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Democracy Is 'Strained' But Not 'Broken,' Former President Obama Tells 'Fresh Air'

Former President Barack Obama speaks at a Biden-Harris drive-in rally in Miami on Oct. 24, 2020.
Chandan Khanna
AFP via Getty Images
Former President Barack Obama speaks at a Biden-Harris drive-in rally in Miami on Oct. 24, 2020.

Former President Barack Obama still has faith in the American system. Even as his successor, Donald Trump, refuses to acknowledge defeat in the recent presidential election, Obama maintains: "I don't believe democracy's broken."

"We just had record turnout," Obama says of the election. "Despite what the president is saying, you're seeing state officials run an orderly process, and even Republican officials who are responsible for counting votes [are] doing so in a way that reflects their integrity."

But, Obama adds, "There is no doubt that [democracy's] been strained."

Though Obama sees Trump as a major source of that strain, he notes that the problem is larger than one man: "What I was surprised by over the last four years is the complicity of other Republican elected officials and their unwillingness to call [Trump out] when he was breaking norms or straining some of our democratic institutions."

Obama reflects on his own journey to the Oval Office and the first four years of his presidency in the new memoir, A Promised Land. Though he sometimes misses the camaraderie and policy work of his White House years, he says the founders were wise to limit presidents to two terms.

"It is a healthy aspect of our democracy that you get eight years, at most, and then it's time for some fresh legs," he says.

Obama likens the presidency to a relay race: "You get the baton. You run your race, then you hand off the baton and all you have control over is that portion of the race that you run. And I could say unequivocally that the country was much better off by the time I finished my race than when I started."

Interview highlights

<em>A Promised Land</em> by Barack Obama
/ Crown
A Promised Land by Barack Obama

On the safeguards his administration had in place for a pandemic that the Trump administration ignored

We had set up a pandemic preparedness task force inside the White House, which involved various agencies, and they would do regular tabletop exercises to figure out how we're going to respond. We put together a pandemic playbook, which we actually gave to the incoming Trump administration, indicating here are the steps that you need to take, and if, in fact, this ends up being an airborne virus that is highly contagious, then, you know, the steps that are going to need to be taken in advance of any development of a vaccine, or any other kind of medical intervention, is wearing masks, social distancing, so forth and so on.

We had, around the world, set up a global security program in cooperation with other countries, so that when we saw a virus initially emerge, we'd have an early warning system. A number of the individuals we had assigned and [who] were in China had been pulled back, and the Trump administration had eliminated the task force that we had inside the White House, and apparently never read the playbook. ...

Any president would have had trouble with this pandemic. It is more virulent, more dangerous, more contagious than anything we've seen since the Spanish flu back in 1918. Even countries that have managed it well have still seen significant outbreaks. But Canada's a pretty good example of what [an] administration or a government that is following the science and the recommendations of epidemiologists can accomplish. Canada's death rate per capita is about 39% of what ours is — and that is tens of thousands of people who would not be dead if we had been as effective as Canada was in dealing with this disease.

On how it feels seeing some of his accomplishments undone by the Trump administration

You understand that in a democracy, some of the steps you take can be undone. ... You work out a little harder in the morning, you hit that treadmill a little tougher. Look, one of the things that is a strength of mine — I think sometimes maybe people consider it a weakness, because it frustrates them to see me not get more frustrated — is I tend to take the long view on things. And I try to remind myself that history does not just go forward. It goes sideways. It goes backwards sometimes. The path of progress is bumpy and there are going to be setbacks.

I try to remind myself that history does not just go forward. It goes sideways. It goes backwards sometimes. The path of progress is bumpy and there are going to be setbacks.

Look, the Civil War and the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments were followed by Jim Crow and the Klan and lynching. And that was horrific and heartbreaking. That didn't negate the importance of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. It just meant that you got this far along this trek up the mountain and you made base, and then bad weather comes in and you have to retreat a little bit and some bad stuff happens, but you keep on trying. And I think that's how I ended up feeling about what I got done during the presidency. I felt that we had advanced the causes that I care deeply about and that mattered to the American people. Not all of them were going to stick exactly the way I wanted. That didn't negate the importance of pushing to try to get that stuff done.

