Opinion | Barack Obama Isn’t Afraid of Being a Politician
I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
So in preparation for this episode, I have spent the last few weeks very deep in the mind of Barack Obama. I read the first volume of his presidential memoirs, “A Promised Land.” But I’ve also been listening to his podcast and other interviews he’s given, and reading interviews he’s given.
And spending a lot of time there, there were a few things I noticed that really became the core of this conversation and that I’ve actually just been struggling with myself since. The first is Obama’s many mindedness. It’s almost pathological how much he tries, in his memoirs, to grant the points of his critics and even the really unfair points of some of his attackers, how much he doubts his own motivations and righteousness.
There are times when it almost feels self-lacerating, like when you want to take him aside and say, look, you won the presidency. You passed the Affordable Care Act. You don’t need to keep wondering if you should have gotten into politics at all.
But that personal tendency — or maybe it’s almost better described as a personal discipline, I came to think it really contributes to something deep in what made his presidency possible. Barack Hussein Obama understood, in his bones at that time, that the odds were not good that majority white electorates in the age of the War on Terror were going to vote for him. And he didn’t approach that fact resentfully, as a flaw that other people needed to fix in their politics. He saw comforting their fears as his work to do, the work of his politics.
He saw, also, avoiding the issues, and sometimes even the truths that would awaken their suspicions, as just part of the job. And so you can see in the book that he’s not just trying to convince them to vote for him as he is. He’s also trying to turn himself, through what he says, and then very importantly, what he doesn’t say into the kind of candidate and even person they want to vote for.
That’s an important difference. It’s subtle in a way, but it’s important. And it’s a whole style of politics that I think is really contested now.
Anyway, so as you can hear in this conversation, for him, it came with a cost, both psychic and eventually, in some ways, political. That is the paradox of his book, and of his career, and to me his presidency. He puts everything into this project of persuasion, of trying to convince America to do something it has never done before. And he so profoundly succeeds and fails.
His win, it simultaneously proves this politics he believes in is possible, which was not obvious then. And at the same time, his win and his presidency begin reshaping the Republican Party into a much more direct antithesis of that politics. It turns into something that more powerfully threatens his vision of America.
Obama is this triumph of political persuasion and compromise. And then he also leaves behind, certainly a less persuadable Republican Party and a more fractured and polarized political system. And I’m not saying that’s his fault. But it is part of the whole thing, in this really, I think, difficult way that is shaping our politics now. That, to me, is a question his career and his book sets up.
I think a lot of people have more or less given up on the kinds of politics Obama pursued. On the right, of course, that’s true with Donald Trump and everything that he has made the Republican Party into. But on the left, in a different way, I do think there’s a move towards a politics more of confrontation, of forcing people to face hard truths and saying that, if you don’t see where history is going, and you will not admit where our history has been, then you are the problem, that it’s our job to beat you not accommodate you.
And so when I sat with Obama this week, I wanted to see how he reflected on both the successes and the failures of his approach to politics, how he held the contradictions of his own career together, and where he thought Democrats had something to learn from what he did right, and then also, from what he did wrong. And so that’s where we began. As always, my email is [email protected] Here is President Barack Obama.
So something I noticed again and again in the book is this very particular approach to persuasion that you have. I think the normal way most of us think about it you’re winning an argument with someone. And you seem to approach it with this first step of making yourself a person the other person will feel able to listen to, which means sympathizing with their argument, sanding off some of the edges of your own. Tell me a bit about how you think about that.
No, that’s interesting. I forget whether it was Clarence Darrow, or Abraham Lincoln, or some apocryphal figure in the past who said, look, the best way to win an argument is to first be able to make the other person’s argument better than they can. And for me, what that meant was that I had to understand their world view. And I couldn’t expect them to understand mine if I wasn’t extending myself to understand theirs.
Now, why that is the way I think about things generally partly is temperament. Partly it’s biographical. As I’ve written not just in this recent book but in past books, if you’re a kid whose parents are from Kansas and Kenya, and you’re born in Hawaii, and you live in Indonesia, you are naturally having to figure out, well, how did all these pieces fit together? How do all these perspectives, cultures, blind spots, biases, how do you reconcile them to approximate something true?
And I think that carries over into my adulthood, and into my politics, and how I approach the world generally. It presumes that none of us have a monopoly on truth. It admits doubt, in terms of our own perspectives.
But if you practice it long enough, at least for me, it actually allows you then to maybe not always persuade others but at least have some solid ground that you can stand on, that you can with confidence say, you know what? I know what I think, and I know what I believe. It actually gives me more conviction rather than less if I listen to somebody else’s argument.
One of the things that strikes me about it, though, is that you see in the book sometimes it means not calling out arguments that I think you think are really wrong, in the same way that you might normally. So in a section about the Tea Party, you mull over whether the reaction they had to you was racist. And clear you think it, at least partly, was. And then you say quote, “whatever my instincts might tell me, whatever truth the history books might suggest, I knew I wasn’t going to win over any voters by labeling my opponents racist.” How do you decide when the cost of that kind of truth outweighs the value of it?
