My final interview with President Obama in the White House had been scheduled for the day after the presidential election. I had hoped to look back on what he had achieved over eight years and the issues that mattered the most to him and to the readers of Rolling Stone, hear his advice for Hillary and about the road ahead. It was to be the “exit interview,” his tenth cover for Rolling Stone, our fourth interview together. Before flying down to Washington, D.C., on the morning after the staggering election results, I called and offered to postpone. This had to be one of the worst days of Obama’s political life, and he hadn’t had a moment to reflect on it, to be angry or to accept it.
But his office called back; Obama wanted to go ahead with the interview as planned. It was a dull, cloudy day, and the White House was nearly empty when I arrived. It had been a long and unhappy night, and now only a skeleton staff remained. It felt like a funeral.
The last time I had interviewed the president, in 2012, it was a lazy afternoon. I had gone over our time limit by a half-hour, and on leaving the Oval Office, I ran into Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, sitting by the desk of the president’s assistant, waiting to come in. This time it was her ghost.
Rolling Stone has had a wonderful relationship with Obama over the years. I first met him at the beginning of his 2008 campaign, when he came up to my office for dinner. We backed him when he was up and when he was down. He viewed Rolling Stone readers as part of his base. A year ago, we went to Alaska with him and toured the melting glaciers. With extraordinary pride, we watched him ride the wave of history.
I had many more questions for him than time allowed: Why had no one responsible for the Wall Street frauds, which cost millions of people their homes, their savings, their jobs, been sent to jail? Likewise, why did the people who misled America into the Iraq War also go scot-free? Would the rise of Donald Trump have been possible had any of them been held accountable? What was his sense of accomplishment in preserving so many millions of acres of national lands? And what did it take to finally put climate change at the top of his agenda….
Obama greeted me outside his office and walked me in. He was tired. He skipped the usual small talk, took off his jacket, sat in his customary chair and said, “Let’s do this.” He spoke slowly and with precision, staying true to his essential nature: controlled, analytical and cool. There are many things a sitting president cannot say, but this was his carefully reasoned message on a difficult and historic day.
I have to start with last night and ask you how you’re feeling about the election of Donald Trump. Could you believe what you were seeing? Were you blown away like the rest of us? And how are you feeling now?
Well, I’m disappointed, partly because I think Hillary Clinton would be a very fine president. As I said on the campaign trail, a lot of the work we’ve done is only partially complete. And we need some continuity in order for us to maximize its benefits.
Did you ever think this was possible? Did this result ever occur to you?
I will tell you, New Hampshire, 2008, I had just won Iowa and had this whirlwind tour of New Hampshire, huge rallies, huge crowds, and our internal pollster had us up by 10. And around 7:30, as I’m putting on my clothes to deliver my victory speech, I get a knock on the door by David Plouffe, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs. And they’ve got sheepish looks on their faces [chuckles]. And they say, “Barack, we have some interesting news for you. We don’t think we’re gonna win this thing.”
That’s the thing about democracy. That’s the thing about voting. It doesn’t mean polls are irrelevant, but there is always a human variable involved in this. So I think the odds of Donald Trump winning were always around 20 percent. That [doesn’t] seem like a lot, but one out of five is not that unusual. It’s not a miracle.
But aren’t you feeling chagrined, pissed off, upset, dismayed?
Well, I … no. You know, I don’t feel dismayed, because, number one, I couldn’t be prouder of the work that we’ve done over the last eight years. When I turn over the keys to the federal government to the next president of the United States, I can say without any equivocation that the country is a lot better off: The economy is stronger, the federal government works better, and our standing in the world is higher. And so I can take great pride in the work we’ve done. I can take great satisfaction in the people we’ve helped.
I don’t want to sugarcoat it. There are consequences to elections. It means that the next Supreme Court justice is going to be somebody who doesn’t reflect my understanding of the Constitution. It means that the work we’ve done internationally and domestically on climate is going to be threatened. It means that the Affordable Care Act, which has provided 20 million people with health insurance, is going to be modified in ways that some people are going to be hurt by. I think it doesn’t take us all the way back to the status quo, because, despite the rhetoric, the Republicans are going to conclude that simply throwing millions of people off the rolls with no health insurance isn’t smart politics. But probably the main reason that I don’t feel dismayed, but do feel disappointed, is the incredible young people who have worked in my administration, worked on our campaigns. If you look at the data from the election, if it were just young people who were voting, Hillary would have gotten 500 electoral votes. So we have helped, I think, shape a generation to think about being inclusive, being fair, caring about the environment. And they will have growing influence year by year, which means that America over time will continue to get better.
