Barack Obama was describing to me the manner in which the Mongol emperor and war-crimes innovator Genghis Khan would besiege a town. This was not meant to be commentary on the Trump presidency—not directly, at least. We were sitting at opposite ends of a long table in his office suite in the West End district of Washington.
The offices were empty, except for a couple of aides and a discreet Secret Service detail. Obama was in a good mood, happy to discuss the work that has consumed him for more than three years: the writing of A Promised Landhis presidential memoir—or what turns out to be because he has much to say about many things the first of two volumes of his presidential memoir. From the April issue: The Obama doctrine. A Promised Land is an unusual presidential memoir in many ways: unusually interior, unusually self-critical, unusually modern this is the first presidential memoir, I believe, to use the term ethereal bisexual to describe an unrequited love interestand unusually well written.
We covered a lot of ground in our face-to-face discussion, which took place on Wednesday, and in a follow-up call on Friday. The broadest subject of our conversation was the arc of the moral universe: Does it still bend toward justice? Does it even exist?
When Obama was elected 12 years ago, the arc seemed more readily visible, at least to that swath of the country interested in seeing someone other than a white male become president. For Obama, though, the overarching story of America, and all humanity, is one of fitful progress—and nothing about the past four years has seemed to change his mind. Obama recalls brooding over a face of a forgotten figure etched into an ancient wall, a face that resembled his. Just as I and all those I loved would someday turn to dust.
It is not inevitable. History does not move in a straight line.
But if you have enough people of goodwill who are willing to work on behalf of those values, then things can get better. The threats to American democracy—and to the broader cause of freedom—are many, he said. He was withering on the subject of Donald Trump, but acknowledged that Trump himself is not the root of the issue. But if we were going to have a right-wing populist in this country, I would have expected somebody a little more appealing.
Trump, Obama noted, is not exactly an exemplar of traditional American manhood. He traces the populist shift inside the Republican Party to the election that made him president. I think this hinted at the degree to which appeals around identity politics, around nativism, conspiracies, were gaining traction.
The populist wave was abetted by Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, he said, and encouraged to spread by social-media companies uninterested in exploring their impact on democracy. It was already there. But social media has turbocharged it. I know most of these folks. The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The AtlanticI do not think is tenable.
We are entering into an epistemological crisis. The Q-and-A is long but, I think, useful, if only as a reminder of what a thoughtful president sounds like. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and concision. This is a really well-deed virus to maximize damage.
There are a whole set of explanations around that—universal health care in Canada, and in some areas they may not have the same population densities. But it is a comparable country on the same continent. Fauci and not politicized basic preventive measures like wearing masks, if they had not been intent on rushing the reopening and downplaying the severity of the pandemic across the primary channels that a big chunk of the country gets its news from—some lives could have been saved and we would have had better control of this.
The vaccine looks hopeful. Goldberg: Talk about the transition issues. Obama: For all the differences between myself and George W. Bush, he and his administration could not have been more gracious and intentional about ensuring a smooth handoff. Obama: I have to say that when I came to the end of the book and I looked back, my views on my presidency were surprisingly consistent.
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The thing that did surprise me was the degree to which the undertow of resistance to the idea of my presidency dates back to Sarah Palin during the campaign, and emerges through the Tea Party all the way until the end of the book, which ends with the bin Laden raid. Obama: During that time, we were so busy and so focused.
I also think I very much internalized and believed that presidents can whine privately but not publicly.
We had all internalized that idea. Obama: It had never happened.
And then the cast grows. It dates back to the Birchers and elements in the Goldwater campaign, but you also sort of feel that all of this is behind us.
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Goldberg: Your presidency was supposed to be proof in a kind of way that America was moving on. Obama: Right. But what happened is that these things unleash or liberate some of that energy. As I was writing, the clarity of those patterns became more obvious. A corresponding concern as I was writing was the realization that the structural impediments of the U. It was hard to anticipate just how quickly McConnell and the Republican caucus in the Senate would shut things down and the degree to which that kind of obstruction for the sake of obstruction would become the norm.
David Frum: The raw desperation of the Republican Party. Obama: By that time I had already figured it out. This is something I had understood before I started writing the book, but the examples kept coming as I was writing. The combination of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh—the entire right-wing media ecosystem—had changed the Republican base in such a way that Republican elected officials did not feel as if they could afford to cooperate with me or cooperate with Democrats. And almost every Republican elected official knows that. There were no howls of voting irregularities the first day or two.
They waited to get the al from Trump.
Goldberg: In The AtlanticAnne Applebaum and others have been writing about the issue of complicity. Obama: This is the thing that has surprised me the most over the past four years. This was all evident before the election.
I did not believe how easily the Republican establishment, people who had been in Washington for a long time and had professed a belief in certain institutional values and norms, would just cave. You think about John McCain: For all my differences with him, you would not have seen John McCain excuse a president cozying up to Vladimir Putin, or preferring Russian interpretations of events over those of his own intelligence agencies.
And to see figures in the Republican Party do a complete on everything they claimed to believe ly is troubling. And so essentially what Republican elected officials have done is to say to themselves that in order to survive, we have to go along with conspiracy theorizing, false assertion, fantasies that Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh and others in that echo chamber have concocted, because people believe them.
And it was interesting to recognize how powerful that impulse was, how readily people would embrace this kind of aggrievement and anger, the resentment that Palin and Santelli were peddling. So the Tea Party becomes a genuine manifestation of that. It was becoming apparent very early in my presidency that you could take anger and frustration and direct it in what I consider to be a pretty unhealthy direction.
Obama: Yes. I guess I would not have expected someone who has complete disdain for ordinary people to be able to get attention and then the following from those very same people. There was a code. This is something I always emphasize.
This is part of me. But I thought there was a shift there. I write about it to some degree. I actually have great admiration for a lot of those traditions, what were ascribed to be masculine qualities.
When you think about the Greatest Generation, you think about sacrifice. Tom Nichols: Donald Trump, the most unmanly president. Obama: I understand that. And they never bragged, and certainly they would never make cheating others or taking advantage of them a calling card. Globalism is—.
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A lot of rap videos are using the same measures of what it means to be successful as Donald Trump is. Everything is gold-plated. That insinuates itself and seeps into the culture. And Donald Trump epitomizes that cultural movement that is deeply ingrained now in American culture.
That is not how they seem to be defining themselves quite as much. That makes me more optimistic.
Goldberg: I want to talk a bit about the writing, and writing choices. By the way, I went back and looked at Ulysses S. On writing choices, one of my questions has to do with the tremendous amount of contextualization you do, and specifically the way you contextualize your opponents.
This book feels like a hinge between a distant political past and the political present. You generally represent your positions with restraint; you contextualize everything, including the positions of your enemies—you are actually nicer to your enemies than Trump is to his friends. Obama: There is no doubt that one of the themes of the book is me just wanting to hang on to who I am—my soul, my sense of right and wrong, my character—while operating at the highest level of politics.
Goldberg: This is the question of how any president stays human, given the absurd nature of the job. Obama: There is the father, the friend, the husband.