“My entire politics is premised on the fact that we are these tiny organisms on this little speck floating in the middle of space,” Barack Obama told me, sitting in his office in Washington, D.C.
To be fair, I was the one who had introduced the cosmic scale, asking how proof of alien life would change his politics. But Obama, in a philosophical mood, used the question to trace his view of humanity. “The differences we have on this planet are real,” he said. “They’re profound. And they cause enormous tragedy as well as joy. But we’re just a bunch of humans with doubts and confusion. We do the best we can. And the best thing we can do is treat each other better, because we’re all we got.”
Before our interview, I’d read “A Promised Land,” the first volume of Obama’s presidential memoirs. It had left me thinking about the central paradox of Obama’s political career. He accomplished one of the most remarkable acts of political persuasion in American history, convincing the country to vote, twice, for a liberal Black man named Barack Hussein Obama during the era of the war on terror. But he left behind a country that is less persuadable, more polarized, and more divided. The Republican Party, of course, became a vessel for the Tea Party, for Sarah Palin, for Donald Trump — a direct challenge to the pluralistic, democratic politics Obama practiced. But the left, too, has struggled with the limits of Obama’s presidency, coming to embrace a more confrontational and unsparing approach to politics.
So this is a conversation with Obama about both the successes and failures of his presidency. We talk about his unusual approach to persuasion, when it’s best to leave some truths unsaid, the media dynamics that helped fuel both his and Trump’s campaigns, how to reduce educational polarization, why he believes Americans have become less politically persuadable, the mistakes he believes were made in the design of the 2009 stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, the ways in which Biden is completing the policy changes begun in the Obama administration, what humans are doing now that we will be judged for most harshly in 100 years, and more.
Something I noticed again and again in the book is this very particular approach to persuasion that you have.
I think the normal way most of us think about persuasion is you are trying to win an argument with someone. You seem to approach it with this first step of making yourself a person that the other person will feel able to listen to, which means sympathizing with their argument, sanding off some of the edges of your own. Tell me a bit about how you think about that.
Now, that’s interesting. I forget whether it was Clarence Darrow, or Abraham Lincoln, or some apocryphal figure in the past who said the best way to win an argument is to first be able to make the other person’s argument better than they can. For me, what that meant was that I had to understand their worldview.
And I couldn’t expect them to understand mine if I wasn’t extending myself to understand theirs.
Now why that is the way I think about things generally is no doubt partly temperament. Partly it’s biographical. If you’re a kid whose parents are from Kansas and Kenya, and you’re born in Hawaii, and you live in Indonesia, you are naturally having to figure out, well, how did all these pieces fit together?
How do all these perspectives, cultures, blind spots, biases, how do you reconcile them to approximate something true? And I think that carries over into my adulthood and into my politics. It’s how I approach the world generally.
It presumes that none of us have a monopoly on truth. It admits doubt, in terms of our own perspectives. But if you practice it long enough, at least for me, it actually allows you to not always persuade others, but at least have some solid ground that you can stand on — you can, with confidence say, I know what I think. I know what I believe. It actually gives me more conviction, rather than less, if I’d listened to somebody else’s argument rather than just shutting it off.
One of the things that strikes me about it, though, is it sometimes means not calling out arguments that you think are kind of really wrong. In a section of the book about the Tea Party, you mull over whether the reaction they had to you was racist. It’s clear that it at least partly was. And then you say “whatever my instincts might tell me, whatever truth the history books might suggest, I knew I wasn’t going to win over any voters by labeling my opponents racist.” How do you decide when the cost of that kind of truth outweighs the value of it?
Well, now you’re describing something a little bit different, which is how do you move large segments of the population politically towards an outcome you want? Versus, how I might persuade somebody one on one?
The premise of persuading somebody who you can build some trust with and have a history with — there might be times where you say, you know what, you’re just full of it and let me tell you why. And you can be very logical and incisive about how you want to dismantle their arguments. Although I should add, by the way, don’t, do not try that at home. Because that’s not a recipe for winning arguments with Michelle. But when you’re dealing with 300 million people, with enormous regional, and racial, and religious, and cultural differences, then now you are having to make some calculations.
So let’s take the example you used. I write extensively about the emergence of the Tea Party. And we could see that happening with Sarah Palin — she was a prototype for the politics that led to the Tea Party, that, in turn, ultimately led to Donald Trump, and that we’re still seeing today. There were times where calling it out would have given me great satisfaction personally. But it wouldn’t have necessarily won the political day in terms of me getting a bill passed.
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. That’s why the skit that Key and Peele did with the anger translator, Luther, was funny. Because people assumed Barack’s thinking something other than what he’s saying in certain circumstances.
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?
