“We have to worry,” said Obama, “if one of our major political parties is ready to adopt a way of thinking about our democracy that was undetectable and unacceptable five years or a decade ago.”
The clearest example of this, Obama said, was the January 6 uprising and that “large parts of an elected Congress now agree with the falsehood that there were problems with the election”. The uprising in the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters came on the same day that 147 Republican lawmakers voted not to confirm Joe Biden’s election victory in key states. The falsehood that the 2020 presidential election was stolen was spread by former President Donald Trump himself, who has since hailed baseless Republican election reviews.
When asked by Cooper that the Republican leaders briefly took action against Trump after the uprising, Obama said, “And then puff, suddenly everyone was back in line.”
“The reason is because the grassroots believed it and the grassroots believed it because they were told not only by the president but also by the media that are watching them,” Obama said. He later added, “My hope is that the tide will turn. But that requires that each of us understand that this experiment in democracy does not happen by itself. It does not happen automatically.”
“We occupy different worlds”
Obama wrote extensively in his memoirs about how his historic 2008 election sparked a wave of bitter and divisive turmoil that fueled Republican obstructionism and eventually transformed the party into its current version. Trump, Obama argues in the book, sums this up because “Millions of Americans who were terrified by a black man in the White House promised an elixir for their racial fear.”
But Obama also looked beyond Trump in the memoirs and noted that the real rise of this type of republicanism began when Arizona Senator John McCain, Obama’s 2008 opponent, named then Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice president. “Through Palin,” Obama argued in the book, “it seemed as if the dark spirits that had long lurked on the fringes of the modern Republican Party found their way into the center.”
In his interview with CNN, Obama praised some Republicans for protecting the presidential election, particularly Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, whom the former president considered “very brave” despite being “viciously attacked” for doing so. Raffensperger became the target of Republican anger after defending the Georgia election results that gave Biden the state. Trump has endorsed Raffensperger’s main challenger, Rep Jody Hice.
But some of the former president’s most in-depth comments came when asked about the causes of the deep divisions in the country, which Obama attributed in part to questions about sources of information and race.
“We occupy different worlds. And it is getting more and more difficult for us to hear and see one another,” said Obama, which the former president attributed to a nationalization of media and politics.
“We have more economic stratification and segregation. You combine that with racial stratification and isolation of the media so that you have not just Walter Cronkite delivering the news, but 1,000 different venues,” Obama said. “All of this has contributed to the fact that we have nothing in common.”
The solution, Obama said, is more face-to-face meetings where people hear each other’s struggles and stories.
“The question now is how do we create these places, these meeting places where people can do this,” he said. “Because we don’t have it at the moment and we see the consequences of it.”
Race and division in 2021
At the heart of some of these divisions, Obama argued, was race – a 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 is difficult for the majority … of white Americans to see that one can be proud of this land and its traditions and its history and our ancestors, and yet it is also true that this horrible stuff “happens.”
“The remnants of it remain and continue to exist,” said Obama. “And the truth is that when I tried to tell this story my political opponents often deliberately not only blocked out that story but tried to use it for their own political gain.”
As in the memoir, Obama points to his decision to criticize the 2009 arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, who was arrested while trying to break into his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Obama’s comments on the arrest – “Cambridge police acted stupidly when they arrested someone when there was already evidence they were in their own home,” he said in 2009 – sparked a firestorm, and according to the former president he fueled his polls with white voters.
“And there is a sense of the extent to which these things are still … they are deep within us. And sometimes unconsciously,” Obama said in the interview. “I also think that there are, for example, certain right-wing media outlets that make money and capitalize on it, fueling the fear and resentment of a white population who are witnessing change in America.”
While Obama joked during the interview that he is “a little gray-haired” to rejoin the community organization, his daughters – Sasha and Malia – participated in the protests against Black Lives Matter after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis in 2020, and gave her father a “great source of my optimism”.
“My daughters are so much wiser, more demanding and more talented than I am their age,” Obama said with a laugh during the interview. “When people talk about it … how do I feel about my legacy, you know, part of it is the kids who grew up in my eight years of presidency. There are a number of basic assumptions they make about what they are Land can and should be that I think still hold on. They still believe it. And they are ready to work for it. “
“The line between success or failure”
Obama’s interview with CNN was mostly about his participation in a so-called BAM or Becoming a Man circle.
The boys and young men care and advancement program started in Chicago in 2001, but Obama first joined one of the circles in 2013 and has continued to be 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 that show young men of color are more likely to drop out of school, conflict with the law, or become unemployed.
During the interview, Obama also reflected on his somewhat unlikely path to the presidency, arguing that his early life struggles were “similar” to those of the young men he mentors in Chicago.
Obama wrote in his memoir that he was a “ceaseless, dedicated party-goer” in his youth and that he and his friends “didn’t discuss much about sports, girls, music, and charging plans” during school days. . Obama was open to not focusing on his future at a young age, telling students at a 2014 event that he often “made bad decisions” as a child.
“I have to be careful not to exaggerate. I didn’t run around beating up kids and setting things on fire, ”he told Cooper in an interview with CNN. “But I understood what it means not to have a father in the house. I understood what it means to be in an environment where you were an outsider.”
He added, “The violence and the drugs and some of the problems the boys faced every day were different. But the mistakes I made, the struggles I went through were similar.”
The former president has group meetings with young men in Chicago through the program, which aims to work with 8,000 youth in 140 schools each year. During this time, Obama tries to convey that although he later became President of the United States, he was struggling with many of the things these young men dealt with on a daily basis.
“The first time I sat down with these guys, the most important thing for me at the time was to communicate, and I was President of the United States, in many ways, (they) are ahead of me where I was at your age “said Obama. “I’ve only had certain advantages that you don’t have. I could make a mistake and land on my feet.”
The advice is comprehensive and practical. During the meeting, one participant noted that at dinner they had never learned how to tie a tie or how to distinguish forks.
“I didn’t learn that until I got the White House,” joked Obama.
Obama wrote in his memoir that it was only in college – first at Occidental College in California and later at Columbia University in New York – that he began to develop an academic curiosity. He found that he lived in New York for three years, “living like a monk – reading, writing, journaling, seldom attending college parties or even eating hot meals.”
In the memoir, he wrote that he got lost in his own head about success and failure, which has become a central question in his work with students in Becoming a Man.
“These kids are just as talented. They are just as smart. They could achieve just as much,” Obama said in an interview with Cooper. “The most important thing I’ve learned … the line between success and failure in this society is so often not dictated by innate merit.”
He added, “It has to do with the circumstances they are in. That doesn’t mean they don’t have individual responsibility. … But it also means that we as a society continue to let them down.”
This story has been updated with additional details from the interview.
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