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October 15, 2022
Pod Save America
“Obama’s Advice For Democrats.”

In This Episode

Barack Obama sits down for his first major interview of the midterm season to talk about the state of democracy here and abroad, the escalating situation in Iran and the ongoing war in Ukraine, and how Democrats can appeal to the broadest coalition of voters.

 

Full Transcript:

Favreau: Well, welcome back to Pod Save America. Thanks for doing this. 

Obama: It is great to be with you guys. Good to see you. 

Dan: All right we’re gonna start with the midterms.

Obama Of course.

Dan  Because we’re getting serious here. 

Obama Yes. 

Dan So these midterms, like 2010, are happening in, what we would say a suboptimal economic environment. But sort of unlike 2010, Democrats have a handful of pretty powerful arguments that seem to be moving voters about who Republicans are.  On one hand you got a bunch of Big Lie believing insurrectionists. So that’s one argument. Another argument is about extremism on abortion, gay marriage, contraception, et cetera. 

Obama Right. 

Dan And then also: Republicans who want to get back to Congress to cut taxes for the wealthy, pay for it by cutting Social Security and Medicare. You’re about to get out on a campaign trail.

Obama Yeah. 

Dan: Do you think there’s a way to sort of weave those things into one narrative about the stakes in this election? 

Obama: Well, look, I think the first and most important issue is: Are we going to preserve and hopefully strengthen our democracy? That’s sort of a baseline question. And I believe that given how at least Republican officials have behaved, they increasingly are willing to subvert basic democratic procedures, right?

Like, let’s count votes. Let’s make sure that people are allowed to vote. Let’s make sure that whoever gets the most votes has the most seats. And that if they get the most votes in Congress that you can pass laws, right? Basic stuff like that they don’t increasingly seem to believe in. And, and so that’s the sense of urgency that I have.

Now, I think for the average voter out there, we can talk about specific issues that are important to them. And this has been a long term battle that we’ve been having between Democrats and Republicans. And that is, do we create the kind of economy that gives everybody a fair shot? And that grows the economy in a way that is good for not just a few, but the many.

And the great thing that I think we have going for us is, is that even with really slim majorities, what we’ve shown is, is that we can deliver. You know, the Biden Administration has accomplished a lot. You’ve got a historic infrastructure bill that’s gonna help rebuild America and create jobs all across the country.

You’ve got the Inflation Control Act that has lowered prescription drug prices, has made sure that healthcare is even more affordable through the ACA, that is looking at lowering energy costs. You’ve got a gun bill that is the first major piece of gun safety legislation that we’ve seen in 30 years.

You know, across the board, what we’ve seen is that when Democrats have a working majority, or even really slim majority in Congress, they can make people’s lives better. And so, you know, if you combine the deep concerns about our democracy with the concrete accomplishments that this administration had been able to deliver, because we had a narrow majority in both the House and the Senate, that should be enough to inspire people to get out. 

Now, there’s one last piece of business that I think has been on a lot of people’s minds, and that’s Dobbs, right? The overturning of Roe versus Wade. Because what that also indicates is that a lot of rights that we’ve taken for granted— one through enormous struggle and mobilization over the last 40, 50 years– those aren’t rights that we can take for granted.

You know, if Roe versus Wade can be overturned, then it’s likely that a significant part of this Supreme Court is less concerned about issues of privacy and personal freedom generally, which means that LGBTQ rights can be at risk. It means that you know, basic precepts about, you know, the state staying out of how we think about family and relationships, that those are all called into question.

And you know, it’s been interesting talking to, I think, a lot of young people who– even though they thought–  even though they were frustrated with the lack of progress in some areas, they had never gone through the experience of seeing us go backwards on a big issue. And it’s a reminder that democracy is fragile.

That you have to tend to it, you have to fight for it. And this midterm election, I think, is going to be a moment in which, you know, that battle has to be joined, and that means people have to turn up. 

Favreau: So Donald Trump has made himself a central character in these midterms? 