Well, now you’re describing something a little bit different, which is, how do you move large segments of the population politically towards an outcome you want, whether it’s universal health care, or let’s do something about climate change? Versus how I might persuade somebody one on one, right? The premise of persuading somebody who you can build some trust with, and have a history with and relationship, then there might be times where you say, you know what? You’re just full of it. And let me tell you why.
And you can be very logical and incisive about how you want to dismantle their arguments. Although I should add, by the way, do not try that at home. Because that’s not a recipe for winning arguments with Michelle.
But look, when you’re dealing at the macro level, when you’re dealing with 300 million people with enormous regional, and racial, and religious, and cultural differences, then now you are having to make some calculations. So let’s take the example you used. And I write extensively about the emergence of the Tea Party. And we could see that happening with Sarah Palin. She was sort of a prototype for the politics that led to the Tea Party, that in turn, ultimately led to Donald Trump, and that we’re still seeing today.
There were times where calling it out would have given me great satisfaction personally. But it wouldn’t have necessarily won the political day in terms of me getting a bill passed. And I think every president has to deal with this.
It may have been more noticeable with me, in part because, as the first African American president, there was a presumption, not incorrect, that there were times where I was biting my tongue. That’s why the skit that “Key and Peele” did with the anger translator, Luther, was funny. Because people assumed, you know Barack’s thinking something other than what he’s saying in certain circumstances.
I think that, a lot of times, one of the ways I would measure it would be: is it more important for me to tell a basic historical truth, let’s say, about racism in America right now? Or is it more important for me to get a bill passed that provides a lot of people with health care that didn’t have it before? And there’s a psychic cost to not always just telling the truth, as I think I describe in the book, using your prophetic voice as opposed to your coalition building political voice. And I think there were times where supporters of mine would get frustrated if I wasn’t being as forthright about certain things as I might otherwise be.
And then there are also just institutional constraints that I think every president has to follow on some of these issues. And it was sort of on a case by case basis, where you try to make decisions. Sometimes, you’d get sufficiently disappointed. Let’s say for example, with gun safety issues after Newtown, for example, and Congress’s complete unwillingness to do anything about the slaughter of children.
There were times, where I would just go off. Because I felt that deeply about how wrongheaded we were in a basic fundamental way. But that was, let’s face it, after I had exhausted every other possibility of trying to get Congress to move on those issues.
I set up that kind of persuasion and pluralism tension, because something that really struck me about the book is how much it lives in paradoxes, how much it’s comfortable with the idea, that you’re comfortable with the idea that something and its opposite are true at the same time. And I think of a politics of persuasion as being the central paradox of your presidency. So you accomplished this massive act of persuasion, winning the presidency twice, as a Black man with the middle name Hussein. And now that, in retrospect, it’s like, oh yeah, of course, Barack Obama was president.
Yeah, no. I think it’s fair to say that wasn’t a given.
It wasn’t as obvious at the time.
But at the same time, your presidency made the Republican Party less persuadable. It opened the door, in certain ways, to Donald Trump. And it further closed the door on the kind of pluralistic politics that you try to practice. And I’m curious how you hold both of those outcomes together.
Look, that’s been the history of America. Right? There is abolition and the Civil War. And then there’s backlash and the rise of the KKK. And the Reconstruction ends, and Jim Crow arises.
And then you have a civil rights movement, a modern civil rights movement and desegregation. And that, in turn, leads to pushback and, ultimately, Nixon’s Southern strategy. And what I take comfort from is that in the traditional two steps forward, one step back, as long as you’re getting the two steps, then the one step back is the price of doing business.
In my case, let’s say, I get elected. We have a spurt of activity that gets things done. Even after we lose Congress, during the course of those eight years, we manage the government, restore some sense of that it can work on behalf of people.
We regain credibility internationally, but you’re right. It unleashes and helps to precipitate a shift in the Republican Party that was already there but probably accelerates it. And we’re still playing out how this works to this day.
On the other hand, during that period, you’ve got an entire generation that’s growing up and taking for granted, as you just described, that you’ve got a Black family in the White House, taking for granted that that administration can be competent, and have integrity, and not be wrought with scandal. And it serves as a marker. It’s planted a flag from which then the next generation builds.
And by the way, the next generation can then look back and say, yeah, we do take that for granted. We can do a lot better than that and go even further. And that is, I wouldn’t say, an inevitable progression.
Sometimes, the backlash can last a very long time, and you can take three steps back after two steps forward. But it does seem to be in the nature of things that any significant movement of social progress, particularly those aspects of social progress that relate to identity, race, gender, all the stuff that is not just dollars and cents and transactional. That, invariably, will release some energy on the other side by folks who feel threatened by change.