Even in those areas where Donald Trump completely reversed course, the fact [is] that we set a baseline — for example, that universal health care is something that the American people should expect — that changes the conversation going forward in ways that then the next bunch of climbers can build upon. At least that's what I tell myself. Now, look, do I occasionally curse when I'm reading the headlines over the last four years? Yes, I do. Have I had some venting or ranting on occasion with Michelle over the dinner table? Absolutely.

On the racist conspiracy perpetuated by the media (and Donald Trump) that he was born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to be president — and when he started to have to take it seriously

It seemed silly at first. It seemed silly in the middle and it seems silly at the end. But despite initially treating it as a bad joke, what I was forced to acknowledge was that it was consuming time and energy and bandwidth on my staff and that, ultimately, I ended up having to address it directly in the White House briefing room just to get it to stop so that we could get on with the business of discussing budgets and the Afghan war and other important issues. ...

It wasn't just the Fox Newses of the world or the Rush Limbaughs of the world that were amplifying this baseless and, ultimately, racist claim. It was mainstream media. I mean, some of the same folks who are very critical now of Donald Trump and have been critical throughout his presidency regularly had him on their show because he boosted ratings and they thought, "Well, this is a spectacle that attracts eyeballs." And that was frustrating to me. And it gave me a sense of the danger of, in this mass media environment, if somebody is willing and able to just consistently repeat a falsehood, particularly one that taps into maybe pre-existing anxieties that certain segments of the American people feel, then it can end up getting traction — and the Internet has made it even worse. ...

I think [former Breitbart chief and Trump adviser] Steve Bannon explicitly said we're just going to fill up the information pipeline with excrement and it'll get very cloudy. It doesn't really matter whether ultimately what we're saying is disproven, it creates confusion and uncertainty in the minds of voters, and that's enough for our purposes of getting power.

On his decision, as president, to not watch news coverage and not see how he was being portrayed in the media

Obama runs down a corridor with Bo, the family dog.
The White House / Getty Images
Getty Images
Obama runs down a corridor with Bo, the family dog.

For my own mental health, and I advised my family members to follow this same practice, I just didn't watch broadcast news of any sort or cable news of any sort. Very rarely did I watch it. ... ["In the barrel"] was a phrase we used to use when the media narrative turned south and you are tumbling over the falls, in the sense that all the news is bad. You can't get out of this cycle of people thinking that you're inept, that you're politically wounded, that your allies stop defending you quite as much, your enemies sense blood in the water. And what happens is that visually, the pictures that accompany the stories that are told about you on television start changing. ... Television is a visual medium more than anything else. So suddenly I noticed that in all the pictures that are being used of me, I look really old and somber and I'm more alone, whereas when things were going good, I'm smiling and I'm hugging babies and dogs running around and life looks good, birds are chirping over my head.

Probably there was a little bit of a disadvantage for me in not following as carefully what was going on on television. There would be moments during my presidency where there would be something I thought we were handling well and yet my press secretaries or communications folks would have to come and say, "Listen, this is a problem." And I'd say, "Well, why? I don't understand. Actually, we're doing everything we're supposed to do." And they were tracking how the media environment was telling the story. And I wasn't always as attuned to that as I probably would have been if I was a more regular television watcher.

On his temperament and if felt like he had to be cautious with his words or deeds because he's a Black man

There's a famous story about why Jackie Robinson was chosen by Branch Rickey to be the first Black Major League ballplayer — and it wasn't just because he was an outstanding baseball player. It was also because Rickey felt that Jackie Robinson had the temperament to keep his cool. And there was probably some element in how I operated that just has to do with my temperament. I'm not somebody who's quick to rise or gets too low. Some of that probably has to do with having been born in Hawaii. You don't have a lot of reason to complain if it's 80 degrees and sunny, the beach is close by. Part of it I attribute to my grandmother, who is a major character in this book and was a plainspoken, no-nonsense woman from Kansas who embodied, I think, a lot of that Midwestern stoicism and not fussing about stuff. And that's part of who I am.

