Chapter 2: The Change | Crooked Media
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July 16, 2018
The Wilderness
Chapter 2: The Change

In This Episode

What is Barack Obama’s legacy? A closer look at how an historic presidency shaped the party and the country.


The Wilderness is a documentary from Crooked Media and Two-Up about the history and future of the Democratic Party. Pod Save America’s Jon Favreau tells the story of a party finding its way out of the political wilderness through conversations with strategists, historians, policy experts, organizers, and voters. In fifteen chapters, the series explores issues like inequality, race, immigration, sexism, foreign policy, media strategy, and how Democrats can build a winning majority that lasts.




[clip of President Obama] If we are really serious about winning this election, Democrats, then we can’t live in fear of losing. This party, the party of Jefferson and Jackson, of Roosevelt and Kennedy, has always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people when we led not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction; when we summoned the entire nation to a common purpose, a higher purpose; a party that doesn’t just focus on how to win, but why we should; a party, a party that doesn’t just offer change as a slogan, but real meaningful change.


David Axelrod: There was a general sense, as I think there still is, that politics itself had been overrun by money, had been overrun by conventional thinking, that—as he used to say, that our politics were small and our challenges were large, and we needed to transcend the smallness of our politics. And I really think people were hungry for that.


[clip of Oprah Winfrey] For the very first time in my life I feel compelled to stand up and to speak out for the man who I believe has a new vision for America.


[voice clip] I feel a change in the air.


[news clip] The Iowa caucuses, the Democratic caucuses in Iowa, the first big test in the 2008 presidential campaign.


[clip of CNN] Huge, huge victory for Barack Obama right now in Iowa.


[clip of President Obama] We are choosing hope over fear.


[voice clip] I never thought it would happen. I don’t believe it. Unbelievable. [chanting]


Jon Favreau: This is a show about the Democratic Party’s journey out of the political wilderness. In the first episode, we got a history lesson about the party from its founding, through the election of Barack Obama—a victory that led to the biggest Democratic majorities since LBJ was president. It also made a lot of people hope that politics might become less polarized and dysfunctional. So much for that! In this episode, we’re going to relive the Obama years and find out why the first Democratic president since FDR to win twice with over 50% of the vote, still saw Democrats lose nearly a thousand seats during his presidency, followed by the most crushing defeat in the party’s history. I’m John Favreau and you’re listening to The Wilderness.


Jon Favreau: On November 4th, 2008, Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States. He won 365 electoral votes and more actual votes than any candidate in history. Democrats picked up 21 House seats, eight Senate seats and controlled 27 state legislatures. I was there that night and every night until a few months after the start of Obama’s second term. For eight years, I wrote hundreds of speeches with the man I look up to more than anyone besides my own father. So I am the furthest thing from a neutral observer here. But it’s a fact that Obama passed more liberal legislation and won more progressive victories than any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. He saved the American auto industry. He signed Wall Street reform and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and put two women on the Supreme Court. He used diplomacy to stop Iran’s nuclear program, negotiated the first global climate deal, normalized relations with Cuba, ended combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, took out Osama bin Laden, and presided over the creation of 12.3 million new jobs, and passed a health care law that has now covered more than 20 million Americans. He won two terms and left office with an approval rating of nearly 60%.


[voice clip] Raise your right hand and repeat after me—


[clip of Justice Sotomayor] I, Sonia Sotomayor, do solemnly swear—


[clip of Justice Kagan] I, Elena Kagan do solemnly swear that I will administer justice without—


[overlapping clips of President Obama] A comprehensive long term deal with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon . . . no longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie . . . United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida . . . make no mistake, the Paris agreement establishes the enduring framework the world needs to solve the climate crisis . . . [sings] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . . every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day . . . the overall output of our economy, our GDP, is increasing. We now know that the economy has been growing for the better part of a year . . . today, after over a year of debate, today, after all the votes have been tallied, health insurance reform becomes law in the United States of America. [applause]


Jon Favreau: Look, I’ll be honest, it’s also a fact that during President Obama’s time in office, the Democrats lost almost a thousand seats, from Congress, to governorships, to state legislatures. Partisanship and gridlock got worse. Not everyone was feeling the recovery. And by Election Day of 2016, 60% of voters told exit pollsters that the country was seriously off track. So what the hell happened? It’s complicated, but it all starts right here:


[overlapping news clips] —a crash of the titans, Wall Street in panic mode this morning, comes after one of the most dramatic days in Wall Street history . . . Wall Street shaken to its very foundation today . . . as thousands of Lehman Brothers bankers packed their boxes.