But one lesson I’ve seen a lot of folks on the left take, I think particularly in the aftermath in the Trump years, is that there’s just some core of this you can’t do through persuasion, that you can’t do through pluralism. And I think some of the rise of shaming and social pressure, what I think people call cancel culture, ends up partly as a reaction to this. But also, just some of the move towards a politics of, I would say, more confrontation, that there’s not a virtue in letting some things lie unsaid, to both the coalition. That you really do have to confront the country.
You really do have to confront others with the ugliest pieces of it. So that light can come in, and it can heal. And I’m curious if you think they have a point, or that’s the wrong lesson to take.
No. I don’t think it’s — well, let’s take, since we’re on the topic of race, what we saw after George Floyd’s murder was a useful bit of truth telling that young people led. And I think, opened people’s eyes to a renewed way of thinking about how incomplete the process of reckoning has been in this country when it comes to race.
But even after, I think, a shift in perspective around George Floyd, we’re still back into the trenches of how do we get different district attorneys elected? And how do we actually reform police departments? And now, we’re back in the world of politics. And as soon as we get back into the world of politics, it’s a numbers game. And you have to persuade, and you have to create coalitions.
So I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. I think there are times, where there’s what we might describe as a teachable moment. And George Floyd’s tragic death was an example of that, in very stark terms.
In some ways on the economic front, part of what happens as a result of the pandemic is there’s a teachable moment about hey, maybe this whole deficit hawk thing of the federal government just being nervous about our debt 30 years from now, while millions of people are suffering, maybe that’s not a smart way to think about our economics. Again, a teachable moment. So there are times where, when that’s presented, I think you try to drive it home as much as possible and get a reorientation of the body politic.
But at some point, in this country, in our democracy, you still have to cobble together majorities to get things done. And that is particularly true at the federal level, where although reconciliation has now presented a narrow window to do some pretty big things, the filibuster apparently, if it does not get reformed, still means that maybe 30 percent of the population potentially controls the majority of Senate seats. So if you say that that 30 percent of the country is irreconcilably wrong, then it’s going to be hard to govern.
There’s a pretty fundamental asymmetry that brings out. So I think, at the presidential level, you have about a three and a half point advantage for Republicans in the electoral college. At the Senate level, it’s now about five points, and the House level, it’s about two points.
So you have this real difference now between the parties, where Democrats need to win right of center voters to win national power. But Republicans do not need to win left of center voters to win national power. And that’s really changed the strategic picture for both of them.
It’s enormous. And this is part of what I write about in the book. It’s one of those things that’s in the background of folks in Washington and people who follow politics closely. But the average American, understandably, isn’t spending a lot of time thinking about Senate rules, and gerrymandering, and you know —
How dare you?
I’m sorry, Ezra, but you’re on the nerd side of the spectrum on this stuff, as am I. So people don’t understand, well, if the Democrats win the presidency, or if they’re in control of the Senate, why aren’t all these things that they promised happening? Or why are they trimming their sails on single payer plan health care plans, or what have you?
And the answer is, well, the game is tilted in a way that partly arises out of very intentional desire for Southern states, for example, to maintain power and reduce the power of the federal government. Some of it has to do with demographic patterns and where population’s distributed that it’s not surprising that the progressive party, the Democratic party, is more of an urban party. Because, by necessity, you got more different kinds of people, immigrants flooding urban areas and settling, and having a different perspective than folks who are in more rural, more homogeneous areas. And once you get Wyoming having the same number of senators as California, you’ve got a problem. That does mean Democratic politics is going to be different than Republican politics.
Now, look, the good news is I also think that has made the Democratic Party more empathetic, more thoughtful, wiser. By necessity we have to think about a broader array of interests and people. And that’s my vision for how America ultimately works best and perfects its union.
We don’t have the luxury of just consigning a group of people to say, you’re not real Americans. We can’t do that. But it does make our job harder, when it comes to just trying to get a bill passed or trying to win an election.
One of the ways this has reoriented, even just since your presidency, is around education. So for reasons that are complicated to explain here, when educational polarization becomes bigger, the Democratic disadvantage in the electoral college gets a lot worse.
But you did something unusual in 2008 and 2012. And you bucked a kind of international trend here, and educational polarization went down. In 2012, you won non-college whites making less than $27,000 a year.
But Donald Trump then wins them by more than 20 points in 2016. He keeps them in 2020. So what advice do you have to Democrats to bring educational polarization back down?
I actually think Joe Biden’s got good instincts on this. And the current administration’s pursuing policies that speak to the concerns and interests of folks who, if you’re 45 and working in a blue collar job, and somebody is lecturing you about becoming a computer programmer, that feels abstract. That feels like something got spit out of some think tank, as opposed to how my real life is lived.