Obama He has. 

Favreau He has. He’s made it pretty clear he wants to run again. Even if he doesn’t, he’s clearly remade the Republican party in his image. What lessons have you learned in the last couple of years about how we can defeat not only Trump, but Trumpism, long term? 

Obama: Well, the thing that I think sometimes we seem to make a mistake on is his behavior can be so outrageous. And now, folks who try to copy him and his outrageous behaviors, get a lot of attention. And so we join that game. And we spend enormous amounts of time and energy and resources pointing out the latest, crazy thing he said, or you know, how rude or mean, you know, some of these Republican candidates behaved. That’s probably not something that, in the minds of most voters, override their basic interests: Can I pay the rent? What are gas prices? How am I dealing with childcare, et cetera. Right? And I think we saw in 2016, understandably, because we hadn’t seen some of that behavior before, we thought, well— you know. 

Favreau Yeah. 

Obama If we point that out, that’s gonna be enough. 

Favreau Yeah. 

Obama Right. And, and I think that what we all should have learned over the last several years is that, it is an advantage for our candidates to be decent and thoughtful and well informed and all those things. And I think, uh, we’ve done a great job recruiting tremendous candidates for Senate, Governor’s races, on down the ballot. So that helps. Right? And, that should give us an advantage. But we shouldn’t assume that in any given election it’s a character test alone. We are going to have to engage in the issues, and make very concrete arguments to people that– look, if you have a Democratic majority, then you are more likely to make sure that, you know, you’re getting paid the living wage, and that you have basic protections on the job. And that, if you’re still going to school, that it’s gonna be affordable.

And, you know, if, uh, you get a job that doesn’t give you healthcare on the job that you’re gonna be able to afford to get healthcare through the Affordable Care Act, and the subsidies are gonna be ones that allow you to keep some money in your pocket. You know, those are the kinds of arguments I think that ultimately we still have to make, even when, just by how we act and how we behave, we’re also modeling, you know, a better way of doing politics. 

Favreau: So one challenge that the Democratic Party has had since you left office is we keep doing worse with voters who don’t have a college degree. 

Obama Right. 

Favreau And at first it was white voters.

Obama Right. 

Favreau And the theory behind that was, perhaps racial resentment was driving that.

Obama Right.

Favreau: Now we’re seeing Latino voters without college degrees leaving the party, or voting Republican, and even some black voters as well. 

Obama Right.

Favreau The New York Times just ran a story about the 250-page unpublished manuscript that you wrote in law school.

Obama: Yes. This was very random. (laughter)

Favreau That’s amazing. I didn’t know that-

Obama: Isn’t that—- the one thing you guys know about me, I’ve been pretty consistent. You know, I–

Favreau: That’s what I took away from reading it, and reading the story about it is you basically argue that Democrats need to make appeals that are based more on class than race if you want to build a durable majority. How do you think about that in light of the party’s current predicament today? 

Obama: Look, I mean, I– I have watched with great pride this country become more aware of the force of racism and sexism and homophobia in everyday life. And I think that movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter have changed the culture in all kinds of positive and powerful ways.

You know, speaking as somebody who’s got two black daughters, right. I want them to feel as if, as they move through the world, that they’re not having to put up with a bunch of nonsense that if I had a white son, which biologically might be difficult, you know, that they’d be treated fairly right?

But I also think that when we’re talking about putting together, as you said, durable majorities, we have to be able to speak to everybody about their common interests and what works for, I think, everybody, is the idea of basic equal treatment and fairness. That’s an argument that’s compatible with progress on social issues, and is compatible with economic issues.

I think where we get into trouble sometimes is when we try to suggest that some groups are more— because they historically have been victimized more, that somehow they have a status that’s different than other people, and that we’re going around scolding folks if they don’t use exactly the right phrase. Or you know, that identity politics becomes the principle lens through which we view our various political challenges.