There’s a psychic cost to not always just telling the truth. And I think there were times where supporters of mine would get frustrated if I wasn’t being as forthright about certain things as I might otherwise be. Then there are also just institutional constraints that I think every president has to follow on some of these issues. And it was sort of on a case-by-case basis where you try to make decisions.
Sometimes you’d get sufficiently disappointed, let’s say, for example, with gun-safety issues. But after Newtown, for example, and Congress’s complete unwillingness to do anything about the slaughter of children, here were times where I would just go off. Because I felt that deeply about how wrongheaded we were in a basic fundamental way. But that was, let’s face it, after I had exhausted every other possibility of trying to get Congress to move on those issues.
Something that really struck me about the book is how much it lives in paradoxes. How much you’re comfortable with the idea that something and its opposite are true at the same time. And I think of persuasion as being the central paradox of your presidency.
So you’ve accomplished this massive act of persuasion, winning the presidency twice as a Black man with the middle name Hussein. Now, in retrospect, it’s like, ‘Of course, Barack Obama was president.’
I think it’s fair to say that wasn’t a given.
It wasn’t as obvious then. But your presidency also made the Republican Party less persuadable. It opened the door in some ways to Sarah Palin, to Donald Trump. And it further closed the door on the kind of pluralistic politics that you try to practice. I’m curious how you hold both of those outcomes together.
That’s been the history of America, right? There is abolition, and the Civil War, and then there’s backlash, and the rise of the K.K.K., and then Reconstruction ends, and Jim Crow arises, and then you have a civil rights movement, a modern civil rights movement, and desegregation. And that in turn leads to push back and ultimately Nixon’s Southern strategy. What I take comfort from is that in the traditional two steps forward, one step back, as long as you’re getting the two steps, then the one step back, you know, is the price of doing business.
In my case, I get elected. We have a spurt of activity that gets things done. Even after we lose Congress during the course of those eight years, we manage the government, restore some sense that it can work on behalf of people. We regain credibility internationally. But you’re right, it helps to precipitate a shift in the Republican Party that was already there, but probably accelerates it.
On the other hand, during that period, you’ve got an entire generation that’s grown up and taking for granted, as you just described, that you’ve got a Black family in the White House, taking for granted that administration can be competent, and have integrity, and not be wrought with scandal. And it serves as a marker, right? It’s planted a flag from which then the next generation builds. And by the way, the next generation can then look back and say, yeah, we do take that for granted. We can do a lot better and go even further.
And that is, I wouldn’t say an inevitable progression. Sometimes the backlash can last a very long time and you can take three steps back after two steps forward. But it does seem to be sort of in the nature of things that any significant movement of social progress, particularly those aspects of social progress that relate to identity, race, gender — all the stuff that is not just dollars and cents, and transactional — that invariably will release some energy on the other side by folks who feel threatened by change.
But one lesson I’ve seen a lot of folks on the left take, I think particularly in the Trump years, is that you simply need more confrontation. This can’t just be done through pluralism. I think somewhat people often call cancel culture is part of that reaction. It’s a belief that you really do have to confront the country with the ugliest parts of itself so light can get in and it can heal. Do you think they have a point or that’s the wrong lesson to take?
No, I don’t think it’s — well, since we’re on the topic of race, what we saw after George Floyd’s murder was a useful bit of truth telling that young people led. And I think it opened people’s eyes to a renewed way of thinking about how incomplete the process of reckoning has been in this country when it comes to race.
But even after I think a shift in perspective around George Floyd, we’re still back into the trenches of how do we get different district attorneys elected? How do we actually reform police departments?
Now we’re back in the world of politics. And as soon as we get back into the world of politics, now it’s a numbers game. You have to persuade and you have to create coalitions.
So I don’t think it’s an either-or proposition. I think there are times where because of events and moments there’s what we might describe as a teachable moment, and George Floyd’s tragic death was an example of that in very stark terms. A part of what happens as a result of the pandemic is there’s a teachable moment about, maybe this whole deficit hawk thing of the federal government, just being nervous about our debt 30 years from now, while millions of people are suffering — maybe that’s not a smart way to think about our economics. Again, a teachable moment. So there are times when that’s presented. I think you try to drive it home as much as possible and get a reorientation of the body politic.
But at some point in this country, in our democracy, you still have to cobble together majorities to get things done. And that is particularly true at the federal level, where — although reconciliation has now presented a narrow window to do some pretty big things — the filibuster, if it does not get reformed, still means that maybe 30 percent of the population potentially controls the majority of Senate seats. And so if you say that 30 percent of the country is irreconcilably wrong, then it’s going to be hard to govern.
There’s a pretty fundamental asymmetry that brings out. So I think at the presidential level, you have a three or four-point advantage for Republicans in Electoral College. At the Senate level, it’s playing the range of five points. And the House level, it’s about two. So you have this real difference now between the parties, where Democrats need to win right-of-center voters to win national power, and Republicans do not need to win left-of-center voters to win national power. And that really changes the strategic picture for the two of them.