Jon Favreau: When Obama took office in January 2009, he was handed an economy in crisis.


[TV clip person 1] Listen, I, this is the biggest point drop that has, that’s ever been seen in a day.


[TV clip person 2] Wait, wait. When you say we’ve never seen that before, are you talking about in the history of the market?


[TV clip person 1] In the history of the market, you’ve never looked at a market—


[voice clip] The Fed is asleep. Bernanke has no idea what it’s like out there. None!


Jon Favreau: A financial sector that wasn’t well regulated—it sold millions of people homes they couldn’t afford, and then sold off their risky mortgages to make even more money, only to have it all blow up in their face when the housing bubble burst.


[voice clip] Fourteen million people took a mortgage in the last three years. Seven million of them took teaser rates or took piggyback rates. They will lose their homes. This is crazy.


Jon Favreau: Banks stop lending, global markets tanked, and the entire financial system was basically frozen when we got to the White House. Millions of people lost their homes and their jobs, and we had no idea where the bottom was. I don’t think any of us were fully prepared for how terrifying those first few months would be, and that includes President Obama. He was calm and cool, like he always is, but you got the sense in those early days that when he was lying in bed at night, he might be thinking: how the fuck did I get myself into this?


Gene Sperling: I used to have like a knot in my stomach every morning thinking: what was it going to feel like to be on the economic team that allowed a second Great Depression to come in?


Jon Favreau: Gene Sperling was director of the National Economic Council for Presidents Clinton and Obama.


Gene Sperling: Our economy was losing 700,000 to 800,000 private sector jobs each and every month. If you have the largest banks that are 75% of the banking economy and they’re going down, there’s a run on the banks, you truly could have a Great Depression, 15%, 20% unemployment—the amount of people losing everything, losing their ability to retire, losing their home, going through long-term unemployment that they may never recover from. Obama had to put the fire out. He had to stabilize. I think that what he went through was unimaginable.


Jon Favreau: What we also didn’t imagine was that Republicans in Congress would refuse to cooperate on anything, even in the middle of a crisis. They opposed Obama’s decision to save the banks—which started under Bush—they opposed Obama’s decision to save the American auto industry, and then they opposed the Recovery Act. So Obama puts this stimulus plan together and he makes a third of it tax cuts, partly because he knows that Republicans like tax cuts and he thinks that’ll get their support. And right before he leaves for Capitol Hill to let Congress know what’s actually in the plan, Republicans put out a press release saying that they were against it. And that’s when we all realized that none of this shit was on the level.


[news clip] Republicans are filibustering, they are insisting that it not even be talked about on the Senate floor.


[voice clip] A bridge loan to nowhere, a down-payment on many billions to come.


[voice clip] Honestly, this package, the largest spending package in the history of this country, just doesn’t get it right.


[clip of Rep. Tom Price] My names Tom Price, I represent the sixth district of Georgia—what the American people are saying is that they’re tired of the same old thing in Washington, which is spending and borrowing and spending and borrowing—it’s an irresponsible act and it’s a selfish act.


Jon Favreau: We had a majority in the House, but in the Senate, we didn’t have the 60 votes you need to break a Republican filibuster until Senator Arlen Specter switched parties and became a Democrat in April of 2009. Not much room to govern when you have margins that thin, Republicans who’ve decided to obstruct everything, and quite a few conservative Democrats in the Senate from deep red states. Despite all this obstruction, Obama was still able to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This was an 830 billion dollar stimulus package that was divided into three parts: tax cuts, assistance for the poor, and long-term investments in everything from education to infrastructure.