And to me, I think, that, for a lot of average folks, ends up feeling as if: you’re not speaking to me and my concerns, or for that matter, my kid’s concerns and their future. It feels as if I’m being excluded from that conversation rather than brought into a conversation. And so that’s something that we all have to be mindful of and cautious about.

But, I want to emphasize here, you know, throughout my presidency, there was never a time in which we shied away from making strong arguments on behalf of groups that had been historically subjugated in this country. And we didn’t ignore history. But there was always an invitation to people to say: You know what, I think all of us, regardless of what your status is, want fairness, and want equality, and want your sons or daughters to be treated fairly, and with respect and dignity. And the more we’re leaning into those arguments, and the less we’re leaning into an argument that says: we’re deserving of consideration, and “you guys” are the problem, however you want to frame “you guys.” Yeah. I think most people don’t want to be lectured to in that way. And I think that can cause us some difficulties. 

Lovett: So, one thing that’s also happened is we’ve seen Republicans try to take advantage of this kind of damage to the Democratic brand in some way. And in the last few elections we’ve seen that Democratic policies, like Medicaid expansion, raising the minimum wage– those things have like a 15 point advantage over Democratic politicians who would want to pass them.

Obama: Right. 

Lovett: What do you see as the– I mean, you just talked a little bit about it– But like, how do we close that gap? Right? How do we, how do we get people to listen? They seem to be more able to listen and get past polarization and misinformation when it’s on the policies, not the politician.

Obama: Well, I think it is connected to what we just talked about. And listen, I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that what Republicans and conservative media have done very cleverly is to find whatever the most outrageous examples of overwrought cancel culture is. And they’ll flash it on the screen as if this is the Democratic party platform. And– because they understand this dynamic that we just talked about, right?

The message they sell day-in-day-out is: these effete coastal liberals are looking down on you and think you’re stupid. And so as a consequence, whatever they say they don’t mean it because all they care about is keeping you down and lifting themselves up. And so in light of the fact that that is constantly in the air that Republicans breathe and voters oftentimes are exposed to, you know, we gotta bend over backwards sometimes to counteract that in order to get people to hear about policy. And I think there’s a, there’s a reason why a guy like Fetterman in Pennsylvania has done well among voters that some other Democrats might not have done well with. Because he comes off as a regular guy, right?

And every once in a while he says something that is a little, you know, off script. If, if he was given a speech at, you know, on a college campus, people might be, you know, aghast. And that’s a good thing. That’s a healthy thing, right? And, you know, I’m not suggesting—-  You know, every candidate has to be themselves and you know, nothing’s worse, as we’ve all seen in the past, of folks trying to, you know, be “down with the people” and, you know– (laughter).

Lovett: I think it rules. I love it. I love it when they try. 

Obama: It’s a little awkward and stiff. But all of you guys were also, you know, with us when we were on campaigns, you know, I was in places that a lot of folks thought I could not get votes because of my biography. But I think what people sensed was, oh, this guy relates to us, right? He gets us.  And that quality is something that I think Democrats have to embrace and claim, and, and I think we do get into trouble. Look, I used to get into trouble whenever, as you guys know well, whenever I got a little too professorial and, you know, when I was behind a podium as opposed to when I was in a crowd, there were times where I’d you know, sound like I was given a bunch of policy gobbly gook. And that’s not how people think about these issues. They think about them in terms of, you know, the life I’m leading day to day. How does politics, how is it even relevant to the things that I care most deeply about? My family, my kids, work that gives me satisfaction, having fun, not being a buzzkill, right?

Obama: And sometimes Democrats are,  right? You know, sometimes, people just want to not feel as if they are walking on eggshells. And they want some acknowledgement that life is messy and that all of us at any given moment can say things the wrong way, make mistakes. Michelle talks about her mother-in-law, or her mother, my mother-in-law, who is a extraordinary woman. But as Michelle points out, she’s 86, you know, and sometimes trying to get the right phraseology when we’re talking about issues, Michelle’s like, that’s like her trying to learn Spanish.

