In This Episode
In the series finale, Barack Obama and Jon Favreau have a conversation on the story we need to tell about America. What should the Democratic Party’s message be in 2018?
[clip of Michael Kazin] The party was originally called The Democracy. It was very much a white man’s party, but that changes.
[clip of Franklin D Roosevelt’] This nation is asking for action, and action now.
[clip of Theda Skocpol] An active use of the federal government . . . the Democratic Party, as we’ve known it since the mid-20th century, was born.
[clip of President John F. Kennedy] A negro baby is born there and a white baby is born next door, that negro baby’s chance of finishing high school is about 60% of that baby.
[clip of President Johnson] A more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity.
[clip of Robert F. Kennedy] We can put this country together again, and we can turn its course around.
[clip of Shirley Chisholm] . . . leadership which is receptive to the problems of all Americans.
[clip of David Axelrod] The 80s were really a wilderness for the Democratic Party.
[clip of President Clinton] We no longer can have a country where I worry about me, you worry about you, they worry about them.
[clip of President Obama] The party of Roosevelt and Kennedy has always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people when we summon the entire nation to a common purpose, a higher purpose.
Jon Favreau: This is our final chapter, an episode that ties together everything we’ve covered in the series. We talked about how Democrats can better take on challenges that the party and the country have been wrestling with for ages, challenges like inequality, racism, sexism, immigration and national security. We talked about how Democrats should reconnect with the grassroots when it comes to organizing, fundraising and recruiting a new generation of candidates. And we talked about how Democrats can break through with the message in this deeply fucked up media environment. But what is that message? What story do we want to tell? I was a speechwriter in my past life, so I’ve spent way too much time thinking about this. And it won’t surprise you that some of the best answers I’ve heard come from the guy I spent eight years writing with. I’m biased, yes, but despite the mistakes and shortcomings of his presidency, even Barack Obama’s critics will say that the 44th president was able to tell a story about what we believe and what we aspire to that was incredibly compelling. I’m not saying the Democrats can or should just copy Barack Obama. A message has to be unique to the person and to the specific moment in time. And a lot of Democrats who have been running and winning since 2016, have already figured out how to tell a story about themselves that also captures this moment and what it means to us. What is that story? What message will align our values with an appeal to a broad coalition of voters and inspire as many people as possible to get to the polls in November? I’m John Favreau and you’re listening to The Wilderness.
Jon Favreau: The first and most important lesson I learned from Barack Obama is that a speech shouldn’t be a collection of applause lines or soundbites or sick burns, and it shouldn’t be a laundry list of policies, or an exercise in name checking interest groups. A speech should tell a story, it should have a beginning, middle and end. It should have heroes. The hero should face obstacles and villains, which they develop a plan to overcome, and it should end with a rousing exhortation that points the way toward a resolution. The same is true of any good message. When people ask me “what’s the Democratic message?” they usually mean, what’s our slogan? This is backwards. We didn’t start the Obama campaign by writing ‘Change’ on a napkin after a light bulb went off. We developed a story that was based on the moment and the candidate, a country that was desperate for something new after eight years of George W. Bush’s policies and Washington’s bullshit. Barack Obama represented that change. And most importantly, so did the grassroots movement he helped inspire. In the same way, I’ve heard people talk about how brilliant ‘Make America Great Again’ was, but to the extent that Trump’s slogan was effective, it’s because the phrase captured a larger story that he believes about America: that only he can restore the country’s cultural identity to a time when more Americans were white and native-born. Democrats don’t yet have a presidential candidate, so it’s definitely harder to develop a single overarching message, but we can still tell a story about the moment we’re in, the challenges we’re facing and our plan to overcome them. And that’s where we’re going to start. By listening to some of the best messaging advice we got from all the friends we’ve met over the last 14 episodes. Think of this is the conversation about the story we want to tell, before we dig into the actual story itself.
[speaker] At this moment in time, you see a true affront to the Constitution, to the rule of law, to civil rights and civil liberties from Donald Trump. Find a way to emote how morally and ethically that is disturbing to you. Put the poll down for a second. Like, I understand like Gallup has him, like, very popular in some states and the very unpopular a lot of other states—just put it down for a second and reflect on how you feel about this president as he tweets, and as he engages in xenophobic rants, and as he engages in amazing hypocrisy, and is a liar on a variety of issues. How do you feel about it? Capture that. Bottle that up and express it in a way that you think works for your constituents?