And I think, when you start talking about minimum wages, and when you start talking about union power, you are not soft pedaling social issues. I mean, the interesting thing is people knew I was left on issues like race, or gender equality, and LGBTQ issues, and so forth. But I think, maybe the reason I was successful campaigning in downstate Illinois, or Iowa, or places like that is they never felt as if I was condemning them for not having gotten to the politically correct answer quick enough. Or that somehow they were morally suspect, because they had grown up with and believed more traditional values.
And I think Joe has that same capacity, partly because of his biography and where he comes from. The challenge I have, and I know you’ve written about this, is when I started running in 2007, 2008, it was still possible for me to go into a small town, in a disproportionately white conservative town in rural America, and get a fair hearing. Because people just they hadn’t heard of me.
Now, they might say, what kind of name is that? And they might look at me and have a set of assumptions. But the filter just wasn’t that thick. Because rather than getting all their news from Fox News or Rush Limbaugh, they were — the way I’d describe it, the prototypical that I show up in a small town in Southern Illinois, which is closer to the South than it is to Chicago, both culturally as well as geographically. And usually, the local paper was owned by a modestly conservative, maybe even quite conservative usually guy.
He’d call me in. We’d have a cup of coffee. We’d have a conversation about tax policy, or trade, or whatever else he cared about. Or he might have a small editorial board of two or three writers.
And at the end of it, usually, I could expect some sort of story in the paper saying, well, we met with Obama. He seems like an intelligent young man. We don’t agree with him on much. He’s kind of liberal for our taste but had some interesting ideas, and that was it.
And so then I could go to the fish fry, or the VFW hall, or all these other venues and just talk to people and have a conversation. And they didn’t have any preconceptions about what I believe. They could just take me at face value. If I went into those same places now, or if any Democrat who’s campaigning goes in those places now, almost all news is from either Fox News, Sinclair’s news stations, talk radio, or some Facebook page. And trying to penetrate that is really difficult.
And it’s not that the people in these communities have changed. It’s that if that’s what you are being fed day in day out, then you’re going to come to every conversation with a certain set of predispositions that are really hard to break through. And that is one of the biggest challenges I think we face. Because at the end of the day, I actually have found that, and this still sounds naive, I think a lot of people would still question this. But I’ve seen it.
Most folks actually are persuadable in the sense of they kind of want the same things. They want a good job. They want to be able to support a family. They want safe neighborhoods.
And even on historically difficult issues like race, people aren’t going around thinking, man, how can we do terrible things to people who don’t look like us? That’s not people’s perspective. What they are concerned about is not being taken advantage of, or is their way of life and traditions slipping away from them? Or is their status being undermined by changes in society?
And if you have a conversation with folks, you can usually assuage those fears. But they have to be able to hear you. And you have to be able to get into the room.
And I still could do that back in 2007, 2008. I think Joe, by virtue of biography and generationally, I think he can still reach some of those folks. But it starts getting harder, particularly for newcomers who are coming up.
We had a conversation in 2015 about polarization.
And how it had gone up during your presidency, and something you said to me is something I wrestled a lot with my own book, which is that, look, people are pretty polarized when you start talking about national politics. But then you talk to them a bit more, and they’re soccer coaches. They go to church.
They got a business. Their friend down the street doesn’t think like them or doesn’t look like them. And I found that persuasive at the time and hopeful at the time. And one of the things —
I began to think since is politics has become that much more nationalized. Our political identities become that much stronger. And this idea that these other identities are deeper seems less and less true. That like, when the political cue comes, you really know what side you’re on. Do you think Americans have just become less persuadable?
What you just identified, in part because of the media infrastructure I described, and the siloing of media, in part because of, then, the Trump presidency and the way both sides went to their respective fortresses, absolutely. I think it’s real. I think it’s worse.
I’m not the original in this. I think polling shows it. Anecdote shows it. Thanksgiving becomes a lot more difficult. What we’re seeing right now, with respect to vaccines.
I mean, I think it’s fair to say that the difference in how George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama administration would’ve approached the basic issue of a pandemic and vaccines, there might be differences in terms of efficacy, or how well programs were run, et cetera. But it’s hard to imagine a previous Republican administration completely ignoring science. Right?
Yeah. I thought a lot about if this were second term Mitt Romney. How would that have gone?
Yeah, exactly. And so that is a fundamental shift. And I think people’s identities have become far more invested as a result in which side are you on politically? It spills over into everyday life and even small issues, what previously were not considered even political issues.
And so if you’re a soccer coach now, there might be a conversation about, why are all the refs white? Suddenly, there’s a long argument. And you’ve got each side immediately tweeting about it. And it becomes fraught with all sorts of political stuff.
And then Fox News might grab the story and run with it in the most sensational way. And next thing you know, Joe Biden’s being asked about a soccer game in Maryland. And we see that pattern playing itself out in our daily lives in a way that’s unhealthy.