[clip of President Obama] The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that I will sign today is the most sweeping economic recovery package in our history.


[news clip] The federal government is stepping into it to stabilize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two mortgage giants.


[voice clip] Too big to fail.


[clip of President Obama] The federal government provided General Motors and Chrysler with emergency loans to prevent their sudden collapse at the end of last year. Only on the condition that they would develop plans to restructure.


Gene Sperling: When you’re in the government, you do have to live with those constraints like few others do. The things that were done, were done not because they were the ideal, they were done because of all the terrible options that we had, they were the least terrible. You have to stabilize these banks and these major financial institutions. And even though you’re doing it to protect Main Street people, the perception still is you’re helping the culprits, and not just the culprits, but the multimillionaire culprits. I personally would have taken a little bit more action than we did to make clear to people that he represented their anger, their pain. But I think the key point is it was a risk aversion for the American economy. It was a kind of a Boy Scout, we’re-going-to-play-everything-as-straight-as-possible. But there’s no doubt that it was extremely unpopular. I mean, look, it’s not like we weren’t alive at the time.


[news clip] Washington may be deeply divided along party lines, but there’s one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on: that it’s an outrage or AIG Financial Products Division to get another round of huge bonuses.


[voice clip] Something is dramatically out of whack here.


[TV clip] There’s not been a single prosecution of a high-ranking Wall Street executive or major financial firm, even though fraud and financial misrepresentations played a significant role in the meltdown—


[voice clip] Almost not at all subject to criminal prosecution when it violates the law.


Jon Favreau: At some point, thank God, the free fall stopped. The banks started lending again, the auto industry showed signs of life, and the economy lost fewer jobs with each passing month. But people were still losing their jobs, people were still losing their homes, they were still going bankrupt. And when they turned on the news, they saw these assholes on Wall Street getting richer, and they were pissed, and they should have been.


Clare Malone: My name is Clare Malone. I’m a senior political writer at The 2008 crisis broke a lot of people’s faith in the way, not just: oh, man, I can’t believe that these people were giving out bad loans. But also the fact that the government didn’t punish the bankers. I think it made a lot of sense to a lot of people that CEOs should be punished. And you looked a couple of years later and CEOs were getting big bonuses again.


Jon Favreau: A lot of this anger came from our own side, from Obama voters and people on the left.


Heather McGhee: I think that the defining experience of our time, of the past generation say, has been that of failure by the people in power to address the big issues of our time.


Jon Favreau: Heather McGhee was on the inside in 2009. She ran a couple of the task forces that were advising work on the Wall Street reform bill.


Heather McGhee: The Obama administration’s emphasis on governing to preserve the economic system, which was deeply threatened, ended up not answering our desire not to preserve the system, but to change the system. There are lots of ideas that were sort of left on the floor, with the exception of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. We really weren’t going to go at the heart of restoring the balance of power between Wall Street and the rest of the economy.


Jon Favreau: Eventually, the anger and frustration over the crisis and the government’s response leads to new movements on both sides of the political spectrum. Here’s historian Michael Kazin of Georgetown University.


Michael Kazin: On the left, you had the Occupy Movement, really more of an insurgency.


[chants] We are the 99%.


[news clip] The Wall Street protesters are again backing into Zuccotti Park in New York City.


[news clip] Protests have spread to nearly 1,400 cities across the U.S. and several—


[voice clip] Stop resisting.


Michael Kazin: And then on the right, there was the Tea Party, which was very well organized, well-funded, in every state.


[clip of Sarah Palin] The Tea Party movement is not a top-down operation. It’s a ground-up call to action.


[voice clip] I think it’s about taking back America.


[voice clip] Take it back to what it used to be. We just don’t like the direction is going.


[voice clip] We have finally awoken and we are not going to stop until we take down this government.


Michael Kazin: Comparing the two, the passion—there was a lot of passion on both sides—but in terms of actually movements which could get behind candidates, understood how to win elections, how to canvass, how to do messaging: the right had all the advantages there, and the left, hardly any.