You think it’s still a progressive country?
I think that nothing is determined, but that the number of people who have a strong belief in a fair, just, equal, inclusive America is the majority and is growing.
And part of the challenge, though, that we do have, and this is something that I’ve been chewing on for a while now, is that there is a cohort of working-class white voters that voted for me in sizeable numbers, but that we’ve had trouble getting to vote for Democrats in midterm elections. In this election, [they] turned out in huge numbers for Trump. And I think that part of it has to do with our inability, our failure, to reach those voters effectively. Part of it is Fox News in every bar and restaurant in big chunks of the country, but part of it is also Democrats not working at a grassroots level, being in there, showing up, making arguments. That part of the critique of the Democratic Party is accurate. We spend a lot of time focused on international policy and national policy and less time being on the ground. And when we’re on the ground, we do well. This is why I won Iowa.
But how did the Democrats miss the white working class in such great numbers, who clearly had these big economic issues? They have lost their jobs in industrial states. …
It’s not quite that simple, because this is not simply an economic issue. This is a cultural issue. And a communications issue. It is true that a lot of manufacturing has left or transformed itself because of automation. But during the course of my presidency, we added manufacturing jobs at historic rates, and think about it: In Michigan—
But, I mean—
Hold on. Let me finish. If you look at Michigan, which I won, not just in 2008 but in 2012, by a wide margin, we paid a lot of attention to manufacturing jobs, which is why the auto industry is on double shifts in plants that used to be shut down. If you look at minimum-wage laws or family-leave policy or the investments that we made in community colleges or, for that matter, the Affordable Care Act, these are all big investments for working families, white, black and Hispanic. The challenge we had is not that we’ve neglected these communities from a policy perspective. That is, I think, an incorrect interpretation. You start reading folks saying, “Oh, you know, working-class families have been neglected,” or “Working-class white families have not been paid attention to by Democrats.” Actually, they have. What is true, though, is that whatever policy prescriptions that we’ve been proposing don’t reach, are not heard, by the folks in these communities. And what they do hear is Obama or Hillary are trying to take away their guns or they disrespect you.
One of the challenges that we’ve been talking about now is the way social media and the Internet have changed what people receive as news. I was just talking to my political director, David Simas. He was looking at his Facebook page and some links from high school friends of his, some of whom were now passing around crazy stuff about, you know, Obama has banned the Pledge of Allegiance.
I think it is really important for us, as progressives – set aside the Democratic Party as an institution, but just anybody who wants to see a more progressive America – to think about how we are operating on the ground and showing up everywhere and fighting for the support of folks and giving them a concrete sense of what it is that we think will make their lives better, rather than depending on coming up with the right technocratic policies and sharing that with the New York Times editorial board. If we are not on the ground, and people are not hearing and seeing us face-to-face, then we’ll keep on losing, even though I genuinely believe that the Republican prescriptions are not going to be as helpful to these folks.
So what do you think is the future of the Democratic Party? A month ago, everybody was convinced that the GOP was in its final death throes; now you’ve got three branches of government in the hands of one party. You’ve got voter suppression, which is guaranteed to continue, you’ve got redistricting, all these things. Where’s the Democratic Party going? This seems to be a hard-right turn.
Well, but there’s not a hard-right turn. Take a look at, take a look at—
If you control three branches of government and you’ve got the Supreme Court …
If you survey the American people, including Trump voters, they’re in favor of a higher minimum wage. They’re in favour, in large numbers, of decriminalising marijuana. They, I think, are, increasingly and with shocking speed, accepting of the need to treat the LGBT community with respect. They are hugely suspicious of Wall Street, hugely suspicious of the Establishment. Part of what Trump did, as well as Bernie, was run against that Establishment. Now the irony, of course, is that one would think Trump would be considered part of that Establishment and not a genuine outsider like Bernie was. So this doesn’t seem to be a moment in which there is a huge turn to the right.
What is true is that the ability of Republicans to win state elections, congressional elections and Senate elections is going to be a challenge for Democrats for a while, unless they can change perceptions about the Democratic Party and progressive causes in these rural or predominantly white areas, particularly in the Midwest. It’s going to be harder to do in the South for a lot of historical reasons.