Obama: It doesn’t mean she shouldn’t try to learn Spanish, but it means that sometimes she’s not gonna get the words right. And that’s okay, right? And that attitude, I think, of just being a little more real and a little more grounded is something that I think goes a long way in counteracting what is the systematic propaganda that I think is being pumped out by Fox News and all these other outlets all the time.

Lovett: Do you remember, I don’t know if you know this, but we used to joke that you would always insist on saying that the Recovery Act was divided into three parts. And we  used to think, Oh no, he’s going down :The Recovery Act is divided into three parts” thing  again…

Obama:  I feel terrible about that now.  You know, I’m sure that’s why we got clobbered in 2010.

Favreau: I just want you guys to know that we talked about that in the last interview that we did at the White House . 

Tommy:  Oh, man. 

Lovett: It’s been a long time. 

Obama: Clearly Lovett has been traumatized by this whole thing, he still has PTSD. 

Lovett: I think about it sometimes. 

Tommy: It’s funny, you brought up Fetterman. I mean, Fetterman saw something in your campaign in 2008 because I think he was the only elected official in Western PA that endorsed us. 

Obama: That’s exactly right.

Tommy: What do you like about him? Is it the look?

Obama: Words like authenticity get overused, but the thing I love about Fetterman, and you see it in a lot of our other candidates, is you feel as if when you’re talking to them that you’re having a normal conversation and they have some sense of how the rest of America lives, right? 

Favreau: Not a lot to ask, is it? 

Obama: It’s pretty basic. Right? You feel as if, if that guy walked into a diner, sat down and you started just talking about whatever issues came to mind, that you might not agree with everything he said, but you’d feel as if he had a point of view that was informed by his real life experiences, that he was honest about what he believed, that he’d be open to potentially changing his mind if you made a good argument, that there are certain values that he cares about and that he cares about people. 

Now why it is that those qualities don’t seem to always apply to successful Republican candidates, what’s going on there? I don’t know exactly. But I suspect, and I’ve talked to you guys about this before, it’s the degree to which conservative media just has a lock on how people are presented and, and sort of the dominant narratives there  are so powerful that people will vote for DeSantis even if I’m not sure that they would really have a great time….

Dan: He does not seem like a lot of fun. 

Obama: Hanging out with that guy…

Lovett:  I think that’s gonna be a problem for him. It’s gonna be a problem for him. 

Tommy: Weird robot. 

Lovett: You can’t just sound like Trump.

Favreau: Doing Trump without the charisma? 

Tommy: Yeah. He’s a real piece of work. Um, if you guys will forgive me, I want just a couple international questions.

Obama: Yeah man, look, you know you count too, you matter. 

Tommy: I appreciate that

Favreau:  As seamless as the transition in the State of the Union. As we are strong at home, so are we strong in the world. And we’re off. 

Dan: Two things then to back the economy. 

Obama: You get two lines, you’re fighting this battle.

Tommy:  Listen, thank god for Ben. Um, I saw that you and Michelle, put out a statement in support of the Iranian protestors earlier this week. I was just wondering why you thought it was important to weigh in, and if you think there’s lessons we can learn from the Green Movement in 2009 or the Arab Spring, about which of these democratic movements succeed and fail and why?

Obama: I think  there’s no way to predict how this plays out. And one thing we all learned through the Arab Spring, the Green Movement in Iran and a lot of other places is that you can’t underestimate the power of just sheer force and violence, sadly, and the repressive mechanisms that a government like Iran has in place. But there are a couple of conclusions we can draw from. Number one, is that there is deep dissatisfaction with the Iranian regime. 

Number two, that women in particular are chafing under a series of not just systematic discrimination against women and subjugation of women, but also an arbitrariness and a cruelty beneath that’s exercised by the state against women, which has made them essentially say, we’re fed up, we’re tired of this. And that’s extraordinarily powerful. Whether it ends up bringing about fundamental change in that regime, I think is hard to predict. But the one thing that, you know, when I think back to 2009, 2010, you guys will recall there was a big debate inside the White House about whether I should publicly affirm what was going on with the Green Movement, because a lot of the activists were being accused of being tools of the West and there was some thought that we were somehow gonna be undermining their street cred in Iran if I supported what they were doing. And in retrospect, I think that was a mistake. 