[clip of Celinda Lake] The strongest messages start with values. They don’t start with acronyms, they don’t start with policies, they don’t start with bill numbers. They start with values. What is the orienting principle here? What are we trying to achieve? What’s the narrative that we’re telling? What’s the story that we’re telling? What are we fighting for?
[clip of President John F. Kennedy] Part of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities. This nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
[clip of Michelle Obama] That is the story of this country, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done.
[clip of AG Eric Holder] I think we are, as a nation, still reluctant to talk in a frank way, in an honest way about racial issues. And in a lot of ways that’s understandable . . . It’s a hard issue to discuss, but that’s not enough. I mean, we’ve got to have that conversation and use that conversation as the basis for substantive proposals to get us to a better place.
[clip of Cornell Belcher] We have to have a conversation that’s real because America is not getting whiter. It just isn’t. I don’t know what the best messaging is about, sort of the “big we” but we better figure it out and Democrats better engage there or we’re going to tear this country apart.
[clip of Van Jones] Don’t forget, in 1968, Bobby Kennedy was able to effortlessly go from a Black ghetto, as they called it, to Appalachia, to a Native American reservation, to sit with Cesar Chavez, to the top universities of the country, with the same message. And nobody thought it was weird. Well, he’s a Democrat. Of course he can do that.
[clip of Symone Sanders] The message should be there’s not an either or. It’s not that we talk about class, or we talk about race, gender or white supremacy or immigration or the dreamers. It’s not an either or. We talk about it all because it is all absolutely intertwined.
[clip of Beto O’Rourke] We’re here to define who we are, either we’re a country that takes kids from their parents at a moment that they are seeking safety, at a moment that they’re at their most vulnerable and desperate, or we are a country that lives up to our best traditions and our best interests. And I think that’s what we’re trying to demonstrate right now. This is inhumane. This is cruel. This is, this is torture to to take a child.
[clip of Ali Noorani] If we’re going to win on immigration, we’ve got to change the way we’re talking about it.
[clip of Dan Wagner] This is largely a Christian country, we should be leading with content that says the policy is aligned with a common humanity, that we are all God’s children.
[clip of Cecilia Munoz] Democrats should position themselves as the people who can fix the problem. We can have an immigration system that provides for our national security. The one we have right now is not it. It’s broken. So you can be pro security, pro jobs for Americans, pro all of the things you need to be, and be for immigration reform, because immigration reform is part of how you accomplish that. But you have to be willing to lean into the argument.
[clip of Ben Rhodes] Trump is in some ways, he’s the end point of an ugly post 9/11 politics, nativism and fear of the other, and kind of over-the-top xenophobia and jingoism. And there’s an opportunity for someone to step forward and say: this era is over. This is the beginning of a new era for America, and a new way that we’re going to protect ourselves.
[clip of Marcy Wheeler] We need to reframe the way we think of security entirely. And that’s, I think, where the Democrats absolutely need to go. I think America will rue the missed opportunity of being a leader on climate change.
[clip of Ben Rhodes] We are for the promotion of American values and democracy and human rights around the world. We are for strong alliances and being respected around the world, not being embarrassed about our actions around the world. We are for pursuing diplomacy before going to war. I think that’s the kind of message that’s needed.
[speaker] Democrats need to forget about being afraid of saying what their core platform really is, they need to say what these issues are with passion and conviction, and override these stupid Republicans that try to make people hate the government.
[speaker] Take a position, believe in it. Take a position that’s bold. Talk about how the vision the Democratic Party has is better because it helps that person, it helps people. Energize them in the idea that government is a force for good.
[clip of Jocelyn Kiley] When we ask people about whether the federal government should play a role in a whole host of different policy areas, we find a lot of support for the federal government playing a role in keeping country safe, and strengthening the economy, even in things like managing the immigration system, responding to natural disasters. And so people see a role for the federal government.
[speaker] A lot of the folks who ended up voting for Trump, you know, they’re not libertarian, like lower working-class white voters are not libertarian. Their base, their attitude is like: government is helping somebody else and not me. But would like it better if the government was helping them.
[speaker] I think one of the things that Obama did right in his two elections was he had a perceptible middle-class economic message.
