Interviews with Obama have a predictable quality. He has, after all, been defending his worldview for twenty years, and it doesn't seem to have changed much. He is also too disciplined ever to veer off message. But I think his position is an important one, so:
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. . . .
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 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.