Every time we see a flash, a glimmer of hope, of people longing for freedom, I think we have to point it out. We have to shine a spotlight on it. We have to express some solidarity about it. That doesn’t mean by the way that the administration is– that a US administration shouldn’t be taking a bunch of other equities into account.

Obama: They have to, a president has to, right?  So I continue to believe that the Iran Nuclear Deal was a really important thing for us to do to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Had we not had that in place, I think Iran would’ve had a nuclear weapon by now. 

Tommy: Well, look how well it’s gone since we pulled out.

Obama: Exactly, right? So you still have to make decisions, often very difficult about are there places where you do business with a government that is repressive? And that’s the job of a president and an administration facing a complicated world. But our moral response to the incredible courage that is taking place in Iran and and those women and girls who are on the streets knowing that they’re putting themselves in harm’s way to speak truth to power, you know, we have to affirm what they do and hope that it brings about more space for the kind of civic conversation that over time can take that country down a better path.

Tommy: Speaking of brutal repressive governments, it’s been eight months, nine months since Putin launched this invasion in Ukraine. I think everyone’s been impressed with the way the Ukrainians have fought, how effectively they fought. I’ve been impressed with how much Europe has actually stepped up and supported them.

Tommy: The flip side of that success though, is the fact that it appears that Russia is losing, or at least losing ground. Putin is getting pushed further into the corner. So I’m just wondering if you have thoughts for people who are watching this. They’re inspired by the Ukrainian resistance. They want them to defend their country successfully, but they’re also pretty nervous about continued escalation and this chatter about Russia using a nuclear weapon.

Obama: I think what the Ukrainian people have accomplished is extraordinary and it’s a testimony to not just the courage of a few soldiers, but this is a entire nation mobilizing in the face of extraordinary odds, and making tremendous sacrifices. And Zelensky himself has risen to the moment in a way that his biography would not have necessarily anticipated, right? So, at the end of the day, it is not our job to tell the Ukrainians, when is it enough, how far should they go, what concession should they make, etc. That’s up to them. As their allies, it is important for us to support them financially, militarily, through our intelligence. 

We do however, have to be clear and honest with them about what we can and cannot do. And there are lines that we have to determine internally, the US, NATO, and others that take into account the risk of this tipping into a Russia/ US/NATO conflict as opposed to a Russia/Ukraine conflict. I’m not privy to enough of the intelligence at this stage and it’s not my job as a private citizen to weigh in on where that line should be drawn, but as we’re thinking about, for example, what weapons we’re sending in or how we’re approaching our support for Ukraine, I think thinking about where defense stops and offense begins and how we manage that, is something that we have to pay attention to. 

And I do think, you know, probably the thing that I’m most concerned about is that lines of communication between the White House and the Kremlin are probably as weak as they have been in a very long time. Even in some of the lowest points of the Cold War, there was still a sense of the ability to pick up a phone and work through diplomatic channels to send clear signals. And a lot of that is broken down and I don’t think it’s the fault of our administration.

Obama: I think that we’re now dealing with a type of Russian regime that is actually even more centralized, even more isolated and closed off. I think Putin has consolidated decision making to a degree that we haven’t seen even during the Soviet era and I think creates some dangerous…and us finding ways in which some of that communication can be reestablished, I think would be important.

Lovett: As we defend democratic values abroad, we defend them here at home. 

Obama: Oh, okay God, 

Lovett: We’re back. 

Obama: I mean, that I think was a little better, I have to admit.

Lovett: Right, so, one of these you’ve said since leaving office is it’s your job to kind of step back and allow a new generation of leaders to emerge. Did you intend on that to be the silent generation?