[clip of Heather McGhee] We’re talking about things like debt-free college. The idea that if you go to public college, you should not graduate with any debt.
[clip of Stephanie Kelton] I have for a very long time been an advocate of a federally-funded but locally-administered jobs program, kind of a new New Deal, you know, modeled on the Work Progress Administration.
[clip of Gene Sperling] I think we need a simple universal skills program.
[clip of Adam Gaffney] What we’re saying is very simple: everybody in the country gets covered with comprehensive benefits without copayments or deductibles, and they can never lose that insurance. They have it from when they’re born. They have it til they die.
[clip of Lina Khan] I don’t think it’s going to be too controversial for the party as a whole to embrace stronger anti-trust.
[speaker] Getting big money out of politics also unites potentially people across race, across gender, ethnicity and class, and creates the possibility for a small ‘d’ democratic movement that raises and increases and intensifies the voices of most people.
[clip of Becky Bond] I think that we can go out and talk about what are the real solutions to our problems. Here’s what we need to do to get there. It’s going to be really hard. It might take a long time. And even if we have to compromise, at least let’s be clear about what it is that we’re for, and let the people actually weigh in. Because actually, sometimes if we go for what’s needed as opposed to what is seen as politically possible, sometimes, oftentimes we do better, even if we might lose more. But sometimes we win. And that’s really important.
[clip of Heather McGhee] I just hope that the Democratic base, whom I consider to be young people, people of color, women, and economically-struggling families of all races, have candidates that are worthy of their work and their aspirations, who have a vision for fundamentally deconcentrating power in our economy and our democracy. Candidates who are willing to say: when I get into office, I’m going to change the system of money in politics so that waitresses and teachers can run for office just like people who are already millionaires and billionaires—I’m going to fight for the right to join a union because as unions have declined, so too has the middle class.
[speaker] I think it’s very simple. You are a compelling person with a compelling message and a compelling critique of the opposition. Give me somebody who creates excitement, who gets a 20-year old to devote hours of her life to the cause, who gets a 45-year old person who’s pretty upset about their economic situation to believe again. What I’m going to be looking for is someone who basically on the coast and in the middle of the country can say the same thing and generate excitement from both quarters.
[clip of Amanda Litman] You need to be driven by something internal and self-motivated, and it needs to be more than anger at Trump. If you are passionate about it and care about it, and be authentic with that, and it’ll come through.
[speaker] I think it’s easiest to communicate about an idea that you actually believe in. This is where I have respect for Bernie Sanders, like he believes certain things, and he said them, and he did not look like he was couching. And I remember a certain senator in 2007 argue that too many Democrats were fearful of what Republicans would say about them, instead of saying what they truly believe. And I think those are critical issues. I think candidates should say what they actually think. And if a problem is big, they should actually have a big solution to it
[clip of Cornell Belcher] That frustrated young voter and that suburban mom, they don’t like Trump, right? Historical disapprovals. They get it. They don’t like him. But why should they trust us? Right? You got to give people something to vote for. I think at some point we’ve got to pivot and spend a lot more of our time talking about us and our ideals and our values.
[clip of Rebecca Traister] Everybody has to get better and less scared. We want to change what this country is built on, and that means altering who gets to have power within it. And that is what we stand for. And we have to not be shy about saying that anymore.
[speaker] I’d really love to see the whole communications overhauled so that the heart of, you know, our values as Democrats is at the core of the message.
[clip of Theda Skocpol] Many of these pollsters are my best friends, but they don’t think about public opinion is something that can be moved with consistent repetition of a straightforward message. Democrats, they often speak in acronyms and in insider language and don’t know how to translate. These are things that could be corrected.
[clip of Tanya Somanader] The same message works everywhere. If you mean it! The center of gravity for the Democratic Party is what we stand for, and what our policies are, and what our values are. That is the center of gravity that pulls all of those communities towards you. The minute you are not expressing that and making that argument over and over again, is when those start to divide, and you start having to try and map your values to different communities, and you can’t do it.
[clip of Theda Skocpol] I don’t understand why there isn’t a consistent approach in the Democratic Party as a whole to come up with a way of talking about issues that’s honest, doesn’t downplay complexity but conveys some sense of a whole. I think people want that. They don’t want to just know how it affects them personally. They want a sense of what the big picture is. Politics is about emotion. I think a lot of liberals don’t like to accept that. They like to think it’s about the issues. Eh, it’s sort of about the issues. But issues are really a way of pointing a direction and talking about our democracy and our government and who’s going to be not just benefiting from it, but doing it.