With respect to the presidency, the Democrats still, actually, are in a better place and will continue to be in a better place than Republicans. This was always gonna be hard, because people get weary of one party after eight years. It’s only happened once in modern history where we had that kind of clear transfer of power – or at least in the last 40, 50 years. I don’t think that voter-suppression laws are gonna be the norm or gonna be the main problem that we have to deal with. We are not gonna be in a situation in which Democrats can’t win in any of these areas, but we’re gonna have to reorganise ourselves more effectively. Look, in North Carolina, a state I won once by one point and a state I lost once by one point, a Democratic governor [appears to have] won in North Carolina despite Trump winning North Carolina. And part of the reason he won was North Carolinians were tired of a hard-right agenda by the sitting Republican governor, and these biased laws that had been passed directed at the LGBT community that people thought went too far. But part of the reason Roy Cooper, that North Carolina governor-elect, won is because he was on the ground in those communities and he was working hard.
So, do Democrats have to re-examine how they approach things? Do progressives have to re-examine how they approach things? Absolutely. When I sat here and talked to Bernie Sanders, one of the things that he and I both agreed on was that we have to reinvigorate the DNC so that it’s not viewed as a Washington entity but rather that it is a grassroots organisation that is out all across the country and making a common cause with working people.
What’s your plan going to be going forward with this?
You know, I’m gonna sleep for a couple of weeks when I get out of here, take my wife on a well-deserved vacation. And I’ll spend time in my first year out of office writing a book, and I’m gonna be organising my presidential centre, which is gonna be focused on precisely this issue of how do we train and empower the next generation of leadership. How do we rethink our storytelling, the messaging and the use of technology and digital media, so that we can make a persuasive case across the country? And not just in San Francisco or Manhattan but everywhere, about why climate change matters or why issues of economic inequality have to be addressed. So I will continue to be very active, and Michelle is going to continue to be very active – and [on] the very thing that brought us here, which is our belief that when you work with people on the ground at a grassroots level, change happens. When people feel disconnected from the institutions of government, they can swing back and forth in all sorts of ways.
Let me ask you about climate change. Trump says he’s going to pull out of the Paris Agreements. Is that possible?
Well, historically what happens is that when you have an international agreement, it carries over into the next administration. There were agreements that President Bush made that I respected, because as president of the United States, it was important for me to project a sense of continuity in the U.S. government. There is no doubt that the Republican Party has taken a very hard-line position with respect to climate change. And so some of the progress that we have made, it is going to be tempting for them to roll back.
The good news is that a lot of these initiatives that we’ve taken work, and don’t just work in terms of reducing emissions, they work from an economic perspective. And so over the course of my eight years, when we doubled clean-energy production or we cut [auto emissions] in half, that wasn’t just a matter of regulations that can suddenly be erased; that had to do with investors and businesses and utilities and consumers all organising themselves, figuring out that, you know what, being smart on energy is good for the planet and it’s good for my pocketbook. So I think that the question for Donald Trump, for the Republicans in Congress [is]: Are they going to want to roll back hundreds of thousands of jobs in the solar industry that have been created? Are they suggesting that somehow the Big Three automakers retool to make more gas-guzzling cars, even though consumers are really happy saving money on gas? When it comes to power plants, contrary to the rhetoric, it hasn’t been my regulations that killed coal. More than anything, it’s actually been natural gas that’s been a lot cheaper, so it hasn’t been economical to build new coal mines.
I understand all that, but you have nearly all of the science saying we are past the tipping point, and you’ve got the Koch brothers financing an absolutely obstructionist Congress. That’s not going to change. Their ideology seems to be set on the subject. The money that’s bought these votes is set on the subject. …
Yeah, listen. If you want to persuade me that everything is going to be terrible, then we can talk ourselves into that. Or we can act. It is what it is. There’s been an election. There’s going to be a Trump presidency, and Republicans are going to control Congress. And the question is gonna be, for those like you and I, who care about these issues, do we figure out how to continue to make progress in this environment until we have a chance for the next election. And will we have mobilised ourselves and persuaded enough people that we can get back on a path that we think is going to be helpful for families, helpful for the environment, helpful for our safety and security and rule of law and civil rights and social rights?