Jon Favreau: The Tea Party wanted everyone to know that the government was big, out of control, and the source of all their problems. And they decided that there was no better target than President Obama’s attempt to pass health care reform. Obama knew this wasn’t going to be easy to pull off in the middle of an economic crisis. I think he also knew that anger over the economy meant that he might not have a Democratic majority in Congress after the midterms. 2009 was his only chance. He had a small window. He had a razor-thin margin in the Senate, and that meant he would have to make all sorts of compromises that pissed people off. David Axelrod, senior adviser to President Obama at the time, was in the thick of it.


David Axelrod: I mean, remember, seven presidents had tried to pass something like the Affordable Care Act. Seven presidents had failed, and Barack Obama got it done. And that’s made a difference in the lives of tens of millions of Americans. So I don’t have a lot of patience for people who say: well, it wasn’t good enough. Let’s take the public option, for example. I remember that debate, and I remember people saying: well, you know, we shouldn’t be for this if there’s not a public option. Well, that’s fine, but then there wouldn’t have been an Affordable Care Act.


Jon Favreau: Obama originally proposed the plan with the public option, which would have allowed people to buy into a program just like Medicare. It was a great idea, would have lowered costs, would have forced private insurance companies to lower costs—Republicans hated it, called it a government takeover. And it scared some of the Senate Democrats away, which meant we didn’t have 60 votes to pass it, and a lot of other Democrats were pretty angry about that. Faiz Shakir, current National Political Director of the ACLU, former senior adviser for Harry Reid, captures this disappointment.


Faiz Shakir: I think that Obama of 2015, ’16 would look back at Obama of 2008 and 2009, 2010 and say: damn, I wish I had a second chance at that. He’s so much of a pragmatist, so locked into pragmatism that you’re operating in a political window of what is politically feasible, rather than constantly trying to exercise and challenge that window. The most obvious is Obamacare itself. Right? And the reflection on that one is how much he invested personally, and as a strategy, in a bipartisan approach. Imagine in retrospect, if on day one you come out guns blazing: we’re doing this damn thing, the reconciliation, I know I’m not going to get a single vote over there, public option is on the table.


Jon Favreau: Reconciliation is how they pass budgets in the Senate, and it only requires 51 votes instead of 60. Some senators, like Bernie Sanders, pushed Obama to pass the public option through reconciliation. But we didn’t even think we had 51 Democrats who were willing to do that. I think what they were worried about, and what Obama was probably worried about, was getting rid of that 60 vote rule to pass something as big and controversial as the public option. Eight years later, this has not stopped Trump in the Republican Congress from using reconciliation to try to repeal Obamacare, and pass a gigantic tax cut. But I digress. After a year of trying, and multiple near-death experiences, we ended up with the bill that would eventually cover 20 million Americans, and end some of the insurance industry’s worst practices, like discriminating against people with preexisting conditions. But it was a messy process, and a messy compromise, and we knew it would take a while for people to feel the benefits of this law.


Theda Skocpol: I think that the Affordable Care Act was the greatest triumph of the Obama-era Democratic Party, but it was a terrible political failure.


Jon Favreau: Theda Skocpol, political scientist and professor at Harvard University.


Theda Skocpol: After a year and a half of working on all of the details of a complex piece of legislation, they were all completely attuned to the leaves on each tree, and no longer had much of a sense of the shape of the forest. And I heard many, many Democrats say to me: it’s too complex to explain. But the other side was attacking the entire concept of the law.


Jon Favreau: Thomas Edsall, columnist for The New York Times, agrees.


Thomas Edsall: The Republican Party was able to twist and turn, especially on the Obamacare issue, and turn Obamacare into a real liability for the party.


[voice clip] Anyone over the age of 74 has to go before what is effectively a death panel.