[speaker] This whole thing of self-government was the American experiment, and people died for it, and have died for it, and it constantly requires vigilance on our part. This is one of those moments when we have to be particularly vigilant because it’s being challenged. And I think too often we take it for granted. I fundamentally think summoning people to that mission has to be part of the Democratic message in 2020.
[clip of Becky Bond] We don’t agree on everything, right, within our party. And we’re not going to agree on everything within our party. And trying to reach this false sense of unity, the ideas that we’re all for the same things in the same way—that’s just not true. But there are certain things that we are all for. And even though we might have some differences, you know, we need to figure out how to work together to move forward.
[clip of Elizabeth Warren] If we’re going to be the people who lead the Democratic Party back from the wilderness and lead our country out of this dark time that we can’t waste energy arguing about whose issue matters more and who in our alliance should be voted off the island.
Jon Favreau: You got all that? Good. There were a lot of different opinions and ideas there, but there were also a couple of themes. Don’t be afraid to articulate the pain and anger that Trump has caused, but don’t let yourself wallow in it either. Talk about a country where we don’t simply take back power from Trump, but from the rich and powerful friends that his Republican policies have served. Talk about what the future would look like if everyone has a voice, if everyone has a vote, if everyone has a right to be safe from gun violence or discrimination, if everyone has the right to a job, a living wage, a home, a good education and guaranteed health care. Don’t be afraid to go big, bold, and say what you really believe. Don’t deliver different messages to different kinds of people and different kinds of places. Deliver a message that can appeal to abuelas from New Mexico, and campus hipsters, and working class farmers in the Rust Belt: the 2018 version of Bobby Kennedy’s coalition. Defend liberal values, defend progressive values. But in the Trump era, we also have to defend democracy, because everything he’s done: the lying, the attacks on the press, on law enforcement and the courts, on civil rights and civil liberties, the corruption and enrichment of his friends and family at our expense, sucking up to dictators like Kim Jong-un and Putin, and punching down on the most vulnerable, persecuted people in the world—all of that isn’t just an assault on liberalism. It’s an assault on democracy itself as the best form of government on earth. That’s the heart of this debate. That’s the heart of what our message should say. And now that we’ve heard from some of our friends and had a conversation about the story we want to tell, it’s time to dove into the story itself. We’ll do that with a very special guest after the break.
Jon Favreau: President Barack Obama, thank you for sitting down with me.
President Obama: It’s good to see you.
Jon Favreau: It’s good to see you, too.
President Obama: I can’t believe that all these people are listening to you and Vietor. It’s shocking.
Jon Favreau: It’s something.
President Obama: It’s something. So our final episode of The Wilderness is about the Democratic Party’s message. And I figured that as someone who won a few big elections, you might have some thoughts on this. But before we get to that, I want to start by asking what makes a good speech in your mind? I remember when I sat down with you for a job interview in February of 2005, you asked me what my theory of speech writing was, and I didn’t have one. [laughter] But I told you that I loved the 2004 convention speech so much because it wasn’t a collection of soundbites and applause lines.
President Obama: Yeah.
Jon Favreau: What made you write a speech that way? Why was story so important to you when you started writing speeches?
President Obama: You know, when I think of the great speeches in American history, the history I’m most familiar with, it is not just a aggregation of talking points. It is a description of where we have been, where we are, and where we should go. In simple terms, people learn from stories. They want a sense of what’s the journey they’re on that can give them their bearings, that can give them a sense of why certain things are happening and what’s the nature of our conflicts, and what’s the nature of our hopes. And the sense that they’re not alone in some of the feelings that they wrestle with every day. And so what I’ve always tried to do in any speech—certainly the speeches we worked on together—was to be able to paint a picture for people about where we are in this particular moment and then suggest that we have a set of choices available to us, and this is the choice that I think is most true to who we are, who we want to be, our best values, our deepest ideals. And it doesn’t always work. But when it does, I think what happens is that it taps into something more than just short term self-interest. It taps into more than just: OK, I’m going to get a tax cut. Or: I’m going to get whatever it is that I’ve been lobbying up on Capitol Hill for. And instead makes you feel as if the people you’re supporting, or the ballot that you cast, in some way aligns with how you hope the world is, or can be, and who you hope you are. I mean, Jon, when we wrote speeches, I think the ones that were most effective were just a matter of us really sitting down and thinking: what do I believe? What do I feel, deeply? Because if you’re not tapping into your deepest hopes, fears, longings, passions, commitments, a sense of what’s true—then nobody else is going to tap into it either. They’re not going to feel it. You can, you can utter the words, but they’re not going to believe it, you know. And we’ve all heard it. We’ve all heard speeches that on paper look really good, and when you heard them, you said: eh.
