In Interview, Obama Shows Dimmed Hope For Persuasion Amid Rising Extremism

In an interview with The New York Times published Tuesday, former President Barack Obama shared his thoughts on whether persuasion is still possible in politics.

Obama, whose political philosophy rests on his belief that opponents can be brought to compromise, has become more vocal over the past two years as the conservative movement and Republican Party leaders have responded to electoral losses with extreme, often violent stances against democratic norms.

The first Black president’s comments follow Republican senators voting against a commission to investigate the deadly right-wing insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, in which white rioters murdered Black people by the hundreds and destroyed a community known as “Black Wall Street.” 

Speaking with columnist Ezra Klein, Obama balanced his typical optimism with frank realism and, occasionally, sharp critique. He said he thinks it is still possible for Democrats to win over low-income whites without a college degree, as he did in 2012, but admitted that President Joe Biden’s “biography” and age give him an advantage that a younger, more diverse crop of up-and-coming Democrats will not have. White people without a college degree swung in Donald Trump’s favor in the 2016 and 2020 elections. 

“I think Joe, by virtue of biography and generationally, I think he can still reach some of those folks,” Obama said. “But it starts getting harder, particularly for newcomers who are coming up.” 

The interview largely echoes sentiments Obama shared in his latest memoir, “A Promised Land,” in which he blames right-wing media for siloing conservative Americans and legislators from outside opinions and making them immune to compromise. Because he was relatively unknown in 2007, Obama said, “I could go to the fish fry, or the V.F.W. hall, or all these other venues, and just talk to people. And they didn’t have any preconceptions about what I believed. 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 news stations, talk radio, or some Facebook page,” he added. “And trying to penetrate that is really difficult.”

Persuading political opponents requires being able to reach them, and Obama used the racist “birther” conspiracy spread by right-wing outlets as an example of conservative media trying to build an alternate reality. 

“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 actually create an interesting story that people will want to watch about income inequality,” he said. “That’s a harder thing to come up with.”

In another part of the interview, Obama addressed criticism from progressives that he tried too hard to persuade Republicans who swore to oppose him. He told the Times, “there is a psychic cost to not always just telling the truth” and explained his diplomatic temperament. 

“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,” Obama said. 

“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?”

The former president said he once believed he could use the bully pulpit to persuade political opponents, but his advisers convinced him that securing Democratic legislative wins would better serve him in persuading some opponents than speeches. He advised the Biden administration to take that advice. 

“Does it override that sort of identity politics that has come to dominate Twitter, and the media, and that has seeped into how people think about politics? Probably not completely,” Obama said. “But at the margins, if you’re changing 5 percent of the electorate, that makes a difference.”

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