Barack Obama speaks out on politics, the presidency, and Donald Trump
"We all good? We got speed? Let's go!" Almost four years after he left the White House, former President Barack Obama is ready to talk.
He's been looking back while writing the first volume of a memoir about his presidency, "A Promised Land" (Crown). He writes about the sense of reverence he felt in the Oval Office – what he called "a sanctum of democracy" – which he walked into for the first time as president.
"CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King asked, "Take us to that day, when you walked in."
"You know, Inauguration Day is a little bit about everybody else," said Mr. Obama. "It's a little bit like your wedding. You're so busy trying to make sure you're doing everything right and everybody's where they're supposed to be, that you can't catch your breath.
"The first time I walked in as president by myself, though, and sat at the Resolute Desk, I think you feel a reverence for the office. I think it was President Lincoln who said, 'If you weren't religious before you got into office, you sure are on your knees praying once you're in office.'"
President Obama inherited a country teetering on the brink of financial calamity – recession, if not another depression. But as he tried to work with Congress, he immediately encountered a steep wall of resistance.
King said, "'We're gonna make you a one-term president.' Mitch McConnell said that out loud. How do you deal with that type of hostility?"
"Part of what I try to describe is how early that obstructionist attitude starts. I mean, it started on Day One, 'cause we were trying to pass the Recovery Act, the stimulus package. People were losing their jobs, they were losing their homes, and the economy was collapsing. At the time, I thought, 'All right, well, obviously Republicans aren't gonna agree with me on everything. But on this, all the economists agree this is what we need. They'll give some cooperation on this.' And we didn't get any."
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act eventually did pass, with just three Republican Senators voting "yes." But the die was cast.
As the president then set about to overhaul the health care system, opposition to his agenda only increased. When he addressed Congress in September of his first year in office, the hostility was overt, and it was startling.
King said, "One of the big examples that many people saw of disrespect, you're laying out the Affordable Care Act in a joint session of Congress. And in the middle of your speech, Congressman Joe Wilson, South Carolina, yells in the middle of that, 'You lie!' I heard an audible gasp. And I looked at you. You know, we could see the veins on your head on the side. So I'm wondering, what did you think in that moment? And what did you want to do, and what did you do?"
"Well, I write about this," said Mr. Obama. "I am shocked. And my initial instinct is, 'Let me walk down and smack this guy on the head. What is he thinking?' And instead, I just said, 'That's not true,' and I just move on. He called afterwards to apologize – although, as I point out in the book, he saw a huge spike in campaign contributions to him from Republicans across the country who thought he had done something heroic."
Throughout his term, Mr. Obama was sometimes criticized for seeming aloof, not playing the D.C. political game.
King asked, "Do you think you made enough of an effort to reach out to the other side of the aisle?"
"Yes," he replied. "We tried everything. We had Super Bowl parties! We'd invite them to dinner. I'd go to their caucus meetings."
As he writes in his memoir: "The fuss of being president, the pomp, the press, the physical constraints, all that I could have done without. The actual work, though? The work, I loved, even when it didn't love me back."
As Mr. Obama tried to adjust to the presidency and the politics, his family was trying to adjust to life in the White House bubble. "There's this weird isolation that you begin to feel," he said.
"Did you like that feeling?" asked King.
"No. I don't think you ever get fully used to it."
King's conversation with the former president Wednesday afternoon was at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, where a painting of Michelle Obama hangs among the first ladies. And that whole political thing? It was definitely not her idea.
King said, "She made it clear she was never into politics."
"No," said Mr. Obama.
"But she always supported you. Yeah. And there were times when you said, 'When we do this …' she goes, 'Well, wait, what 'we'? What 'we'?'"
"I quote her as saying, 'Not 'we,' you,'" Mr. Obama laughed. "I am mindful of the sacrifices that she made, but the good news is that for whatever reason, she has forgiven me, sort of. She still reminds me occasionally of what she put up with!"
The Obamas were one of the few families with young children to have moved into the White House. Malia was ten, and Sasha was only seven years old. The impact on father and daughters cut both ways.
King asked, "You said you can remember missing teeth and their round cheeks and their pigtails, that they didn't seem to suffer in terms of lack of time with Dad. But you said you were always very acutely aware of it."
"You know, I probably suffered more from not being able to do some of the ordinary Dad things that I had done before we got to the White House. I'd come from some security briefing in the Situation Room, reading about terrorist threats and this and that. And then I'm sitting down and Malia and Sasha are talking about, like, 'Aghh, that boy was so stupid,'" he laughed. "It takes you out of yourself and your head, and reminds you of what's good in the world."
The former president said, as his family left the White House for the last time in 2017, they were able to exhale – Michelle Obama in particular: "When the presidency was over, two things happened: One was, objectively, I just had more time. But two is that she was able to let go of some of the stress of just feeling as if, 'I've got to get everything right all the time. I'm being watched all the time' – you know, her releasing her breath that I think she had been holding for close to ten years at that point."
Now, President Obama could look back on his successes and failures. He had come into office facing high expectations, both as the first Black president and, at the age of 47, one of the youngest.