Jon Favreau: You don’t really buy it.
President Obama: I didn’t buy it. And then the reason you didn’t buy it was because whoever was delivering it didn’t feel it. They didn’t believe it. They hadn’t done the work.
Jon Favreau: How would you describe this moment in our politics and our history? One of the central tensions on the left—we saw this after McCain’s funeral—is the question of whether Trump’s presidency represents a departure from the typical Democrat-Republican fights in debates, or if he’s a result of the darker elements of Republican politics that have been around for decades, as well as the failure of the political establishment to sort of meet the broader challenges of globalization. How do you sort of—?
President Obama: Both and.
Jon Favreau: [laughs] yeah.
President Obama: In my estimation right now is, is that my successor is a symptom, and now perhaps an accelerant, of some trends that have been there for a while. We saw during my presidency, they date back earlier than that. You know, the sense that you have a type of politics that says there are some people who are more deserving of the rights, privileges, the benefits of being an American, and others who are less worthy of regard, concern and opportunity. The use of race and social issues—particularly around the status of women—to stoke fear, the use of anti-immigrant sentiment as a way to distract—a lot of it bankrolled by very wealthy people who just want to keep their privileges and their status and who have always fought against the possibilities of a democracy creating a more just and equitable economic structure where everybody’s got a chance at making a decent living and supporting a family. All that stuff has been going on for the last 20, 30, 100 years. What maybe makes this moment different is that in its most recent iteration, prior to Trump being elected, you know, the Republican Party would use those kinds of political tactics during election time, but when governing still felt constrained by a set of institutional standards and norms. We saw more and more of those begin to get violated during my presidency. The debt ceiling crisis being an example, the notion that you would default essentially on America’s debts. The Garland nomination situation, where you just decide: you know what, for a year, we’re just not going to even consider a nominee for an open Supreme Court seat. You started to see that stuff break down, but there was still, I guess, some shame about it. [laughs] A little bit of embarrassment and an attempt to hide it. And, you know, my mom always used to say: guilt is actually a very valuable emotion. You know, shame, guilt—it’s useful to constrain people’s behavior. And what you’ve seen over the last two years is there’s just no shame. And the sense that basic norms about not interfering with a criminal investigation, having some semblance of consistency in argument, of—
Jon Favreau: telling the truth.
President Obama: —of being fact-based in policy debates. You know, there’s a sense now that none of that matters. And that’s a shift that is disruptive, that is significant, because if, in fact, those norms don’t hold together and everything’s up for grabs, then the possibilities of governing becoming impossible in a country this big and this diverse with so many different points of views—the possibilities of not just gridlock, but the use of the state and the apparatus of the criminal justice system, for example, to go after and silence opposition, the ability to start entrenching whoever’s in power, and using the power of the state to pump out propaganda—all that becomes possible. And so that’s the kind of thing that I think we all have to, we have to consider for the first time in my lifetime, that the basic structure of our democracy is not something that we can take for granted. We have to tend to it. We have to work on it. We have to fight for it. We have to continually redefine it, and burnish it, and make it alive, and not think that it’s just some machine there that automatically functions no matter who’s in charge or no matter how much we participate. Which is why—you know you said at the beginning that you wanted to talk about message—my message in this upcoming election is very simple. It’s: vote! You know, Michelle, she has a great line. She’s was talking to Malia and Sasha. She said: listen, you wouldn’t let grandma choose what clothes you wore, you wouldn’t let Grandma put your playlist together, and yet somehow you’ve decided it’s OK to just have Grandma decide who it is that should be in charge of your entire future. And it’s not that much to ask. And the fact of the matter is, is that as complicated as we make all these things, this progressive tradition that you’ve been talking about throughout this series, the progressive tradition that my speeches tried to capture throughout my political career and my presidency—that story of progress is embraced by the vast majority of Americans. This isn’t really a 50-50 country. It’s like a 60-40 country, even with the political gerrymandering that takes place, even with the differences in geographical distribution. The fact of the matter is, is that if consistently Americans just voted at, say, a 60% rate, then you would have a continuous progressive movement around health care and climate change and minimum wage laws and the ability for labor to organize. And whatever other issues you were concerned about. In this particular election, there is a very meaningful choice between a Democratically-controlled Congress and a Republican Congress. And whether or not we continue on the path to progress is going to depend on whether or not you vote. Democrats could, and will, do even better if every one of your listeners not only votes, but makes sure that all your wishy-washy excuse-making Internet-surfing, TV-watching, grumbling-but-not-doing-nothing friends and family members get to the polls, vote.
