when people ask me what surprised me most about the presidency, you know, what I always tell them is: I understood but didn’t fully appreciate the degree to which we kind of underwrite the international order. And in the sense that even our enemies can expect us to behave like adults on the international stage. You know, if there’s a crisis somewhere, people don’t call Moscow or Beijing. They call us and say, ‘What are we going to do to help?’ If there is a ethnic cleansing, if there is a conflict, if there is a natural disaster. And the reason that we can serve in that role, even if we’re not perfect, is that we have the infrastructure. We have experienced diplomats. We have institutional traditions that allow us to show leadership on the international stage, whether it’s in the Paris Peace Accords, whether it’s on the Iran Deal, you name it. And the thing that over the last four years, it’s not as if Trump has been all that active internationally. I mean, the truth is he doesn’t have the patience and and the focus to really substantially change a lot of US foreign policy. What he’s done is he’s systematically tried to decimate our entire foreign policy infrastructure. And the thing I know about Joe is that he respects people who know history and have expertise and he’s going to pay attention to somebody who has worked in Africa to find out, like, ‘how should I deal with a particular crisis there’ as opposed to calling it a bunch of I won’t say the word countries, right? He has a respect and understanding for what American leadership can do.
Barack Obama And, you know, let’s take the example of human rights, because I’ve just been writing about this. Any U.S. president, when I became president, one of the things I discovered coming into office is you’re in charge of this big apparatus. You’ve got all these legacy systems. You’ve got the Pentagon. You’ve got the intelligence community. A bunch of choices have been made, some of which you don’t necessarily agree with. It’s an ocean liner and not a speedboat so you just trying to change policy is really difficult. Right. But, even in those circumstances where you have to balance U.S. interests versus human rights interests for us to go around and just talk about human rights, for me to meet with a dictator. Yes, I may have to deal with them because we’ve got other interests at stake. But for me to bring up in a meeting, you know ‘you locking up journalists or you mistreating this minority ethnic group is something that the United States objects to’. That gives them pause. It, in some cases, may tilt the balance in a way that you create more space for human rights activists or freedom of speech or environmental activism. And that’s something I know Joe cares about.
Jon Favreau Right. So the two of you became really close over the eight years that you served together. Do you have an anecdote about Joe Biden that most people don’t know, tell us a story about what kind of a person or leader he is?
Barack Obama You know, I think the thing that I always when I think about Joe. I always think about the fact that– and this is not a particular anecdote, this is more just day to day interactions– he was always the guy in every meeting who asked ‘how’s this helping regular folks?’ You know, the whole aspect of him about Scranton and, you know, getting on Amtrak and talking to the conductors and knowing their names and, you know, wanting to spend as much time as possible with voters and just hear about their lives and identifying with the ordinary day to day struggles of the American people. That’s not a schtick, you know, that’s who he is. Now, that’s part of the reason why he was always late, because, you know, I was pretty good about working the rope ladder. You had this whole myth about me being aloof. You guys were there. Like I love hugging grandmas and kissing babies. I’d take my time in rope lines. And if he and I were campaigning, you know, I would have been really giving everybody a lot of attention and I’d be at the end of the rope line and I’d look back – he was a third of the way through, man. He was still, you know, telling a story or listening to somebody. And that heart is who he is. And that’s why, you know, a lot of times when you’re thinking about the presidency. It’s great to look at policy and do they have what were there ten point plans on this, or that or the other. But a lot of it is what’s their basic character. Right? Are they people who instinctively care about the underdog? Are they people who are able to see the world through somebody else’s eyes and stand in their shoes? Are they people who are instinctively generous in spirit? Right. And that is who Joe is, you know. And I’ve never seen him. And you know, when you run for president, pretty much every all your flaws are exposed. And once you’re president, then they’re really exposed. But you don’t hear stories about Joe being just mean to somebody. Right. People may fault him for other stuff. But you don’t hear Joe being disloyal to somebody or mistreating them or, you know, being standoffish and pushing them away when they were asking for help. And and that is the thing in him that I think should give people a lot of confidence that along with the fact that he understands the importance of surrounding himself with people who are smart and are, you know, believe in science and believe in expertise and believe in, you know, institutional knowledge and experience. And so you get that combination. It means that, you know, his North Star will be good. But at the same time, you’ll have a lot of people around him were able to translate his good instincts into actual policy that works.
Tommy Vietor Yeah. Speaking of bad instincts, President Trump keeps tweeting that the attorney general should indict you or indict Vice President Biden for spying on his campaign. The allegation is absurd. It’s false. It’s seemingly part of just his general rage at any discussion of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. It’s remarkable to me how used to this kind of language the D.C. has become, the press corps has become. Is it weird for you when he tweets that you should be indicted?