Some people have remarked, and I think there’s some merit to this, that the decline of other mediating institutions that provided us a sense of place and who we are, whether it was the church, or union, or neighborhood, those used to be part of a multiple set of building blocks to how we thought about ourselves. And the way the national conversation evolves, suddenly, there’s a right answer across all those lines, which is part of the reason why you don’t get ticket splitting these days. Being a moderate Republican, and I write about this in “Promised Land,” you could see it happening even when I first came in. What was striking was the degree to which the conservative Democrat, or the pro-choice Republican, they were getting winnowed out of each respective party.
And what’s interesting is how it filtered. Rather than the public saying, we don’t like that. Let’s try something else. In some ways, the public’s come to see themselves individually in those terms as well.
Well, also, the choices get starker for them. Something I was thinking about while you were talking was this idea that I think about sometimes that I call ricochet polarization. And I’m not asserting symmetry between two sides. I don’t want to —
Get flack on that.
Yeah, well. I would jump on you in a second. Don’t worry.
But there’s a dynamic here. You were saying a couple of minutes ago that you thought people knew you were pretty left on social issues, on LGBTQ issues, on a bunch of issues. But they thought you respected them.
But you, also, because it’s either what you believed, or also because, and the Democratic Party broadly, thought folks who are movable. You were restrained on a lot of these issues. You ran in 2008, and you were opposed to gay marriage. I’m not saying that wasn’t true to you, but publicly, that was the position.
You talk in the book about how Axelrod and Plouffe were very careful about avoiding issues that would exacerbate racial conflict. And you guys focused a lot on economics. But then as people feel that stuff not working as the other — they see the worst of the outside coming at them. There’s a dynamic that happens.
And I see it among Democrats too, where it’s like, well, you know what? Then here’s what I really believe. And here’s what I really believe about you. And the parties become a little more each day less restrained, because the benefits of restraint seem lower. Like, if they’re still going to say I’m a socialist, then, well, maybe I am a socialist.
They’re still going to say I want to raise taxes on middle class people, then, maybe I do, actually.
As you said though, it is — first of all, and you already offered this caveat. But I want to reemphasize it’s not symmetrical. Because Joe Manchin’s still a Democrat in our party.
And I think a lot of people look and say, the guy’s got to run in West Virginia, a state that Joe Biden lost by 30 percent. And we understand that his politics are not going to be the same as Nancy Pelosi’s. So just by virtue of the fact that we have to earn votes from a lot of different places means —
Meeting center right voters.
And meeting center right voters means that, look, the challenge we have is that the other side just did not function that way. And that’s not because there aren’t people in the Republican Party who thought that way. You mentioned Mitt Romney earlier. Well, Mitt Romney was the governor of Massachusetts. And when he was, he made all kinds of sensible compromises.
He didn’t approach things the way I would approach things. But there was some sense of, listen, what the other side thinks matters. He’s the governor of a Democratic state. I’ve got to recognize that I’m probably more conservative than most people in this state, which means I have to make some accommodations. But as soon as he started running for the presidency, suddenly, he’s got to pretend that he’s this hard right gun toting varmint killing guy.
Severely conservative. Well, why is that? It’s because a dynamic has been created. And that dynamic, in part, has to do with public officials being lazy and just saying, look, this is the easiest way for us to get our folks riled up is to suggest that Obama is a Muslim socialist who’s going to take away your guns.
But some of it is a media infrastructure that persuaded a large portion of that base that they had something to fear and fed on that fear and resentment, that politics of fear resentment, in a way that, ironically, ended up being a straitjacket for the Republican officials themselves. And some of them got gobbled up by the monster that had been created and suddenly found themselves retiring. And they couldn’t function, because they weren’t angry or resentful enough for the base they had stoked.
I think it’s fair to say, in the book, you’re critical of the media at points. How much do you feel the media reflects politics? And how much do you feel it shapes politics?
Well, look, there are certain bad habits that the media cultivated and it had to, then, reexamine during the Trump era. The classic being the what constitutes objectivity? as I joke about. President Obama, today, was savagely attacked by the Republicans for suggesting that the earth is round. Republicans suggested that there’s some hidden documents showing the earth is, in fact, flat.
In response, Obama said, well — and then it goes on. But it’s presented as if he said, they said, and that’s reporting. And you’d have some vague corner of the press room engaged in fact checking after the fact. But that’s not what appeared on the nightly news.
And it taught somebody like a Mitch McConnell that there is no downside for misstating facts, making stuff up, engaging in out and out obstruction, reversing positions that you held just a few minutes ago. Because now, it’s politically expedient to do so. That never reached the public in a way where the public could make a judgment about who’s acting responsibly and who isn’t.