Jon Favreau: So how do you convey the stakes and the choice to some of these cynical, disaffected voters? Like I, for this series, I worked with Binder to conduct some focus groups, and we talk to Obama-Trump voters—
President Obama: Right.
Jon Favreau: —outside of Detroit. And then we talked in Houston to younger voters who voted for you in ‘8 and ’12, and then either stayed home in ’16 or voted for third-party candidate.
President Obama: Right.
Jon Favreau: And they all like the Democratic Party more than the Republican.
President Obama: Yeah.
Jon Favreau: They all are disappointed in Donald Trump. Even some of these Trump voters, disgusted.
President Obama: Right.
Jon Favreau: The Obama-Trump voters told me: if we could have done it, we would have voted for Obama for a third term, we liked him—didn’t solve all of our problems, but we liked him. But then when I get to: OK, are you, are you going to vote now, are you going to vote on 18? Some of them said: yeah, you know what, I feel like it’s my duty to go vote after watching everything happen. But a lot of them say: you know, I know Democrats are better than Republicans, and I know Trump’s crazy, but I just, I feel like I don’t know how my vote makes a difference. I don’t know how me doing anything, how putting one of these politicians in there, because even though Democrats are better than Republicans, still seems like they don’t get enough done. How do we reach those people and tell them that this time it matters, you know, more than ever?
President Obama: I do think that how we frame issues matters. I think if we frame criminal justice issues, for example, in a way that says it is possible for us to make sure that the law and law enforcement treats everybody equally—and we know that law enforcement is a tough job and a dangerous job, but what we also know is that the vast majority of law enforcement officers do, do a good job under those extreme circumstances, and we want to work with everybody to figure out how that applies. You know, that that’s something that people can listen to, some of those Obama-Trump voters, you might be able to get their votes when you say that. Being able to point to places where, you know what, when you had a government in place that was making a difference, they voted for a $15 an hour minimum wage, and here’s what that would do to your paycheck, and that’s worth voting for, that’s worth taking that extra hour out. Or saying to the young African-American who’s cynical about anything actually happening on criminal justice reform, saying: look, right now in Philadelphia you’ve got a new state’s attorney who’s looking at issues in an entirely new way and trying to engage the police department to retrain how they do things—which is not going to completely solve every problem, but will make it better. But, you know, to some degree, this goes back to something you often heard me say in the White House, and it’s something I tell my children and it’s something I tell myself, which is: better’s really good. It sounds really simple, but so much of how we think about this stuff is around Utopia, it’s around perfection, it’s around: no, no, we want this exactly the way we want it. And that is self-defeating. And by the way, that is un-American, because if you look at American history, there have been a couple of big violent eruptions. At the inception, the revolution. And then the Civil War. Otherwise, it’s just stuff got better. And then sometimes when people stop trying to make it better, it got worse. And then people said: oh no, we don’t want that. And then they put their shoulder to the wheel again and it got a little better again. And it turns out that if year after year, step by step, community by community, issue after issue, things get incrementally better, then, you know, during the course of a lifetime, things get a lot better. And that is what voting is. It’s the small step that each of us takes to make things better. And that’s worth a lot.
Jon Favreau: How do you balance, you know, in a speech, in a Democratic message, this need to give people an understanding that so much of politics is, like you’re saying, practical. It’s about making life better bit by bit, day by day, and by being involved, with something you did often in 2008 and throughout your presidency, which is to give people this sort of north star of what we’re striving for, and what we can hope for, and sort of this idealism and this inspiration?
