Former President Barack Obama
discussed whether persuasion is still possible in politics
in an interview
with The New York
Times published on Tuesday.
Obama, whose political philosophy is based on his belief that opponents can be persuaded to compromise, has become more vocal in recent years as the conservative movement and Republican Party
leaders have responded to electoral losses with extreme, often violent stances against democratic
The remarks by the first Black president come on the heels of Republican senators voting
against a commission
to investigate the deadly right-wing insurgency at the United States Capitol
on Jan. 6, and coincide with the 100th anniversary
of the Tulsa
massacre, in which white rioters murdered hundreds of Black people
and destroyed a community known as "Black Wall Street
In an interview with columnist Ezra Klein, Obama balanced his usual optimism with frank realism and, on occasion, sharp criticism. He said he believes Democrats
can still 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.
“I think Joe, by virtue of biography and generational differences, I think he can still reach some of those folks,” Obama said, “but it gets harder, particularly for newcomers who are coming up.”
The interview largely echoes sentiments expressed by Obama in his most recent memoir
, "A Promised Land," in which he blames right-wing media
for isolating conservative Americans and legislators from outside perspectives and making them resistant to compromise. Obama stated that because he was relatively unknown in 2007, "I could go to the fish
fry, or the V.F.W. hall, or all these other venues, and just talk to people."
If I went to those same places now — or any Democrat campaigning in those places now — almost all news comes from Fox News
, Sinclair news stations, talk radio, or some Facebook
page,” he added, “and trying to penetrate that is really difficult.”
Persuading political opponents necessitates being able to reach them, and Obama cited the racist
“birther” conspiracy spread by right-wing outlets as an example of conservative media attempting to construct an alternate reality.
“It was convenient for them to do because it was a lot easier to book Donald Trump
and have him claim that I wasn’t born in this country than it was to actually create an interesting story about income inequality
that people would want to watch
,” he said.
In another section of the interview, Obama addressed progressive criticism that he tried too hard to persuade Republicans
who swore to oppose him, telling the New York Times that “there is a psychic cost to not always just telling the truth,” and explaining his diplomatic temperament.
“I think every president has to deal
with this, but it may have been more noticeable with me — in part because, as the first African American president, there was a presumption, which was not incorrect, that there were times when I bit my tongue,” Obama said.
“A lot of the time, one of the ways I would measure it is: Is it more important for me to tell a basic, historical truth, 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
who didn’t have it before?”
The former president stated that he once believed he could persuade political opponents by using the bully pulpit, but his advisers convinced him that securing Democratic legislative victories would better serve him in persuading some opponents than speeches, and he advised the Biden administration
to follow that advice.
“Does it completely override the sort of identity politics that has come to dominate Twitter
and the media, and that has seeped into how people think about politics?” Obama asked, “but at the margins, if you’re changing 5% of the electorate, that makes a difference.”