"A lotta folks, in the same way that they expected 'Now we're in a post-racial America because we elected a Black president,' I think a lotta people expected, 'Well, we got this young, progressive president. And now suddenly we're gonna eliminate inequality and, you know, we're immediately gonna have universal health care. And we're gonna have climate change legislation, and immigration reform, and criminal justice reform,' and all the things that I wanted to get done. But what I understood very early on is, the federal government, headed by the president, is an ocean liner; it is not a speedboat. Ten years from now, 20 years from now, the work you've done may be appreciated as having been good and helpful. But at the time, it can feel like, 'Wow, this isn't happening fast enough!'"
President Obama's successor was Donald Trump; some have seen Mr. Trump's victory, in part, as a backlash to the Obama presidency.
King said, "Donald Trump often raises eyebrows when he says he's done more for Black America and people of color than Abraham Lincoln."
"Yes," President Obama laughed. "Yes, it does raise eyebrows, you are correct!"
"What do you think when you hear that? Do you take that as an insult to you or the work that you've done?"
"I think it's fair to say that there are many things he says that I do not take personally or seriously, although I think they can often be destructive and harmful," Mr. Obama replied.
Whether he took the things Mr. Trump said personally or not, Mr. Obama emerged front-and-center in the last month of his former vice president Joe Biden's presidential campaign.
And President Obama didn't pull his punches: "I've never lost hope over these last four years," Mr. Obama said at a campaign event in South Philadelphia in October. "I've been mad, I've been frustrated. But I haven't lost hope."
King said, "Michelle Obama always says, 'When they go low, we go high.' It seemed to many people when you were on the campaign trail for Joe Biden, it wasn't a matter of going low or high, you went in. They called it 'Barack Obama unleashed.' Was it personal for you? Or did you just think, 'I've had it'?"
"It wasn't personal," President Obama said.
"You didn't have an 'I've had it' moment?"
"The truth is, everything I said, I was just stating facts."
"But it was out of character for you to speak up, Mr. President, that way."
"I was not the person who at a White House briefing room, said, 'Is bleach the way to solve COVID?' I wasn't doing a routine. I was repeating words that I heard.
"It is not my preference to be out there," he said. "I think we were in a circumstance in this election in which certain norms, certain institutional values that are so extraordinarily important, had been breached – that it was important for me, as somebody who had served in that office, to simply let people know, 'This is not normal.'"
While President-Elect Joe Biden waits to assume office, President Trump continues, without evidence, to challenge the election's outcome ("They're trying to steal an election"), and many of Mr. Trump's supporters continue to stand behind him.
King asked, "Seventy-two million people voted for Donald Trump. What does that say to you about the state of this country?"
"Well, what it says is that we are still deeply divided,' Mr. Obama replied. "The power of that alternative worldview that's presented in the media that those voters consume, it carries a lot of weight."
"Are you worried about that?"
"Yes," Mr. Obama said. "It's very hard for our democracy to function if we are operating on just completely different sets of facts."
"But it's clear as we sit here today we're not gonna have a peaceful transition," King said. "I think about John McCain calling, George and Laura Bush welcoming you and Michelle Obama to the White House."
"Could not have been more gracious," Mr. Obama said.
"I remember you inviting Donald Trump to the White House."
"And saying – 'I wish that you succeed because we want the country to succeed.'"
"He does not seem to have taken a page out of any of those playbooks," said King.
"No!" Mr. Obama laughed.
"So, what is at stake here?"
"Well, look, Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States; Kamala Harris will be the next vice president. There is no legal basis, there's no factual scenarios in which …"
"But he's getting support from members of the Republican Party, who are not challenging him," said King.
"And that has been disappointing," Mr Obama said. "But it's been sort of par for the course during these four years. They obviously didn't think there was any fraud going on, 'cause they didn't say anything for the first two days. But there's damage to this, because what happens is that the peaceful transfer of power, the notion that any of us who attain an elected office – whether it's dogcatcher or president – are servants of the people. It's a temporary job.
"We're not above the rules. We're not above the law. That's the essence of our democracy."
And as to advice for his old running mate?
Mr. Obama said, "He doesn't need my advice. And I will help him in any ways that I can. But now, you know, I'm not planning to suddenly work on the White House staff or something."
"No cabinet position for you, Mr. President?" asked King.
"There are probably some things I would not be doing, 'cause Michelle would leave me," Mr. Obama laughed. "She'd be like, 'What? You're doin' what?'"
What he IS doing these days: running a charitable foundation, designing his presidential library in Chicago, and – along with Michelle – producing for Netflix.
Gone are the trappings of the office, such as a presidential motorcade clearing his path. Instead, he's rediscovering the simple things, like the joy of traffic.
"I'm drivin' along – I'm still not driving," he said. "But I'm in the car, in the back seat, and I'm, you know, I don't know, looking at my iPad or something. And suddenly we stop, and I'm like, 'What's goin' on?' There's a red light!" he laughed. "There's a car right next to us. Some kids are, you know, eating a burrito or something in the back seat. 'Oh. Back to life!'"
For more info:
- "A Promised Land" by Barack Obama (Crown), in Hardcover and eBook formats November 17, Audio format November 24, and Large-Print Trade Paperback December 8; available via Amazon and Indiebound
- Obama Foundation
- Barack Obama Presidential Library
Story produced by Alan Golds. Editor: Ed Givnish.
Don't miss Scott Pelley's interview with former President Barack Obama on "60 Minutes" Sunday, November 15 on CBS.
- Obama looks back upon his presidency, and beyond ("Sunday Morning," 1/24/16)
- Obama on the legacy of Selma ("Sunday Morning," 3/8/15)
for more features.