Obama: (Laughs) All right. So you were just saving that joke basically?

Lovett: Yes. Hyped up . 

Lovett: No the real question is, you know, when we talked a couple years ago, you pointed to young people that you were excited about. Are there young leaders that are inspiring to you, exciting to you that you’re seeing?

Obama: Yeah, look,  you know, one of the things I want to emphasize in this midterm is the importance of looking not just at the top of the ballot, but all the way down the bottom, because there are Governor’s races, Secretary of States races, state legislative races that are gonna really matter. 

When we talk about how are we going to preserve democracy, particularly at a time when the current Supreme Court, to put it charitably does not seem as invested in overseeing and stopping monkey business at the local level, it becomes that much more important for us to make sure that we’ve got quality candidates and we’re supporting them and we’re turning out for them at every level. Because it may turn out that in a close presidential election at some point, certification of an election in a key swing state may be at issue. And, it’s gonna be really important that we have people there who play it straight. So I’ve seen a lot of talent that, you know there’s a gap between the talent that’s coming up. A lot of them are 40 and under. And then we have our national leadership that..

Dan: ..that is over 40. 

Obama: Is over 40. And, you know why that gap exists? We can speculate, but the good news is I think there are a lot of talented members of Congress, young people, and I don’t wanna…the problem is if I start naming somebody 

Lovett: Yeah, Yeah. 

Tommy: The worst. 

Obama: Wow, you left me out. So, I don’t want to do that. But, if you look at the talent that’s in Congress right now, young dynamic folks who are willing to shake things up, it’s really impressive. And, you know, it’s just gonna be a matter of them continuing on the path they’re on and then making that leap, where they start getting national attention.

Obama: I think it’s a little harder now, to break out nationally than it was even when I was running. I mean, I give one keynote address and suddenly I’m pretty well known nationally. I’m not sure, and obviously the last one was during Covid so we may not have tested this proposition yet, but whether with the splintering of the media, that’s still possible.

Obama: Right? And so one of the things that I’m hoping to do over the next several years is in between elections maybe bring together some of this talent and see how I can lift them up and support them. And you know, cause turns out I still have, like, a lot of Twitter followers, and that’s more than some people, although I don’t really talk about it all the time.

Lovett: Why, why do you think Gen X didn’t run? Do you think it was grunge? What do you think happened? They just, they just sat the whole thing out. It’s weird. It’s a little weird.

Obama: It’s a little weird. There you go.

Dan:  All right, you done? 

Lovett: Yeah, I’m done. I was supposed to keep it loose. 

Dan: You’re, you’re doing a great job. Um, you brought up the Supreme Court. And in part for the very reasons you say the Supreme Court is now held at its lowest esteem in history. Polls show that there’s tremendous distrust, voters say it’s rigged, it’s political, it doesn’t represent the majority. Are you open to some reforms to try to address that challenge? Is there something we can do about that? Cause we’re kind of stuck with this Supreme Court for a while.

Obama: I’m open to it. I think it has to be thought through. One of the arguments we made at the time when McConnell decided that to invent a new principle that he then breached later about Merick Garland and why the guy wouldn’t even get a hearing or a vote, is that if, if you start playing such explicit political games in the appointment process, it’s hard for people not to feel as if this is just an extension of day to day congressional politics, as opposed to, the Supreme Court stands above to some degree, those politics. And I think winning back that trust is gonna take some time. And I, and I’m not sure it’s even gonna be solved unless we solve some of the underlying polarization that we’ve been talking about earlier. Um, I know I’ve been talking for a long time about the fever breaking in the Republican Party.

Dan: [laughter] It’s on the Bingo card.

Lovett: It’s long polarization.

Obama: It’s long. That was good. I like that. 

Lovett: That was good. 

