The Current

Barack Obama reflects on 'outsized' expectations of his presidency, and convincing Michelle he should run

In his new book, former U.S. president Barack Obama reflects on the “outsized expectations” of his election as the country’s first Black leader, as well as how living up to those expectations wasn’t always possible.

Obama spoke to The Current's Matt Galloway in an exclusive Canadian interview

Former U.S. president Barack Obama is sworn in as U.S. president on Jan. 20, 2009, as his wife Michelle Obama watches on. In a Canadian exclusive interview, Obama said he had to convince Michelle running for office was the right idea. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

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Before his first run for office, former U.S. president Barack Obama had one important person to convince: his wife, Michelle.

"We had determined that I could win. We determined that the family could probably survive it, even if it wasn't Michelle's preference," Obama told The Current's Matt Galloway in a Canadian exclusive interview.

But he said Michelle's remaining question was, "Why you, Barack, instead of a bunch of other Democrats, like Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden?"

Obama told her there was a chance he could excite younger voters, or people who hadn't voted before, in a way other candidates could not.

"But what I also said was: 'Look, if I win, on the day I take office, then children across America — Black and brown kids, kids who don't feel like they're on the inside — they'll think of themselves differently," he said.

"Michelle said: 'That's a good answer.'"

How Barack Obama convinced his wife he should run in 2008

The Current

2 months agoVideo
3:04
Former U.S. president Barack Obama says he ran for president in part to inspire 'kids who don't feel like they're on the inside' of the political process but that it took some convincing to get his wife, Michelle, on board. 3:04

Obama served as the 44th president of the United States from 2008 until U.S. President Donald Trump's victory in 2016. His new book A Promised Land, published last Wednesday, charts his rise in politics up to the first two and a half years of his presidency. The book, part one of a planned two-part series, broke records when it sold nearly 890,000 copies in the U.S. and Canada in its first 24 hours.

Four years after he left office, he said young people of all races tell him that growing up under his presidency made them feel that a life in public office, even the highest office, "was open to us, too." 

"There's real value in that," he said, but added that he doesn't "want to overstate the symbolic value," or diminish the "need for concrete policies."

"I think when you're dealing with issues like the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and systemic inequality, symbolism only takes you so far."

Barack Obama on the challenges ahead for president-elect Joe Biden

The Current

2 months agoVideo
3:45
Former U.S. president Barack Obama said in an interview with The Current that for president-elect Joe Biden's first job will be to heal the deep divisions in the country, which run deeper than just the recent election. 3:45

Obama's administration has faced criticism for U.S. inaction in Syria's civil war, as well as failing to enact significant change on domestic issues such as racism, gun control and health care.

He said that part of the reason he wrote the book was "to try to give people a sense of the choices I was confronting as I'm trying to get various things done."

"I think that the danger for someone like me, who was elected with outsized expectations and a lot of symbolism, is that sometimes your supporters feel as if you're going to wave a wand and it's all going to get done," he said. 

"And it's not possible."

Obama's record with African Americans 

In the book, Obama writes that upon moving into the White House, an older Black butler told him: "You don't understand what this means to us."

It's an example of the high expectations that he faced during his presidency, in particular from African Americans and supporters who hoped he would shape systemic change.

He said during his tenure, "the African American community was very generous to me in recognizing that as a first in a tough situation, we were under a different set of pressures."

As a result, the community was "very protective" of the Obamas, he said.

I'm sure there were times where folks were frustrated that I wasn't championing specific issues in as focused a way as they would have liked- Barack Obama

However, he said there were exceptions, in particular, people who were frustrated at his policy of pursuing broader coalitions over targeted policies, and would ask: "What have you done specifically for the African American community?"

Activists and academics have criticized Obama as doing too little to intervene on behalf of African Americans, on issues from police violence and criminal justice, to closing the racial wealth gap.

He described it as a debate happening globally: to what extent should a leader build coalitions that might mean compromise and accommodating broader interests, and to what extent is it "important for you to be a champion specifically for a group that has suffered from historic discrimination."

"Using universal language or pursuing universal programmes rather than targeted programmes, oftentimes, as a practical matter, allowed me to build broader coalitions and get more stuff done," he said.

"That's a balance that most of the time I felt I got right, but I'm sure there were times where folks were frustrated that I wasn't championing specific issues in as focused a way as they would have liked." 

Obama is sworn in as U.S. president on Jan. 20, 2009. His new book, A Promised Land, charts his rise in politics up to the first 2 1/2 years of his presidency. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Aim to 'fight another day': Obama

The Affordable Care Act was one of Obama's signature achievements, but perhaps also one of his most divisive. Ten years after it was passed, it currently faces a Supreme Court challenge from Republican-governed states, backed by President Donald Trump's administration.

He told Galloway that if he were starting from scratch, he would have established a single-payer plan, where the health costs of all citizens are paid by a single public system.

"The problem is that wasn't possible. We have a legacy of private insurance in this country," he said.

"And to try to unwind one-sixth of America's economy would have met too much political resistance, even within my own party." 

Instead, he passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which extended coverage to roughly 20 million people, stopped insurers refusing to offer coverage based on pre-existing conditions, and created marketplaces for private insurance.

"To this day, there are Democrats who are disappointed that we didn't get everybody covered," Obama said.

It was the right choice to have made, he insisted, because in politics "you are rarely going to get one hundred per cent of what you want."

"You get 30, 50 — if you're lucky, 70 per cent — of what you want … and then you go to fight another day," he said.

What Barack Obama misses about being president

2 months agoVideo
2:15
Former U.S. president Barack Obama doesn't miss the pomp of the office but joked in an interview with CBC's The Current that he'd like to be the bug in the ear of the president, offering real-time advice from his basement. 2:15

Obama told Galloway that "the only problems that landed on my desk as president were problems that nobody else could solve."

"One way or another there was going to be issues, problems, and you were dealing with probabilities. What you might try might not work. You might fail," he said.

"You try anyway. You go at it."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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