Barack Obama Well, look, as you said, this is something that even his, you know, his fellow Republicans tend to just pretend it doesn’t happen.
Tommy Vietor Didn’t read the tweet.
Barack Obama Yeah. I didn’t read the tweet. They kind of dodge reporters when they’re asked about it. The allegations are so absurd that even Republican controlled committees looking into it have dismissed them. And, you know. Attorney General Barr has dismissed them. But you know, this is an example, I think, of a larger problem. Well, two larger problems. Which don’t get as much attention, understandably, when you’ve got high unemployment and a pandemic raging because it doesn’t touch people’s day to day lives. But one of the central foundation stones of a democracy is the idea that you do not, you do not allow the politicization of the criminal justice system, the intelligence system, the military. Right? That that is stuff that you keep out of politics right now. Because it’s too dangerous. You want, you can’t have a democracy in which political opponents are subject to this kind of inflammatory language. Now, he did the same thing with Hillary and the ‘lock her up’ theme. And so I’m not surprised by it, that it continues. I’m disappointed that Republicans who know better have not checked him on this. And I think on a very important question after the election, even if it goes well with Joe Biden, is whether you start seeing the Republican Party restore some sense of ‘here are norms that we can’t breach’ because he’s breached all of them and they have not said to him, ‘this is too far.’
Barack Obama So that brings me then to the second issue. And that is the whole misinformation. Social media, media infrastructure, the conservative media infrastructure. We’ve had this conversation before. That is a problem that is going to outlast Trump. Trump is a symptom of it and an accelerant to it. But he did not create it. We saw. When, you know, during my campaign back in ’08. And we saw it, you know, you guys to deal with it directly during our administration. It has gotten turbocharged because of social media. And because the head of our government, of our federal government has resorted to it. But, you know, when you look at insane conspiracy theories like QAnon seeping into the mainstream of the Republican Party, what that tells you is that there are no more guardrails within that media ecosystem. And I think one of the biggest challenges, all of us said this is not just a progressives versus, you know, right wing issue. This is really a genuine American society issue is is how do we reestablish some baselines of truth? That at least the vast majority of people can agree to. And then we could have a whole bunch of debates about. All right, yeah, climate change is real. But, you know, Republicans think we just have to adapt because we can’t give up, you know, our cars. And progressives say, no, we should use these alternative technologies. We can have that debate. I have some pretty strong views about it. But, if you say climate change is a hoax, then there’s nothing we can do. The same is true with COVID. All right. You know, if you say ‘yes, COVID is a genuine, really big problem. A serious disease, here’s the science, we can agree to that.’ And then, you know, you have a country like Sweden that decides. ‘Well, we think we’re going to try to approach this through herd immunity.’ But at least there’s some coherence to their argument. I disagree with it. I don’t think it is proven out. But we’re within the same reality in our debates. We’re gonna have to find ways to do that. I don’t have a quick answer for that, because part of what happens within, when you get these echo chambers, is they become impenetrable. Right. Any– any bit of information that contradicts the world view and the conspiracies within it or the conspiracy theories within it, it gets rejected as part of a conspiracy and part of the liberala plot. But I do think that that’s going to be a big challenge that we all have. And I’m concerned about it.
Jon Favreau Well, it goes to governing, too, I mean, and you know this from your time in office. The majority of voters want leaders who will bring the country together, try to work together in a bipartisan way. They also want leaders who will end the gridlock in Washington and actually get something done on the big issues. How do you govern in a way that’s both bipartisan and productive, when the only way to break the gridlock with this version of the Republican Party is through huge Democratic majorities, getting rid of the filibuster, other big structural reforms, all of which will be seen by Republicans and much of the media as extremely partisan?
Barack Obama Well, look, as you know, this is exactly what we were confronted with. And we had really big majorities. But, because of the filibuster and Mitch McConnell systematically wanting to throw sand into the gears, no matter how much outreach we made, as long as the Republicans could maintain unity– and McConnell was very explicit about this, he said ‘Well here’s one thing I’ve learned as long as we can keep Republicans off Obama’s bills, even when it’s their proposals that used to be Republican proposals, then we can rob them of the veneer of bipartisanship. And that polarization plays to our advantage. Right? I mean, he was very systematic and strategic about it — What I have concluded, is that the answer is to change some of these structural impediments to just getting stuff done. I mentioned that at John Lewis’ funeral about my belief that I think that we should test it. I think we should give Republicans a chance to work with us around reasonable issues. I don’t think we should be maximalist and ask for 100 percent of what we want all the time. But I think that if you continue to see the kind of systematic rejection of even reasonable compromise there, there comes a point at which you just have to change how the system works. The filibuster would be one. I would argue that, around voting, us going ahead and just making it easier for people to vote, making it harder to suppress the vote is not partisan. It is an expression of our democracy. It will be portrayed as partisan. But that’s an argument I think we have to welcome. I think we have to go ahead and have that argument. If you have one major party, perhaps the only major party that I know of in any advanced democracy in the world, who explicitly says “we’re trying to keep certain fellow citizens from voting. And we’re trying to make it as hard on them as possible.” You see, even the far right in Europe does not say that. They don’t say “let’s stop other Austrians from voting” or “let’s stop other Germans from voting.” This is unique to us and it’s a legacy of racial discrimination and and gender discrimination, it was embedded in our initial constitution and had to be fixed through a series of amendments. And so I think that we should welcome the argument that making it easier for people to vote and eliminating the last vestiges of Jim Crow and poll taxes and all that stuff is not a partisan issue. And anyone who argues against that is behaving in a partisan fashion. And I think we can win that argument with the majority of the American people.