And one of the things that I have been telling my younger staff, who in some cases have only known politics through my presidency, is history doesn’t travel in a straight line. And it zigs and it zags and sometimes you take two steps forward and then you take a step back. You are absolutely right when it comes to us needing to feel an urgency about climate change, but what I’ve always said was, for us to get to where we need to go on climate, we got to have the American people [and] public opinion on our side. They’ve got to feel a sense of urgency about it, and that requires us persuading and winning their votes so that we can implement these policies. And we’ve made significant progress relative to where we were eight years ago – [but] nowhere near where we need to go. The Paris Agreement envisions us hitting targets a decade from now. I’m confident that America can still hit those targets. And it may be that more of those targets are met on the back end because there are different policies coming out of the Trump administration on this. But I think that we can still achieve what needs to be achieved.
There’s no benefit that’s derived from pulling into a fetal position. We go out there, and we work. And we slog through challenges, and over time things get better.
Let me ask about immigration reform. Where do we go? What’s the path forward on immigration?
Well, look, there are those in the Republican Party who recognise that regardless of how this election played itself out, over time, alienating a big chunk of the Latino voters, the Asian voters, is gonna be a problem. And that gives [Republicans] some self-interest in solving this in a sensible way. It’s going to be important for Democrats and immigration-rights activists to recognise that for the majority of the American people, borders mean something. And so there has to be, what I’ve said before, both rule of law and values that stay true to our immigrant roots. Those things don’t have to be contradictory, but there have been times where in our big-heartedness around immigration, we haven’t adequately addressed how do we get the orderly and lawful part of it down. And we tend to dismiss people’s concerns about making sure that immigration is lawful and orderly. And what that means, I think, is that there will still be an opportunity at some point to do comprehensive immigration reform.
I don’t think it’s gonna happen over the next two years or maybe even not over the next four years, but what we can do is make smart changes, building on what we’ve already done around the legal-immigration system. What we can do is to work along the borders in a cooperative way with Mexico so that the pressure of what are now mostly Central American immigrants into our country is handled in a humane way. And what we can do, and I will share this with President-elect Trump when I see him, is continue to make smart investments in countries like Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala that can help them deliver some sense of well-being for their people.
You can now buy marijuana legally on the entire West Coast. So why are we still waging the War on Drugs? It is a colossal failure. Why are we still dancing around the subject and making marijuana equivalent to a Schedule I drug?
Look, I’ve been very clear about my belief that we should try to discourage substance abuse. And I am not somebody who believes that legalisation is a panacea. But I do believe that treating this as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol, is the much smarter way to deal with it. Typically how these classifications are changed are not done by presidential edict but are done either legislatively or through the DEA. As you might imagine, the DEA, whose job it is historically to enforce drug laws, is not always going to be on the cutting edge about these issues.
[Laughs] What about you? Are you gonna get on the cutting edge?
Look, I am now very much in lame-duck status. And I will have the opportunity as a private citizen to describe where I think we need to go. But in light of these referenda passing, including in California, I’ve already said, and as I think I mentioned on Bill Maher’s show, where he asked me about the same issue, that it is untenable over the long term for the Justice Department or the DEA to be enforcing a patchwork of laws, where something that’s legal in one state could get you a 20-year prison sentence in another. So this is a debate that is now ripe, much in the same way that we ended up making progress on same-sex marriage. There’s something to this whole states-being-laboratories-of-democracy and an evolutionary approach. You now have about a fifth of the country where this is legal.
You got up there and said legalize same-sex marriage, and you pushed it right over the edge. …
Well, you know, no. I don’t think that’s how it works. If you will recall, what happened was, first, very systematically, I changed laws around hospital visitation for people who were same-sex partners. I then assigned the Pentagon to do a study on getting rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which then got the buy-in of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and we were then able to [repeal] “don’t ask, don’t tell.” We then filed a brief on Proposition 8 out in California. And then, after a lot of groundwork was laid, then I took a position.
So we’re in the groundwork stage?
One of the things that I think it’s important for progressives to do when we’re in a reflective mode after an election like this is, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t say, “Why aren’t you reaching out to the folks who voted against us? And by the way, why aren’t you maximizing getting 100 percent for the things that those of us, you know, who are already progressive and living on the coasts think should be done right away?” The point is that politics in a big, diverse country like this requires us to move the ball forward not in one long Hail Mary to the end zone, but to, you know, systemically make progress.
So how do you think we go about stitching the country back together?
