Former President Barack Obama said Republicans have been “cowed into accepting” a series of positions that “would be unrecognizable and unacceptable even five years ago or a decade ago,” telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper he is worried about the state of democracy in the United States in an exclusive interview that aired Monday.
Obama, in an interview that comes after his latest memoir, “A Promised Land,” was published in late 2020, said he never thought some of the “dark spirits” that began rising within the Republican Party during his tenure would get this dark and reach the epicenter of the party.
“We have to worry,” Obama said, “when one of our major political parties is willing to embrace a way of thinking about our democracy that would be unrecognizable and unacceptable even five years ago or a decade ago.”
The clearest example of this, Obama said, was the January 6 insurrection and how there are now “large portions of an elected Congress going along with the falsehood that there were problems with the election.” The insurrection at the US Capitol by Trump supporters came on the same day that 147 Republican lawmakers voted not to certify Joe Biden’s electoral victory in key states. The falsehood that the 2020 presidential election was stolen has been pushed by former President Donald Trump himself, who has since cheered on baseless Republican audits of elections.
Asked by Cooper about Republicans leaders briefly going against Trump following the insurrection, Obama said, “And then poof, suddenly everybody was back in line.”
“Now, the reason for that is because the base believed it and the base believed it because this had been told to them not just by the President, but by the media that they watch,” Obama said. He later added: “My hope is that the tides will turn. But that does require each of us to understand that this experiment in democracy is not self-executing. It doesn’t happen just automatically.”
‘We occupy different worlds’
Obama wrote at length in his memoir about how his historic election in 2008 created a wave of bitter and divisive turmoil that fueled Republicans’ obstructionism and ultimately changed the party into its current iteration. Trump, Obama argues in the book, encapsulates this, because to “millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety.”
But Obama also looked beyond Trump in the memoir, noting that the real rise of this brand of Republicanism began when Arizona Sen. John McCain, Obama’s 2008 opponent, tapped then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate. “Through Palin,” Obama argued in the book, “it seemed as if the dark spirits that had long been lurking on the edges of the modern Republican Party… were finding their way to center stage.”
Obama lauded some Republicans in his interview with CNN for protecting the presidential election, notably Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who the former president said was “very brave,” despite being “viciously attacked for it.” Raffensperger became the target of Republican ire after he defended the election results in Georgia, which gave the state to Biden. Trump has has endorsed Raffensperger’s primary challenger, Rep. Jody Hice.
But some the former President’s most searching commentary came when asked about the root causes to the deep divisions in the country, rifts that Obama attributed, in part, to questions about sources of information and race.
“We occupy different worlds. And it becomes that much more difficult for us to hear each other, see each other,” Obama said, something the former President attributed to a nationalization of both media and politics.
“We have more economic stratification and segregation. You combine that with racial stratification and the siloing of the media, so you don’t have just Walter Cronkite delivering the news, but you have 1,000 different venues,” Obama said. “All that has contributed to that sense that we don’t have anything in common.”
The solution, Obama said, is more face-to-face meetings where people are hearing each other’s struggles and stories.
“The question now becomes how do we create those venues, those meeting places for people to do that,” he said. “Because right now, we don’t have them and we’re seeing the consequences of that.”
Race and division in 2021
At the heart of some of these divisions, Obama argued, is race – a through line that defined Obama’s rise in politics and his election as the first Black president.
The former President said during the interview that it remains “hard for the majority… of White Americans to recognize you can be proud of this country and its traditions and its history and our forefathers and yet, it is also true that this terrible stuff happened.”
“The vestiges of that linger and continue,” Obama said. “And the truth is that when I tried to tell that story, oftentimes my political opponents would deliberately not only block out that story but try to exploit it for their own political gain.”
As he does in the memoir, Obama points to his decision to criticize the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates in 2009, who was detained trying to get into his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Obama’s comments on the arrest – “The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home,” he said in 2009 – set off a firestorm and, according to the former President, tanked his polling with White voters.
“And it gives a sense of the degree to which these things are still… they’re deep in us. And, you know, sometimes unconscious,” Obama said in the interview. “I also think that there are certain right wing media venues, for example, that monetize and capitalize on stoking the fear and resentment of a White population that is witnessing a change in America.”
While Obama jokes during the interview that he is a “little too gray-haired” to get back into community organizing, his daughters – Sasha and Malia – participated in Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis in 2020, giving their father a “great source of my optimism.”
“My daughters are so much wiser and more sophisticated and gifted than I was at their age,” Obama said with a laugh during the interview. “When people talk about… how do I think about my legacy, you know, part of it is the kids who were raised during the eight years that I was president. There’re a bunch of basic assumptions they make about what the country can and should be that I think are still sticking. They still believe it. And they’re willing to work for it.”
‘The line between success or failure’
Obama’s interview with CNN largely centered on his participation in a so-called BAM – or Becoming a Man – circle.
The program, aimed at mentoring and supporting boys and young men, started in Chicago in 2001, but Obama first joined one of the circles in 2013 and has continued to be a part of the program ever since. The program was a key reference when Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper in 2014, as he worked to reverse trends showing young men of color are more likely to drop out of school, get in trouble with the law or be unemployed.
During the interview, Obama also reflected on his somewhat unlikely path to the presidency, arguing that his struggles early in life were “similar” to those of the young men he mentors in Chicago.
Obama wrote in his memoir that he was an “incessant, dedicated partyer” while he was growing up and that he and his friends “didn’t discuss much beyond sports, girls, music and plans for getting loaded” while they were going to school. Obama has been up front about not being focused on his future at a young age, telling students at an event in 2014 that he often “made bad choices” growing up.
“I have to be careful not to overstate. I was not, you know, going around, beating up kids and setting things on fire,” he told Cooper in the CNN interview. “But I understood what it meant to not have a father in the house. I understood what it meant to be in an environment in which you were an outsider.”
He added, “The violence and drugs and some of the issues that the guys were dealing with day to day were different. But the mistakes I made, the struggles I was going through, were similar.”
Through the program, which is said to work with 8,000 youth in 140 schools each year, the former President meets for group conversations with young men in Chicago. During that time, Obama tries to convey that even though he went on to become the President of the United States, he struggled with many of the things these young men deal with on a daily basis.
“The first time I sat down with these guys, the most important thing for me to communicate at that time, and I was President of the United States, was in many ways, (you) are ahead of me, of where I was at your age,” Obama said. “I just had certain advantages you guys don’t. I could make a mistake and land on my feet.”
The advice is both broad and practical. During the meeting, one participant noted how he had never learned how to tie a tie or the difference between forks at a dinner.
“I didn’t learn that ‘til I got the White House,” Obama joked in response.
Obama wrote in his memoir that it wasn’t until college – first at Occidental College in California and later at Columbia University in New York – that he began to develop an academic curiosity. He noted that for three years while living in New York, he “lived like a monk – reading, writing, filling up journals, rarely bothering with college parties or even eating hot meals.”
In the memoir, he wrote that he got lost in his own head about success and failure, something that has become a central question in his work with students in Becoming a Man.
“These kids are just as talented. They’re just as smart. They could achieve just as much,” Obama said in the interview with Cooper. “The single most important thing I learned… the line between success or failure in this society so often is dictated not by anybody’s inherent merits.”
He added, “It has to do with the circumstances in which they’re in. That doesn’t mean they don’t have individual responsibility. … But it also means that we as a society continue to fail them.”
This story has been updated with additional details from the interview.