Tommy Vietor I mean, your last answer sort of gets at this ongoing four years later debate about whether Trump is an aberration or whether he is sort of the next phase of a Republican Party that has been built on racial grievance and built on cruelty to immigrants and Fox News conspiracy theories. And it’s a bit of esoteric like Washington debate. But the answer also shapes how Joe Biden or any Democrat should approach the job. You know, we all hope that the Republican fever would break after the 2012 reelect. And clearly it didn’t. Things have gotten worse. Do you have a view on this third debate about whether Trump is an aberration?
Barack Obama You know what? Here’s the way I think about it, I would distinguish between people who vote Republican, and the Republican Party and the Republican media infrastructure. And what I mean by that is this. And you guys have heard me say this before. You know, when I when I was elected to the U.S. Senate. I got. About 70 percent of the vote in Illinois. I got the majority of the vote in southern Illinois, which is much closer culturally to Kentucky or southern Indiana, Ohio, than it is Chicago. And I did well in a bunch of white evangelical counties, rural counties that I think is fair to say, there is no way right now that I could get those votes. Right? If I went back to those same places. And the reason is because they see me only through the filter of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh. Lord knows what’s going on in Facebook, etc. Right. But when you got those folks one on one and they had a chance to meet you and talk to you and you were at a veterans, a V.A. hospital or a fish fry, you can have a conversation with them. They might disagree with you on a whole bunch of stuff, but they thought, ‘you know what? He seems like an okay guy. I’m not scared of him, even if I disagree with him.’
Barack Obama And those folks right now are just being fed what’s coming through that filter. I do not think that that is inevitable. I think if they were watching Walter Cronkite or they were reading what used to be the local paper that was put out by some cranky conservative guy with a bow tie, you know the wire glasses who got a buzz cut, you know, but was like a learned guy, right, was kind of serious but sort of conservative. If that’s where they were getting their information from, I think then you could, in fact, have just the normal debates between a more conservative and a more liberal America. And in that circumstance, democracy works. So so the answer, I guess, Tommy, is I think that Trump is expressing or mirroring, and in some ways explicitly exploiting and took on the crazy that was being pumped out through these venues each and every day. Right. And if that stuff is still being pumped out and Trump goes away, someone else will meet that market demand. But on the other hand, do I think that that is inevitably who the what the Republican Party has to be? No, I don’t think it does.
Barack Obama Yeah, it was fascinating. As I was writing the book, I was just looking through some of the old stuff about Trump. Trump was really complimentary of me for like the first two years.
Tommy Vietor Yeah, he liked you a lot.
Barack Obama ‘Obama seems like he’s doing a great job’ You know? And essentially what happened is because the guy just decided he wanted attention, like whether it was to promote Celebrity Apprentice or whatever, he sort of he looked and saw what was being said and he said, oh, if that’s, if that’s what folks want, I can do that with even less inhibition. So with even less of a… I don’t need a dog whistle, I’m just gonna go ahead and say it. And that’s how the whole birtherism shtick came about.
Barack Obama Our country has always had this battle right, between these darker impulses to exclude, to dominate, to rig the game in favor of certain folks and not others. And then the other side of it has been to expand and embrace the dignity and inherent worth of every individual, regardless of, you know, what they look like or– or where they come from. And that tug of war is always going to be there. And we as Democrats have to remind ourselves that, for much of the 20th century, the Democrats were as bad or worse. Right? The South was Democratic. Dixiecrats were the ones who were running filibusters to prevent anti-lynching legislation, et cetera. And Lincoln was a Republican. So, so the issue has less to do with ‘is one party or the other inevitably like this?’ One way or the other. It has much more to do with this ongoing tug of war between the better angels of our nature and our worst impulses and that. And I have confidence that we can get back to a point where both parties have in it those better angels. But I do think that we’re going to have to figure out how to get to voters what are the workarounds to just penetrate the 24/7 narrative that is being pumped out by folks like Fox News and others.