[overlapping voice clips] And what you’re going to give us is the care of Zambia . . . I’m tired of looking at the TV and screaming and seeing what’s going on their country . . .  this whole Obama administration is unconstitutional . . . we do not need socialized medicine at any time., we need to have freedom of choice . . . he’s raising taxes like crazy and we need freedom, we didn’t vote for this health care that he planned . . . it’s not about health care, it’s about controlling the American people, it’s as simple as that, that’s what they’re doing . . .


[chants] No more Obamacare.


Jon Favreau: I remember that during one of the many moments where it seemed like the Affordable Care Act was going to fall apart, a few of President Obama’s advisers argued that he should pull the bill. They told him that if he didn’t give up on the ACA and try to pass something smaller and more incremental, his approval ratings would tank and he might lose reelection in 2012. And Obama turns to them and he says: you know, I didn’t come here to put my approval ratings up on a shelf to admire, I came here to govern, I came here to do the hard things, and if trying to do the hard things makes me a one-term president, so be it. And that’s how he governed, especially in those first few years. He knew the political situation he was in. We all did. Worst economy since the Great Depression. People on the left angry that Obama didn’t do more to punish the banks, a well-funded, organized, energized Tea Party on the right. And then you throw a universal health care bill into the mix. Good times. Here’s David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager and senior adviser, to sum it all up.


David Plouffe: Listen, crappy economy—people were feeling no better by Election Day ’10 than they were on Election Day ’08. So you’re going to own all that. You pass health care, you passed Wall Street reform, you try and pass Cap and Trade—so voters are seeing a lot of government activism and they had a hard time squaring that with how that’s helping me.


Jon Favreau: So, yeah, it was a pretty shitty place to be in heading into an election.


[clip of Anderson Cooper] In any midterm election, of course, it’s common for the party in power to lose seats. But tomorrow, Democrats could be looking at historic losses.


[clip of CNN] We now project the Republicans in the next Congress will be the majority.


[news clip] Look at the swath of red, a sweep, just a bloodbath for the Democrats in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and out through the West. This is just the House of Representatives . . . You cannot underestimate how much change in America is now colored red.


[clip of President Obama] As the head of the party, if it doesn’t do well, I’ve got to take responsibility for it.


Jon Favreau: Midterm elections are almost always pretty bad for the incumbent president’s party. Still, 2010 was even worse than we imagined. Democratic turnout was low, especially among young voters, and Republicans ran the table. They won 63 House seats, the most in a single election since 1938. They won five Senate seats, and 680 state legislative seats, giving Republicans full control of 25 state legislatures. Worst of all, they won these seats in a census year, which meant that Republicans would get to gerrymander the shit out of congressional districts all over the country, and basically lock in their House majority for years to come. It was a brutal loss for us. And since Republicans were hell bent on obstructing even the most bipartisan policies from Obama, the new Congress made it nearly impossible for the president to pass any big legislation on the economy or anything else. Politics after 2010 felt more polarized and divided than ever before. A big part of the opposition from the right was their usual big-government-coming-to-steal-your-freedom-type stuff. But from the moment Obama started running for president, and especially from the moment he won, there was also something else. Something that seems a lot more obvious from where we sit now.


[ad break]


Jon Favreau: To recap, Democrats really shit the bed in the 2010 midterms. People were still suffering from the recession and Obamacare wasn’t popular, but none of these factors fully explain the deepening divide between Democrats and Republicans in the Obama era. To find some answers, I talked to:


Lynn Vavreck: Lynn Vavreck.


Jon Favreau: Lynn’s a professor of political science and communication at UCLA, and a contributing writer to The Upshot at The New York Times.


Lynn Vavreck: People are sorting themselves into the political parties in a more efficient way than they ever have before. So if you’re a liberal, you have figured out: I should be a Democrat. So liberals are slowly figuring out they belong in the Democratic Party, and conservatives are slowly figuring out they belong in the Republican Party. So part of it is that sorting that is still happening from the wake of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in the South. But the second part of it is contemporary. And you could make a good case that the election and presidency of Barack Obama was a very clear signal to people about what a Democrat and therefore the Democratic Party was quote unquote “for.” And so we’ve got this long-time series on this question: which of the parties is more likely to help Blacks in America? And the results are pretty stable over time, but after the election of Barack Obama you see that people are much better at figuring out that it’s the Democratic Party that’s more likely to help Blacks in America. It was because of who he is. He was a Black man in the White House. And that was informative to a lot of people who didn’t really think too hard about what the Democratic Party stood for before. You can just see it in the data. It’s a shift. It is the election of that man.