President Obama: I do think long term that what moves people are not issues, but values. Who am I? What do I believe? What do I stand for? What gives meaning to my life? How do I explain my time here on Earth? What’s lasting and what’s transitory? What matters, what doesn’t? And I think most of us answer in similar ways. I think most of us have a sense that: oh, it turns out family really matters and friendships matter and relationships matter and a sense of integrity matters. And that’s how we think about things in our personal lives. And we long to see that in our collective lives, and we don’t see enough of that. And so I think there’s a way of telling a story about any issue that connects up to that, and that there’s a way of talking about politics that connects up to that. And it’s not magic. It’s just a matter of maybe thinking deeply in yourself about: what is it that I care about? And then try and express it and hope that it connects with other people. When I talk to younger people who were thinking about going into politics, the first thing I always say to them is, what do you believe? Why do you want to do it? Don’t do it because you want to be something, do it because you want to do something on behalf of something you care most deeply about. And the people who are able to do that, it doesn’t matter, you know, whether technically they have charisma, or this or that of the other, people buy it. They go: yeah, you know, that person believes in something.
Jon Favreau: They’re able to connect their own story to the larger story of the country.
President Obama: Yes! Yeah. And I think that more than anything else is what young people are attuned to right now, partly because they’ve grown up in an age where everything is so digitalized, everything’s on HD. You can see everything about everybody at every minute of the day. And so it’s just harder to fake it in this environment. And young people are particularly attuned to that sense of somebody who’s mouthing the words but doesn’t really believe it.
Jon Favreau: I always thought what was fascinating about that first 2004 convention speech, and then you did this many other times when you were president, sort of you rooted the speech and the Democratic message in, deep in American history, and even in the founding documents.
President Obama: Yeah. All my favorite speeches do that.
Jon Favreau: Talk about why, you know, you chose to do that.
President Obama: It’s interesting because I know that to some degree, people who are listening to your podcasts, you know, come from the left, center-left, progressive tradition. And I know that there are probably some people who, for understandable reasons, are skeptical of some of the pieties that we learn in high school about American history. And they’ll point to slavery, and they’ll point to discrimination and violence, and, you know, Pinkertons beating up workers and all that. And to me, it is precisely the imperfections of our history, and our ability to overcome that is the crowning glory of the country. It’s what makes us exceptional. It’s why I think we have something to say to other countries. The fact that out of this very imperfect set of colonies, with imperfect, though brilliant men, and a society that was profoundly hierarchical and excluded huge portions of the population from any voice or say in how the society was organized—that out of that, and a small set of documents, a set of ideas emerged that people were able to rally around and cite and lift up and fight for and provide the spine through which, you know, slavery is abolished and women get the right to vote, and ultimately segregation is dismantled, and we build a social welfare state, and rule of law becomes the norm, and human rights is something that we don’t just give lip service to but actually codify, and the Bill of Rights is observed—the fact that all that happens is a small miracle. And it gives me and I think a lot of people around the world a sense of possibility. A sense that no matter where you start, you can get better, not perfect, but better. And it seems to me that it is also the thing that potentially unifies people who don’t agree on every item on the progressive liberal Democratic checklist. Which means that they can hear from me that we have a common baseline, a set of common traditions to draw from, and so maybe they’ll listen in ways that they might not otherwise listen if I started simply by going through the checklist. It also then provides you a tool to call out those who are violating those traditions. Obviously something that’s pretty relevant today. You know, if you’re waving the flag and you’ve got a bald eagle on your shoulders, and you’re talking about how, you know, “America, love it or leave it” and then you show no regard for those traditions and values and texts that are the basis of American history, that are precisely the things that people have died for, and precisely what that flag is supposed to represent—then you know, you’re, you’re in a little bit of a stronger place to push back against some of those forces.
Jon Favreau: I always remember in the Selma speech, you made this point—
President Obama: One of my favorites.
Jon Favreau: One of my favorites, too. You know, when you talked about patriotism isn’t airbrushed history.
President Obama: Yeah.
Jon Favreau: And in fact, what happened on that bridge is sort of the essence of patriotism. Do you think that Democrats sort of need to redefine patriotism on their own terms?