Jon Favreau Last question and will let you go. So most of our listeners are happily working very hard to elect Joe Biden, even though they supported more progressive candidates in the primary. What’s your advice to those people who want to see not only a more progressive Democratic Party, but more progressive policies enacted in Washington? You were on both sides of this. You were an organizer. You were president. So you’ve sort of seen it from both sides.
Barack Obama Look, I think that number one – win first, right? I think everybody’s kind of moved into that mindset. You know, let’s get through the next three weeks and then the next three months and then let’s figure out what our internal debates are going to be. So that’s point number one. Point number two is that I think it is very important for progressives to continue to press their agenda. Because there are going to be other forces that are pressing on the White House from the other direction. And that’s always, that’s always the case. That’s always true. And there’s nothing wrong with making noise about it. And there’s nothing wrong with holding folks to account. I think that the caution I always have for progressives is making sure that, as you push for the most you could get, that at a certain point you say: ‘All right. You know what? Let’s get this done and then let’s then move on to fight another day.’
Barack Obama And health care always being the best example of this. As you will recall, we wanted a public option in the Affordable Care Act. We pushed. I needed 60 votes to get it through the Senate. Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and a couple others said I’m not voting present a public option. At that point, then progressives have to be able to say, ‘OK, let’s take what we can get now. And then let’s build.’ And every bit of progressive legislation, all of our progress throughout our history, typically happens in stages, right? You get a beachhead like Social Security passes, but it excludes all kinds of folks. Right? Domestic workers and agricultural workers, because southern voters or some Southern congressmen didn’t want to have Black folks be able to get Social Security because then they wouldn’t be as subject to the whims of white employers. And, should F.D.R. not have passed Social Security? Of course not. He gets it done and then you fight that next battle, which is to include more people.
Barack Obama Dodd-Frank. We passed Dodd-Frank. Did we eliminate greed and malfeasance in Wall Street entirely? No. What we did was we put in a bunch of guardrails to make it less likely that you end up having bailouts in the future. Part of the reason that we haven’t seen the financial system teeter during this major economic shock was because of those guardrails that we put in place. But yeah, we still have to move on a whole bunch other stuff that we weren’t able to get done at the time? And I think understanding that that is not a failure. But that is just a process. You push. You consolidate. You push some more. You consolidate. And also understand this. Maybe this is where sometimes I differ with Bernie, and even Elizabeth in part, in how we talk about this stuff publicly. Most of the time when I’m going to get something progressive done while I was president. It wasn’t because I was getting donations from some special interest or corporation. It wasn’t because there were a bunch of lobbyists whispering in my ear. It was because I didn’t I didn’t have votes. And I think sometimes we attribute the failure of a Democratic or progressive president not getting something done to somehow he and hopefully at some point she is being influenced by these other folks. When in fact, it’s just that we don’t yet have the votes and the clout. So progressives, if you want progressive legislation. Get out there and keep working after the president is elected. I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, but you guys know how frustrated I would be when Progressives feeling frustrated would then sit out the midterms. Now I have fewer Democratic votes. Now I’ve lost the House. Now I’ve lost the Senate. That is not the right reaction. We get more progressive legislation done, the more Democrats we have in Congress, now more Democratic turnout happens. And again, I don’t want to lose track of this because right now we just have what’s right in front of us. But as soon if we are fortunate enough that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are elected, we maintain the House and hopefully we regain the Senate. One of the very first things we have to do is to get every person who is as fired up as they were about this election to understand the midterms are going to matter just as much. Because that’s that’s the constraint ultimately that we all confront throughout this process was, when I look back on my presidency, the real envelope, the limit to what I could get done, had to do with how many votes that I have in the House, how many votes do I have in the Senate? Obviously, if there are modifications to the filibuster, that makes it easier. But even within the Democratic Party there, we have to accommodate for the fact that they’re going to be some regional differences and that’s OK. That’s part of the big tent and that’s part of the process that we move forward.
Jon Favreau Democracy is an everyday struggle. That’s what you always taught me.
Barack Obama That’s it man. You have to nurture it. This thing’s not self executing. Speaking of which, I’m assuming you guys are plugging the fact that we had a Supreme Court ruling around the census that was adverse to us. The Trump administration is purposely has decided to cut off the census earlier than it should have been. If anything, it should have been extended because of COVID. But it is what it is. I hope you guys are plugging the need for everybody who has not responded to the census to get your information in there. That’s part of this structural set of issues. Census determines how much representation communities get. A lot of decisions are made based on those numbers. And we’ve got to make sure that everybody’s counted.
Jon Favreau Easy to do. Quick to do. No excuse not to do it. President Barack Obama. Thank you so much for coming back to America. And good luck out there on the campaign trail.
Barack Obama Great hanging out with you guys, as always, man. Appreciate it.
Tommy Vietor Thank you.
Barack Obama See ya!