Obama: I’m under no illusions that some of those things are going to be fixed anytime soon, but I do think that if we reform the Supreme Court simply by figuring out ways to get more Democrats on there and stack it up, then it’s not gonna solve the legitimacy problem the Supreme Court, it’s just that we’ll win more cases for a while. Which as a partisan, as somebody who thinks there’s a right way to think about women’s reproductive health, that there’s a better way to think about you know equality for the LGBTQ plus community, you know, it would be, I would much prefer us winning five to four than losing six to three. 

But what I’d, I’d like even more is for us to find ways in which we can get to a point where Justices bring their own perspective to bear, but are willing to actually look at precedent and look at how society is moving and are making judgements not based on a bunch of rigid ideological criteria. Right. The last point I’d make on this, and, and this was actually weirdly in my, you know, law school paper that, that recently got, uh.

Tommy: You gotta publish that thing.

Obama: No, I will not.

Tommy: Put money in the bank.

Obama: But, I do think that it’s important for progressives not to count too much on the courts. One of the problems with Roe was that it did make, I think a lot of voters complacent figuring, eh, do I really have to trudge over and vote in some obscure midterm election? Cuz I know that the Supreme Court is protecting me when it comes to my right to choose. Right? And, and I think that we have to be mindful that even if we have an independent, thoughtful Supreme Court that’s not entirely ideologically driven, it’s still part of our democracy, it’s still reflective of our politics. 

You know, you have to still do the work on the ground of changing people’s hearts and minds and attitudes about issues because the Court generally follows societal trends more than it leads. It’s very rare where the court gets ahead of society in a significant way. It typically reacts in response and more often when it’s gotten ahead, by the way it’s done bad things rather than good things. Brown versus Board of Education, Roe versus Wade, may be two exceptions. But even after those decisions, right? It’s not as if the issue was settled and politics went away as we’ve just learned, right? So there’s no shortcuts here. We have to work, we have to get out, we have to vote, we have to be engaged in conversations, we have to reach into places where the majority of people don’t agree with us on these issues and we have to make a case. You know, that that work never stops. 

And, you know, the thing I worry most about during these midterms, and this happened throughout my presidency and pretty much every Democratic presidency, is that we, our democratic voters get real hyped up around presidential races, and we lose interest a lot of times during midterms, and then we’re puzzled as to, well, why isn’t more stuff happening? You know? And then we use the fact that more stuff isn’t happening as an excuse to not vote again in the midterms. And look, anybody who’s listening to your podcast, I’m preaching to the choir, I’m assuming. But, for those of you who are listening and have friends whose attitude is, you know, I’m so progressive that I don’t bother voting because, you know, it’s all just a neoliberal plot. Keep in mind that, let’s say the climate provisions in you know, the big Biden administration bill, they’re not gonna solve climate problems. 

The temperatures are still going up, the planet’s still warming. But, you know, it makes a big difference whether the planet goes up 2% or 3% or 4%. That might be billions of people who are displaced or not displaced. That might mean entire cities that are flooded or not. And, you know, may make a huge difference in terms of our capacity to manage these changes that are taking place. So if you vote and we’ve made it more likely that temperatures rise, 2.2% rather than 3%, that’s gotta be worth 15 minutes of your time. 

It has to be, you know, the same is true when it comes to issues like racial justice. Is your vote going to eliminate racism or problems between police and communities of color across the country? Probably not, but you know what? It could mean a different DA someplace. It could mean the difference in terms of making an investment in diversion programs that give kids a chance and don’t simply lock ’em up for 20 years. And that’s gotta be worth 15 minutes of your time and, and then you can continue to work, for you know, the broader vision that, that, uh, that you’re looking for. 

But I, you know, I do get frustrated with, um, an attitude that I’m too cool to vote that you, that you see floating around, um, the internet a lot among folks who purport to be progressive. And I can’t wrap my head around that argument because it’s not as if these folks who are, you know, on social media making this argument are out leading the revolution, right? They’re not, they’re on social media, they’re not knocking on doors. Well. They are not offering a plausible alternative course of action. This is the game we have, this is the power we have. And it turns out that that power is pretty significant. Will it get us all the way to the promised land? No, but that’s, you know, how things get better and, you know, not to, not to repeat myself, but better is good. 