Well, the most important thing that I’m focused on is how we create a common set of facts. That sounds kind of abstract. Another way of saying it is, how do we create a common story about where we are. The biggest challenge that I think we have right now in terms of this divide is that the country receives information from completely different sources. And it’s getting worse. The whole movement away from curated journalism to Facebook pages, in which an article on climate change by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist looks pretty much as credible as an article written by a guy in his underwear in a basement, or worse. Or something written by the Koch brothers. People are no longer talking to each other; they’re just occupying their different spheres. And in an Internet era where we still value a free press and we don’t want censorship of the Internet, that’s a hard problem to solve. I think it’s one that requires those who are controlling these media to think carefully about their responsibilities, and [whether there] are ways to create a better conversation. It requires better civics education among our kids so that we can sort through what’s true and what’s not. It’s gonna require those of us who are interested in progressive causes figuring out how do we attract more eyeballs and make it more interesting and more entertaining and more persuasive.
Maybe the news business and the newspaper industry, which is being destroyed by Facebook, needs a subsidy so we can maintain a free press?
The challenge is, the technology is moving so fast that it’s less an issue of traditional media losing money. The New York Times is still making money. NPR is doing well. Yeah, it’s a nonprofit, but it has a growing audience. The problem is segmentation. We were talking about the issue of a divided country. Good journalism continues to this day. There’s great work done in Rolling Stone. The challenge is people are getting a hundred different visions of the world from a hundred different outlets or a thousand different outlets, and that is ramping up divisions. It’s making people exaggerate or say what’s most controversial or peddling in the most vicious of insults or lies, because that attracts eyeballs. And if we are gonna solve that, it’s not going to be simply an issue of subsidising or propping up traditional media; it’s going to be figuring out how do we organise in a virtual world the same way we organise in the physical world. We have to come up with new models.
“The most important constraint on any president is the American people, an informed citizenry that is active and participating and engaged.”
What kind of private moments have you had that define your last eight years?
Oh, well, you know there have been well-known moments like me walking across the colonnade and hearing the chants of “USA” after we had gotten bin Laden, or being up on the Truman Balcony with my young staff after we got the Affordable Care Act passed. There have been times just sitting in the Treaty Room reading letters from people who have a story to tell, a veteran who’s not getting services they need [and] a young DREAM Act kid who describes how he’s now gotten a degree and has gone back and is teaching in the school where he went, that move you deeply.
But I think the thing that I will miss the most about this place, the thing that can get me sentimental – and I try not to get too nostalgic, because I still got a bunch of work to do – it’s the team we built here. The number of young people in this place who are just amazing. Somebody like a Brian Deese. Nobody outside of the White House necessarily knows Brian, must be 35, 37, something like that. He’s our deputy chief of staff for policy. He engineered the Paris Agreement, the [Hydrofluorocarbons] Agreement, the Aviation Agreement, may have helped save the planet, and he’s just doing it while he’s got two babies at home, and could not be a better person. And there are people like him across this administration. What I will take away from this experience is them: seeing how they work together, seeing the commitments they have made toward the issues that we care about.
Do you think Michelle should run for office?
Michelle will never run for office. She is as talented a person as I know. You can see the incredible resonance she has with the American people. But I joke that she’s too sensible to want to be in politics.
What advice do you have for Trump?
Well, I’ll have a chance to talk to him tomorrow, and I think the main thing that I will say to him is, number one, however you campaigned, once you’re in this office, you are part of a legacy dating back to those first Revolutionaries. And this amazing experiment in democracy has to be tended. So aside from any particular issue, the president needs to recognise that this is not about you. This is not about your power, your position or the perks, the Marine band. This is about this precious thing that we’ve inherited and that we want to pass on. And for me at least, that means you surround yourself with really good people, that you spend time learning and understanding what these issues are because they really actually have an impact on people. They’re not games that we’re playing. And that to the best of your ability, you’re making the decisions that you think are right for the American people – even when they’re not popular, even when they’re not expedient. And the satisfaction you get from that is that when you leave this place, you can feel like you’ve been true to this immense privilege and responsibility that’s been given to you.
Do you think the weight of history will constrain him to some extent?
I think sitting behind that desk is sobering, and that it will have an impact on him as it has on every president. But I think the most important constraint on any president is the American people themselves, of an informed citizenry that is active and participating and engaged. And that is going to be something that I will, in my own modest ways, continue to try to encourage for the rest of my life.
From issue #783 (February 2017), available now.