And that, I think, was not driven by the politics of the moment. I mean, I think that the media was complicit in creating that dynamic in a way that is difficult. Because as we discovered during the Trump administration, if an administration is just misstating facts all the time, it starts looking like, gosh, the media’s anti-Trump. And this becomes more evidence of a left wing conspiracy, and liberal elites trying to gang up on the guy.
Yeah. There’s the objectivity critique, which is in there. And I actually think in many ways, the media got better at.
But there’s another one laced through. And it’s interesting, because I think you both benefited from it and then become wary of it, which is that, I will say, in the media, one of our central biases is towards exciting candidates. You were an exciting candidate in 2008, but later on, that’s also something that Donald Trump activates —
In a different way. You have a big set piece at the White House Correspondents Dinner, where “The Washington Post” invites Donald Trump after a year of birtherism to sit at their table.
That’s how my book ends.
I don’t want to spoil the ending. People may not know that happened.
But even in a broader sense, exciting candidates are usually, one, they shape perceptions of parties. But two, on the right, they tend to be quite extreme. They definitely tend to be in both directions, either more liberal or more conservative. But part of the dynamic, I think, you’re talking about — and then the media is pressured by social media, where —
Yeah, very much so now.
You look out there, and you look around, like who’s up there on Facebook and on Reddit. And conflict sells.
And that’s a way in which I think the perceptions of the parties are changing for people. Because whoever is chair of the House Ways and Means Committee —
Who’s considered the voice of the party?
Exactly. Who becomes the voice? How do you reflect on that?
You came up. Social media is great for you. It seems to me you’ve got some different views on it now. How do you think about that trade off between excitement and then some of the other qualities that are a little bit more nuanced that you worry people are losing sight of?
Yeah. Look, I think it is entirely fair, and you’re right. Even during my campaign, I got wary of it. What my political advisor, David consultant called — David Axelrod called the —
I like David consultant though.
Yeah, David consultant, right. Generic. What Axelrod called the Obama icon. You got the posters. And you got the crowds and very much focused on me as this comet bursting onto the scene.
But I have to tell you that there’s a difference between the issue of excitement, charisma, versus rewarding people for saying the most outrageous things. I don’t think anybody would accuse me of having trafficked in just popping off and creating controversy just for the sake of it. The excitement I brought was trying to tell a story about America, where we might all start working together and overcome some of our tragic past, and move forward, and build a broader sense of community. And it turns out that those virtues actually did excite people.
So I don’t agree that that’s the only way that you can get people to read newspapers or click on a site. It requires more imagination and maybe more effort. And it requires some restraint to not feed the outrage, inflammatory approach to politics. And I think that folks didn’t do it.
And look, as I note towards the end of the book, the birther thing, which was just a taste of things to come, started in the right wing media ecosystem. But a whole bunch of mainstream folks, who later got very exercised about Donald Trump, they booked him all the time. Because he boosted ratings. But that wasn’t something that was compelled.
It was convenient for them to do. Because it was a lot easier to book Donald Trump to let him claim that I wasn’t born in this country than it was to how do I actually create an interesting story that people will want to watch about income inequality. That’s a harder thing to come up with.
Let me get at that piece of it too. So I covered the Affordable Care Act pretty closely. I think it’s fair to say, and I’ve thought a lot about its political afterlife. It survived the Republican attempts to gut it. It did become popular.
I thought it was going to happen a little bit quicker, but it didn’t —
Well, that’s essentially what I want to get at here, which is that, at the same time, the thing that is striking to me is it didn’t convert many voters over to the Democratic side, including Republican voters. Sarah Kliff did great piece on this at Vox at one point, including Republican voters who relied on it who would have lost it if the folks they were voting for got their way. Do you think, given how intense political identities are now, that policy can persuade people to vote differently? Or is partisanship now almost immune to the material consequences of governance?
I think, over time, it does. I think it’s not as immediate. And look, I think it’s important to remember that, when we came into office, the economy was in a freefall. We had to scramble and do a bunch of stuff, some of which was inherited, some of which we initiated to stabilize the financial system.
People hated it. I describe in the book, it’s hard to underscore how much the bank bailouts just angered everyone, including me. And then you have this long, slow recovery. And although the economy recovers technically quickly, it’s another five years before we’re really back to people feeling like OK, the economy is moving and working for me.
And the truth is that if Donald Trump doesn’t get elected, let’s say, a Joe Biden or the person who was running, Hillary Clinton, had immediately succeeded me, and the economy suddenly has three percent unemployment, I think we would have consolidated the sense that, oh, actually, these policies that Obama put in place worked. The fact that Trump interrupts, essentially, the continuation of our policies but still benefits from the economic stability and growth that we had initiated means people aren’t sure. Well, gosh, unemployment’s three and a half percent under Donald Trump.