Obama and Rep. John Lewis walk across across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Ala.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Obama and Rep. John Lewis walk across across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Ala.

But part of it was, no doubt, a recognition that as a first — in this case, the first [Black] leader of the free world — that I had to get things right and that I had to make sure that when I spoke, I was reacting not out of emotion, but out of clear convictions and principles, and that I was embodying the kind of responsible leadership that I had promised. And that's probably why I write in the preface that there might have been times where I tamped down on what I was feeling in the moment, in ways that, by the end of my presidency, I was less prone to do. I think this was partly a problem of the first couple of years, where I was much more embracing of a certain way of being president. And, by the end of my presidency, I was like, "Look, I've been to this rodeo many times. I'm going to say whatever I think about certain things." Now, I think that going to the point of race, it wasn't as if there weren't reasons for me occasionally to bite my tongue. There was evidence, in fact, that when I did speak my mind, that there was always a price to pay.

On needing Secret Service detail while he was a candidate for president because of the volume of death threats against him

Once I'm president, then that's sort of par for the course. I think what was different was that I got Secret Service protection about two or three months into my candidacy. I was still a year and a half away from being president, and that does not normally happen. And it was because the volume of threats directed against me ... was several factors higher than anybody else, than anything Secret Service had ever seen. It's in the back of your mind when you make the decision to run.

And in fact ... one of the recurring conversations we'd have in the African American community when I decided to run was people expressing fear either to me or Michelle about the potential danger to us. There were a lot of Black folks who were pretty sure that America's not going to have a Black person as president. Look, they had seen Martin Luther King shot. They had seen Malcolm X shot. It's not as if there is not some history of violence directed at African American leaders. So I think there was a real sense of wanting to protect us. Once you decide to run, though, you can't be carrying that around with you in your head at all times. And I was very grateful, and continue to be, for the incredible job that Secret Service did. Once Secret Service was around, I had confidence that they knew what they were doing and it wasn't something that I thought about on a day-to-day basis.

On what went through his mind when he saw the police attack Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington

I was outraged, and it was an example of a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes America great and special and important and exceptional, and that is our ability to uphold ideals like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, not just as empty words, but in practice.

I was outraged, and it was an example of a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes America great and special and important and exceptional, and that is our ability to uphold ideals like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, not just as empty words, but in practice. And that the president of the United States has sworn to uphold the Constitution and the various officers in government that are sworn to uphold the Constitution, that they abide by those ideals and values, even when it's not politically convenient for you to do so. Even when you think it's wrongheaded. And I think one of the most worrying things I saw during the course of this presidency were efforts — ultimately, I think, unsuccessful — to politicize our military, to politicize our criminal justice system. And the effort, I think, in this administration to rupture that core tradition that is vital to any democracy, I think, was one of the more troubling things that I saw.

On why he titled his book A Promised Land after the African American spiritual

Dr. King has a very famous speech where he talks about Exodus and Moses getting to the mountaintop and he can see in the distance that promised land, but he never gets there. And the Israelites wander for 40 years in the wilderness. And Exodus has always been central to the African American experience, naturally, given the bondage that they were experiencing, this idea that somehow, some way, we're going to get there.

And that's how I think about America, not just for the African American experience, but for the country as a whole. That there is this extraordinary promise, this possibility of a more perfect union and each generation does its part to travel a little further down that road, to get a little bit closer, and inevitably we're going to fall short and there's still going to be racism and there's still going to be gender discrimination and inequality and suffering and pain that's unnecessary. But if we embrace the journey, if we embrace the possibility that we can better see each other as having common fears and common dreams and being one people, that we can get a little closer to that promised land.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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