Jon Favreau: Yeah. So that’s tough to hear. But it’s in the data. And it’s also the book-end to the history we learned about in episode one. From the moment LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act in 1964, we start to see Southern and conservative whites leave the Democratic Party. And partly it’s because many Republican politicians tell them, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that Democratic policies favor people of color over whites. And even though this country finally elects its first Black President, Obama’s rise to power only accelerates that trend.


Adam Serwer: I think a lot of white Americans experienced his presidency as a kind of psychic wound to their pride.


Jon Favreau: This is Adam Serwer, deputy politics editor at The Atlantic.


Adam Serwer: All these issues that were not necessarily racialized to begin with, became racialized under Obama because they were associated with a Black president. They think—in Michael Tesler’s book, he says that opinions about Portuguese water dogs became racialized because of the Obamas pet dog. The fact of him being the first Black president, the fact of him having a Muslim father and his middle name being Hussein, and the fact that his father was not a citizen—all these factors about his identity became extremely salient parts of the narrative against him that you would see in conservative media, and in some cases, you know, from conservative legislators.


[voice clip] Donald Trump says Obama wasn’t born here.


[news clip] Fox put up a graphic that referred to Michelle as Senator Obama’s, quote “baby mama”—


[voice clip] A fist bump, a pound, a terrorist fist jab—the gesture everyone seems to interpret differently.


[voice clip] The headline was: Obama’s Hip Hop Barbecue Didn’t Create Jobs.


[voice clip] I didn’t realize that was supposed to happen.


[voice clip] Hopefully, while they were gathered, they passed one of those great old big hats that one of the hip hop pals wore, so that way everyone could empty their pockets and open their checkbooks.


Adam Serwer: Those stories not only said something about Obama, but it said something about those communities and who was hurting them, who was harming them and who they should feel threatened by. And this all shaped Republicans’ understandings of who they are and their relationship to the coalition that elected Obama.


Van Jones: I think people forget the majority of white people in America voted against Obama both times.


Jon Favreau: That’s Van Jones, political commentator and former special advisor to President Obama for green jobs.


Van Jones: The majority of white people in every state but four, voted against Obama both times. The majority of white people in California voted against Obama both times. This idea that: well, we elected a Black president so anything else we do—well no. WE elected a Black president and some white folks helped. But that’s not the same.


Jon Favreau: The president tried as hard as he could to navigate this reality during his time in office. He didn’t want to ignore racial conflict, but he was often careful not to say or do anything to inflame it. I always thought the writer Ta-Nahisi Coates put it best when he said “For eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell. Nothing in that time suggested that straight talk on the facts of racism in American life would have given him surer footing.” The truth is Obama never stopped being the guy from that 2004 convention speech who said:


[clip of President Obama] There is not a Black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America, there’s the United States of America.


Jon Favreau: That’s how he walked on that ice. It’s how he approached governing and campaigning. So when the 2012 election comes along and the Republicans and the Republican media want to make it about Obama, Obama does everything he can to make the campaign about a choice between two economic visions for the future. From the very beginning, he says that the defining challenge of our time is the growing economic inequality that hurts middle-class people, working-class people, poor people of all races everywhere.


[clip of President Obama] The market will take care of everything they tell us: if we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes, especially for the wealthy, our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say: there will be winners and losers, but if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. But here’s the problem, it doesn’t work.


Jon Favreau: The winner of the Republican primary, Mitt Romney, ends up being the perfect foil for Obama’s message. He’s this private equity guy who’s proposing all these tax cuts for the rich, and he comes off as out of touch at a time when people in both parties were still pretty pissed off about Wall Street’s role in the financial crisis. We really couldn’t have asked for a better opponent.