Favreau: Better is good. Has the current political crisis that we’re in changed the way you are thinking about your post presidential role in public life?

Obama: It certainly changed the first four years, right. Where I was probably more active politically than I would’ve anticipated. I mean there, there’s, there’s a little bit of, I admire the, Cincinnatus, you know, George Washington going off, you know, I’m a private citizen now, kind of vibe.

Lovett: I always use the Cincinnatus reference as well.

Obama: But I thought that the stakes were high enough during the four years that my successor was in office that I was more vocal and still tried to pick and choose my spots, but was more engaged and involved. Obviously with Joe Biden in the White House now I’ve been trying to refocus my attention on this, what had always been my original intention, which is to focus on developing the next generation of leaders through the work we’re doing at the foundation. The one thing that probably I’m more attuned to now is trying to make sure that, as we’re working with young leaders through the foundation, that we’re maybe a little more explicit about the democratic values that are at stake. And I’m becoming more interested in working with folks, partnering with organizations that are experimenting with ways in which we can strengthen our democratic muscles, right? 

So, issues like misinformation and how do we create a social media environment in which facts and reason and logic at least have a shot. And go beyond sort of the 60% of the country that already occupies that space and is able to reach the 40% who consume most of their news through Fox or whatever the latest radio host is or podcaster is on the right. Because I know those folks. You look at a place like Iowa, right? And what’s changed there. It’s the same people, right? It’s not fundamentally different. They’re just getting a bunch of different information. And so the filter is so thick that if I were to go back into the exact same communities, it’d be a lot harder to get a hearing, right? 

And so how media works, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about what are the tools we can develop to crack that code. I think part of what we talked about earlier, you know, how do we think about pluralism and culture in a smarter way so that we preserve the gains and continue advance. How can we train folks, young leaders to be able to champion the rights of you know, racial minorities and people of different sexual orientations and women, but have a language that is inclusive and makes people feel as if we’re assuming the best in them and not the worst. Right? That becomes interesting to me. 

So I think I’m spending more time thinking about the building blocks of democracy and where we’ve seen it break down, you know, where have been the cracks in the foundation that need to be shored up and are there ways in which I can be helpful in shoring those up? And that’s, just to bring poor Tommy back into the conversation, that’s where I do think there, there is a through line between what’s happening here in the United States and countries around the world. I mean, you look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at the Italian election, you look at the recent French election, you look at, you know, these far right parties that are popping up in Scandinavia. And obviously Hungary’s, we’ve seen over the last several years. In all these places, right? 

What you’re seeing is that if you define democracy just as elections, that’s not enough. That there’s an infrastructure that has to be built and a set of values that have to be transmitted. And that how we thought about globalization and trade and immigration and all that stuff, that how, not in some cases the actual policies, but certainly how we communicated that to voters throughout some of the wealthiest countries in the world, didn’t work, didn’t connect, right? And, and you see this rise of strong men politics that is dangerous. And it’s, it’s, it’s not very different than what we’ve seen happening here through the Republican party. 

So, rather than just what elections can do, and the reason again, that I’m on with you jamokes is, you got an election coming up and you gotta vote. And, and so that’s the immediate short term response to these threats is you have to get people in there who believe in the basic precepts of democracy and care about working people. But over the long term, there are some of these structural issues that we have not addressed and there’s still a problem. So to the extent that I can be useful on that front, that’s what I care about. 

Favreau: I think you can be useful on that front. President Obama, thank you so much for, uh, sitting down with us.

Obama: This was good fun, guys. You know, I appreciate it. And uh, you know, you should invite me on more often. Please. 

Tommy: Please.  

Favreau: Open invitation.

Tommy: You wanna brainstorm this media stuff? We get a Zoom going? Just chat?

Obama: No, I’m not gonna do that. Alright guys, it was great to see you.