Now, I would argue, and I think a lot of economists that you know and I know would suggest that, mostly, that had nothing to do with Donald Trump’s policies. And mostly had to do with we had put the economy on a footing, where he essentially just continued the longest peacetime recovery in American history and sustained job growth in American history. But if you’re the average voter, you’re thinking, well, it looks like Republican policies are working for me to some degree, which probably explains why Trump was able to make some inroads, modest, overstated but real inroads among non-white voters feeling like, you know what? I’m working and making decent money, and things feel pretty good.
So that clouds what I think would have been a more impactful shift in political views towards Democrats as a result of my presidency. And I think that what we’re seeing now is Joe Biden and the administration are essentially finishing the job, and I think it’ll be an interesting test. 90 percent of the folks who are there were there in my administration. They are continuing and building on the policies we talked about, whether it’s the Affordable Care Act, or our climate change agenda, and the Paris Peace Accords, and figuring out how do we improve the ladders to mobility through things like community colleges.
And if, as I think they will be, they’re successful over the next four years, I think that will have an impact. Does it override the identity politics that has come to dominate Twitter and the media, and that has seeped into how people think about politics? Probably not completely, but at the margins, look, if you’re changing in five percent of the electorate, that makes a difference.
Most importantly, I think it does have an impact for young people as they are forming their ideas about politics and who they are. And I was both a manifestation of the more progressive views that young people brought to politics in 2008, and 2009, 2010. And I think my presidency helped to solidify a huge tilt in the direction of progressive politics among young people that is now continuing into their 30s. As millennials and even the Gen Z-ers are starting to marry and have families, that their political identity has been shaped and changed in pretty significant ways.
One thing that you’re more optimistic than me on in the book is that better political communication can really change the way people receive policy. And I think more about how could you do policy design, so the policy itself could speak more clearly?
I actually think we agree on that. You hear in the book arguments that we would have about — there’d be a bunch of bad reporting around the economy. And I’d get on grumpy, and I’d call in my advisors. I’d say, I need to do more press conferences. Or I need to give another speech.
And they actually were pretty clear to me. They’re all like, look, as long as unemployment still at nine percent, it doesn’t matter how many speeches you give. It’s not going to change things.
On the other hand, I used an example, which I think reinforces your point, and a point I know you made in your book, which was when people ask me what would I do differently, a lot of times, I’ll give broad generalizations. Because I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds. But you’ll appreciate this, being a policy nerd, the Making Work Pay tax cut that was part of our stimulus, where Larry Summers talks me into the idea that we should spread out the tax cut in people’s weekly paychecks in the drip, drip, drip fashion. Because the social science shows that they’re more likely to spend it.
But if they get a big lump sum, then they might just pay down debt. And we needed more stimulus. And I thought, well, that makes sense. But of course, as a result, nobody thought I’d cut taxes.
Everybody was confident that I had raised their taxes, even Democrats thought I had, to pay for all the other stuff I was doing like health care. And that’s an example of a policy design where we were too stubborn I think initially around, yeah, we’ll just get the policy right, and the politics will take care of itself. And I should have done a deeper dive into FDR in recognizing that you know what? You’ve got to sell the sizzle as well as the steak. Because that creates the political coalition to continue it. The New Deal had all kinds of policies that actually didn’t work as well as they should have. We get political phrases like pork barrel and logrolling. A lot of that comes out of the mismanagement of the federal programs, but you know what? People saw it, and they felt it. And they associated their lives getting better or some concrete help with those policies, and that’s important.
And I think a fair critique of us, when I look back, is the fact that I was, sometimes, too stubborn about, no, we’re going to just play it straight. And let’s not worry about how the policy sells. If it works, then that’s what we should do.
Are there other design ideas that you would advise people to take seriously? I think a lot about, and I realize some of the technical reasons has happened, but how the Affordable Care Act took four years to begin delivering the bulk of health insurance benefits.
It’s a good example. And so, look, I think that there’s no doubt that the team that is now in the Biden administration and thinking about, whether it’s the Covid stimulus package, or how do you build off the Affordable Care Act, they’re mindful of these lessons. And they’re saying to themselves, all right. We’ve got to sell this.
So on health care in particular: how do we make this simple and stupid? So that it’s easily explained. It’s easily understood. The expansion of Medicaid, for example, was probably the part of the Affordable Care Act that had the biggest impact, quickly, easy to administer, didn’t have a lot of moving parts. Because it was building off an existing program.
And look, there are times where it is important, in fact, to go ahead and plant some seeds, even if it doesn’t yield quick political benefits. I use the example in our stimulus of the $90 billion we invested in the green economy. Politically, that wasn’t a winner for us.
We knew that we were going to get some Solyndras, for example, the famous example that the Republicans beat us over the head with, where we’d given a loan to a solar company that goes belly up. But the truth is that the reason now we’re seeing such enormous breakthroughs in terms of everything from electric cars, to solar efficiency, to wind power — all those things that we can now build on in pursuit of future climate policy — a lot of that relied on those programs we started that didn’t have a lot of political benefit.