President Obama: Yeah, I think that the Senate candidate in Texas, O’Rourke’s, gotten a lot of compliments and criticism—presumably from the other side—about how he spoke about the NFL protests. I think that is an example of drawing on the best of American traditions and claiming pride in this country. But not doing so in a way that ignores our history, ignores facts. That’s not the America of Abraham Lincoln. That’s not the America of Rosa Parks. That’s not the America of Dorothy Day. The giants of American history are those who wrestled with how do you make that declaration: We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights—how do you make that true? It’s not enough just to say: no, it’s always been true. That can’t be right. [laughs] I mean, you can’t be so immune to facts that you suggest that somehow we got there back in 1776, or—
Jon Favreau: When a bunch of white dudes who owned slaves wrote it!
President Obama: —or for that matter, you know, in 1865. Right? It is something that we have struggled with and fought for. And it is patriotic to acknowledge that fight, and embrace that fight. Which doesn’t mean, by the way, that everybody’s got to agree about everything. This whole argument about: well, are we going for the base vote versus, you know, working class whites? Is that possible? As if there’s a choice and this is an either-or. It has to be a both-and, right? We need everybody that we can get to participate in this project of creating a just and fair and prosperous and safe America. And we shouldn’t want to leave anybody out. And the way not to leave anybody out, is to be able to have a conversation with a rural white West Virginian, and remind him about John Lewis, the guy who fought for miners, and tie him to John Lewis, the guy on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and say that’s the same fight.
Jon Favreau: Right.
President Obama: And we’re going to have to figure out how we align ourselves. And yes, there will be differences and we may not be able to always reconcile those, but the starting point has to be to say: we have something in common, and that is we both had to fight for a seat at the table, we’ve both been marginalized at various points, we’ve both racked up a lot of losses—but you know what? When we’ve come together, we’ve also been able to get some gains. And that usually happens when everybody gets involved. It doesn’t happen when we turn on each other. It doesn’t happen when we pull back and decide the game is rigged and a bunch of fat cats and rich folks and powerful folks and insiders and lobbyists are going to do whatever the heck they want to do anyway, whether we like it or not. That doesn’t work. And so I keep on insisting that for Democrats, progressives, people of goodwill, who want to recapture the best in this country, we have to tap into those stories that shine a light on America at its best. And America at its best is not static. America at its best is all the ways in which ordinary people have been able to fight and struggle and inspire each other to make the place better.
Jon Favreau: President Barack Obama, thank you so much.
Jon Favreau: And thanks to all of you for sticking with us on this journey, a journey that will end where we began, talking about the future of a party that was originally called The Democracy. That is, after all, the best antidote in contrast to an opposition that believes in a country controlled by the privileged few: a Democratic Party that’s reinvigorated by the organized many. A big tent party that isn’t based around a specific ethnicity or race or religion, but rooted in a set of common ideals around liberty, equality, and justice, that Americans have struggled to make true for more than two centuries. Ideals that still have the power to bind our fractious, messy democracy together. We’re in the wilderness now, but we’re not completely lost. And a new generation of activists and organizers and first-time candidates are showing us the way out, joining with millions of Americans who’ve decided that we will not be defined by this man or this presidency, but by our response to this moment. The fight won’t be easy. And we know by now that success is in no way guaranteed. But because we’ve been through worse and come out stronger, we also know that getting to that better place is still possible. That it’s really, really possible.
Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is written and directed by me, Jon Favreau of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Zach Akers and Skip Bronkie of Two Up, and Ruth Lichtman. Tanya Somanader of Crooked Media is our co-producer. Andrea B. Scott is our editor, and David Fox is our assistant editor. Our archival producer is Rebecca Kent, and our archival researcher is Gianna Jefferson. Music by Marty Fowler. Sound design and mixing by Joel Robbie. Tracy Lien is our lead interviewee researcher. Additional writing from Zach Akers and Andrea B. Scott. John Maynard and Dan Kelly were our recording engineers. Fact checking by Anna Altman. Promo segment editing from Allison Grasso. Agency services from Ben Davis at WME. Legal services from Dean Bahat, at Ziffren Brittenham and Chad Russo at Ramo Law. Clearance counsel is Kathryn Alimohammedi from Donaldson + Califf. Thanks for listening.