[clip of interviewer] Anyone who has questions about the distribution of wealth and power in this country, is envious, is it about jealousy or is it about fairness?


[clips of Sen. Mitt Romney] You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare. I think when you have a president . . . I’m in this race because I care about Americans, I’m not concerned about the very poor, we have a safety net there . . . there are 47% of the people who are dependent upon government . . . and so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them.


Jon Favreau:  During the campaign, Obama always used to say: that if we won this one, it would break the fever in Washington. The idea being that if we beat the Republicans by a healthy margin, it would force them to rethink their obstruction strategy and that maybe they’d start cooperating.


[news clip] President Obama has won a second term as president of the United States.


[clip of President Obama] The task of perfecting our union moves forward. We are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.  [cheers]


Jon Favreau: Well, he certainly won, but the fever only got worse. Thomas Edsall sums it up.


Thomas Edsall: Well, basically, politics has become a form of tribal warfare on both sides. People see the enemy in very negative terms. There is no empathy for the adversary. That’s a very dangerous position to put yourself in.




[voice clip] If you did some homework and do some studying, you can see he’s a radical communist, and he like, and he’s a basic Muslim, and health care will just turn—this is a stepping stone for takeover by communism, like Hitler did in Germany.




[voice clip] Do you believe that the federal government has a right to exist in to government lives—


[response] If it has the right to exist, but not in the form it exists today. It’s operating outside—


[voice clip] Do you believe the EPA should be disbanded?


[response] I think it does a lot more harm than good.


[voice clip] When your wife goes into a restroom, you assume the only other people going into that restroom is going to be a person of the same gender.


[voice clip] I really felt that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was wrong.


[voice clip] [unclear] is against God and against humanity.


[chanting] We are standing here together, making Democracy. Enacting the phrase, “We the people.”


[voice clip] The Koch brothers are selling off our state, they’re cutting wages, they’re shipping [unclear] low wages and un-benefited jobs.


[voice clip] Abortion is the greater evil things than slavery.


[voice clip] Shush me.


[voice clip] I just did.


[voice clip man 1] So why do you carry that flag?


[voice clip man 2] Because this is my heritage. My family fought to save their farm under this flag.


[voice clip man 1] Who was working that farm? My ancestors were.


[voice clip man 2] My family was! They were poor! Do you know how much a slave cost back then?


[voice clip guy 1] What is this golden year that Republicans want to go back to? What year? The 60s, the 70s?


[voice clip guy 2] I don’t, I don’t want to go back to that technology, but I want to go back to that level of freedom. I want—


[voice clip guy 1] The level of freedom for who?


[voice clip guy 2] For everybody.


[voice clip guy 1] —couldn’t vote at some point. African-Americans and others had to ride in the back of the bus.


[voice clip guy 2] I’m telling you.


[voice clip guy 1] You want to go back there? We don’t want to go back there.




Jon Favreau: Like I said before, when it comes to the Obama presidency, I’m anything but a neutral observer. Of course we made mistakes. Of course there are things we could have done better. I also wonder how the Obama of 2016 would have approached the early years of his presidency. But by the end of 2016, his approval rating was around 50 in a pretty divided country. The economy was finally improving and creating lots of jobs. And after Obama won in 2012, which was a worse economy, a lot of us felt that even though partisanship and polarization were as bad as ever, the demographics of the country as a whole were moving in an unmistakably progressive direction, and that Obama might actually become the first two-term president since Reagan to be followed by a successor of the same party. Well, we fucked that one up. And now as we look back on all the political, economic and racial turmoil that Obama’s Democratic Party was able to navigate but not solve, the question a lot of us keep asking over and over is how did we not see this coming?


[clip of Donald Trump] You know, all of my life I’ve heard that a truly successful person, a really, really successful person, and even modestly successful, cannot run for public office. Just can’t happen. And yet that’s the kind of mindset that you need to make this country great again. So, ladies and gentlemen, I am officially running for president of the United States and we are going to make our country great again. [applause, chants]


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 Alison 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.