Part of what I try to make clear in the book is, and sometimes my friends in the Democratic Party who criticize us on the left misapprehend this idea that we had some ideological aversion to pushing the envelope on policy. That’s not the case. We had just political constraints we had to deal with, and we had an emergency we had to deal with. But one thing I was pretty clear about early on, and I showed that with the Affordable Care Act, was, given we were in a hole economically anyway, there was no point in us trying to go small bore.
Bill Clinton was able, in his second term, to politically go small. Because the economy was humming and people were feeling good. We were dealing with what, at that point, was the worst recession since the Great Depression. Politically, we were going to get clobbered in the midterms. It really didn’t matter what we did.
And so we just tried to do as much as we could within the political constraints that we had. And I think that the environment now is such, partly because Republicans spent $2 trillion of their own stimulus, and shockingly, weren’t concerned when they were in power about deficits, partly because of the urgency of Covid and the pandemic and people recognizing they just need immediate relief and help now, I think we’re now in an environment, where if we just get some big pieces in place building on what we did before, people will notice. And it will have a political impact.
It doesn’t override all the deep, subterranean political dynamics of our culture, race obviously, being at the top of that list, but changing gender roles, and those who still are engaged in organized religion feeling attacked by an atheist culture. And those are things that are deep. They’ve always been here.
They’re not going away anytime soon. But I guess what I am still confident about is: if we can get some stuff done that works, and we give people the benefit of the doubt, and we continue to reach out, as opposed to yell, that we get better outcomes rather than worse outcomes. And it’s not going to solve all our problems.
I hard you say the other day that you’d like to know what those UFO objects are too.
If it came out that they were alien, if we got undeniable proof of that, how would that change your politics, or your theory about where humanity should be going?
That is an interesting question.
Well, first of all, it depends on if we — have we made contact with them?
No, just drones. They just —
We just know that —
We just know they’re from afar.
These probes have been sent.
But we have no way of reaching out to them.
We can’t get in touch. We just know we’re not alone, and something’s been here.
It’s interesting. It wouldn’t change my politics at all. Because my entire politics is premised on the fact that we are these tiny organisms on this little speck floating in the middle of space. The analogy I always used to use when we were going through tough political times, and I’d try to cheer my staff up, then I’d tell them a statistic that John Holdren, my science advisor, told me, which was that there are more stars in the known universe than there are grains of sand on the planet Earth.
Your staff must have loved that.
Well, sometimes it cheered them up. Sometimes they’d just roll their eyes and say, oh, there he goes again. But the point is, I guess, that my politics has always been premised on the notion that the differences we have on this planet are real. They’re profound, and they cause enormous tragedy as well as joy. But we’re just a bunch of humans with doubts and confusion.
We do the best we can. And the best thing we can do is treat each other better, because we’re all we got. And I would hope that the knowledge that there were aliens out there would solidify people’s sense that what we have in common is a little more important.
But no doubt, there would be immediate arguments about, well, we need to spend a lot more money on weapons systems to defend ourselves. And new religions would pop up, and who knows what kind of arguments we’d get into. We’re good at manufacturing arguments for each other.
Here’s another long view question. What are we doing now, humanity, that we’ll be judged for most harshly in 100 years?
Well, if we don’t get a handle on climate change, then if there’s anybody around to judge us, they’ll judge us pretty harshly on it. Because the data’s here. We know it. One thing that I think maybe the pandemic has done is to start getting people to think in scale.
You can actually put a dollar figure to what it would take to transition to a clean economy. It’s in the trillions of dollars a year globally. But when you think about how much was spent and how much was lost in one year, as a result of the pandemic, suddenly, making investments, obviously, in public health systems immediately says, oh, that’s a pretty good investment. Similarly, maybe it opens up people’s imaginations to say, we can actually afford to make this transition. There are some sacrifices involved, but we can do it.
And then finally, what are three books you’d recommend to the audience?
Three books, a book I just read, “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, it’s about trees and the relationship of humans to trees. And it’s not something I would have immediately thought of, but a friend gave it to me. And I started reading it, and it changed how I thought about the earth. And it changed how I see things, and that’s always, for me, a mark of a book worth reading.
“Memorial Drive” by Natasha Trethewey, it’s a memoir, just a tragic story. Her mother’s former husband, or her former stepfather, murders her mother. And it’s a meditation on race, and class, and grief, uplifting surprisingly, at the end of it but just wrenching.
And then this one is easier to remember. I actually caught up on some past readings of Mark Twain. There’s something about Twain that I wanted to revisit, because he speaks a little bit of — he’s that most essential of American writers. And there’s his satiric eye and his actual outrage that sometimes gets buried under the comedy I thought was useful to revisit.
President Barack Obama, thank you very much.
Great to talk to you. Thank you, Ezra.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Jeff Geld, Roge Karma, and Annie Galvin, fact checking by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld.