Barack Obama On Politics, Family and Racism In America

In his new memoir, “A Promised Land,” former President Barack Obama revealed his feelings about the divisions that grip the country today, the extreme political opposition he endured during his presidency, and the challenges he faced within his personal life. He discussed these things and other facets of being the 44th president during a candid, hour-long, prime time interview on BET hosted by CBS This Morning’s Gayle King on Tuesday evening (Nov. 17). The conversation included aspects of interviews done with King from CBS Sunday Morning and with Scott Pelley for 60 Minutes.

“Part of what I try to describe is how early that obstructionist attitude starts,” Obama said, remembering people like Sen. Mitch McConnell who vowed to make him a one-term president shortly after his first inauguration. “It started on day one because 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, well Republicans aren’t going to agree with me on everything,” he continued. “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.”

Although the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act passed, that wasn’t the last time he faced rancor against his agenda. When he began putting the pieces together on the Affordable Care Act as he addressed Congress, South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson infamously shouted “you lie,” causing a second of palpable silence. Obama admits that while he kept his cool, his initial reaction was to react directly to Wilson.

“My initial instinct is: let me walk down and smack this guy on the head,” Obama said, now smiling about what many at the time saw as a blunt display of disrespect towards the president. “What is he thinking? And instead I just said, ‘that’s not true’ and I just moved on.

“I think by that time what I’m realizing is that the expectation of the normal give-and-take of politics, a certain set of rules and decorum and a baseline level of mutual respect, that that had broken down,” he said.

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But while Obama was trying to adjust to his new job, his family was also trying to adjust to living under a microscope as life as the First Family. Obama has said previously that former First Lady Michelle Obama was reluctant to have him run for president, given the commitment both he and his family would have to make. Once they were in the White House, however, they began to see the realities of their new environment.

“There’s this weird isolation that you begin to feel,” he said.

“Did you like that feeling,” King asked. 

“No. I don’t think you ever get fully used to it,” Obama replied. He confessed that there were indeed times that he missed being a regular dad, although he tried to be as present as possible.

“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,” he explained. “I’d come from some security briefing in the Situation Room and reading about terrorist threats and this and that, and then I’m sitting down, and Malia and Sasha are talking about, like, ‘oh, that boy was so stupid.’ You know, it takes you out of yourself and your head and reminds you of what’s good in the world.”

Taking A Step Back

While Michelle Obama remains extremely popular after her husband’s presidency and thoughts of her even running for president herself still waft in certain circles, the former president said that once their eight years were over, it gave her the opportunity to finally exhale. 

“When the presidency was over, two things happened,” said Obama. “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.’

The nation’s expectations of Obama were lofty with most of it resting on the notion that as the first African American president, he had somehow brought about fundamental change in America. It was an idea of an America that was perhaps more ambitious than many should have envisioned.

“A lot of 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 lot of people expected ‘well, we got this young, progressive president, and now suddenly we’re going to eliminate inequality and we’re immediately going to have universal health care and we’re going to have climate change legislation, immigration reform, and criminal justice reform,’ and all the things 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, twenty 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.’“

When King asked Obama to reminisce and reflect about the issue of race in the nation and whether or not things are worse off today than when Obama was president, he takes his time to respond introspectively.

“I think it was always naive to think that just by virtue of me having been elected that somehow racism went away,” he said. “I didn’t believe that then, certainly don’t believe that now. And what is apparent is that there was some backlash to me being elected.

“Now, what I will says is that under our current president – outgoing president – the kind of rhetoric that has been used by him coming out of the White House at times and then obviously the record of tragedy that we saw with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, all that has exposed what were underlying issues that need to be addressed, and that we’ve never as a nation ever fully reckoned with.”

Barack Obama: A Promised Land was released Nov. 17 by Crown Publishing Group.

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