It’s enormous. It’s one of those things that’s in the background of the folks in Washington and people who follow politics closely. But the average American, understandably, isn’t spending a lot of time thinking about Senate rules and gerrymandering and ——
How dare you.
I’m sorry, Ezra, but you’re on the nerd side of the spectrum on this stuff. As am I. So people don’t understand — well, if the Democrats win the presidency or if they’re in control of the Senate, why aren’t all these things that they promised happening? Or why are they trimming their sails on their single-payer health care plans or what have you?
And the answer is, well, the game is tilted in a way that partly arises out of a very intentional desire for Southern states, for example, to maintain power and reduce the power of the federal government. Some of it has to do with demographic patterns, and where populations are distributed. It’s not surprising that the progressive party, the Democratic Party, is more of an urban party. Because by necessity, you got more different kinds of people, right? Immigrants flooding urban areas and settling, and having a different perspective than folks who live in more rural, more homogeneous areas. And once you get Wyoming having the same number of senators as California, you’ve got a problem.
That does mean Democratic politics is going to be different than Republican politics. Now the good news is, I also think that has made the Democratic Party more empathetic, more thoughtful, wiser by necessity. We have to think about a broader array of interests and people. And that’s my vision for how America ultimately works best and perfects its union. We don’t have the luxury of just consigning a group of people to say you’re not real Americans. We can’t do that. But it does make our job harder when it comes to just trying to get a bill passed, or trying to win an election.
One of the ways that our politics have reoriented since your presidency is around education. For reasons that are too complicated to go into here, when polarization splits along educational lines, as it did in 2016 and 2020, the Democratic disadvantage in the Electoral College gets a lot worse.
But you did something really unusual in 2008 and 2012: Educational polarization went down.
In 2012, you won noncollege whites making less than $27,000 a year. Donald Trump then won them by more than 20 points. He kept them in 2020. What advice do you have to Democrats to bring educational polarization back down?
I actually think Joe Biden’s got good instincts on this. If you’re 45, and working in a blue collar job, and somebody is lecturing me about becoming a computer programmer, that feels like something got spit out of some think tank as opposed to how my real life is lived.
People knew I was left on issues like race, or gender equality, and L.G.B.T.Q. issues and so forth. But I think maybe the reason I was successful campaigning in downstate Illinois, or Iowa, or places like that is they never felt as if I was condemning them for not having gotten to the politically correct answer quick enough, or that somehow they were morally suspect because they had grown up with and believed more traditional values.
The challenge is when I started running in 2007-2008, it was still possible for me to go into a small town, in a disproportionately white conservative town in rural America, and get a fair hearing because people just hadn’t heard of me. They might say what kind of name is that? They might look at me and have a set of assumptions. But the filter just wasn’t that thick.
The prototypical example is I show up in a small town in Southern Illinois, which is closer to the South than it is to Chicago, both culturally as well as geographically. And usually, the local paper was owned by a modestly conservative, maybe even quite conservative usually, guy. He’d call me in. We’d have a cup of coffee. We’d have a conversation about tax policy, or trade, or whatever else he cared about. And at the end of it, usually I could expect some sort of story in the paper saying, well, we met with Obama. He seems like an intelligent young man. We don’t agree with him on much. He’s kind of liberal for our taste, but he had some interesting ideas. And you know, that was it.
So then 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 Democratic 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. And trying to penetrate that is really difficult.
It’s not that the people in these communities have changed. It’s that if that’s what you are being fed, day in and day out, then you’re going to come to every conversation with a certain set of predispositions that are really hard to break through. And that is one of the biggest challenges I think we face.
At the end of the day, I actually have found that — and this still sounds naïve. I think a lot of people would still question this. But I’ve seen it. Most folks actually are persuadable in the sense of they kind of want the same things. They want a good job. They want to be able to support a family. They want safe neighborhoods. Even on really historically difficult issues like race, people aren’t going around thinking, Man, how can we do terrible things to people who don’t look like us? That’s not people’s perspective. What they are concerned about is not being taken advantage of, or is their way of life and traditions slipping away from them? Is their status being undermined by changes in society?
And if you have a conversation with folks, you can usually assuage those fears. But they have to be able to hear you. You have to be able to get into the room. And I still could do that back in 2007, 2008. I think Joe, by virtue of biography and generationally, I think he can still reach some of those folks. But it starts getting harder, particularly for newcomers who are coming up.
We had a conversation related to this in 2015, where we were talking about polarization and how it had gone up during your presidency. And something you said to me is something I wrestled a lot with in my own book, which is that people are pretty polarized when you start talking about national politics. But then you talk to them a bit more, you find they have other identities: they’re soccer coaches, they go to church, they own a business. And those identities aren’t so politically polarized.
I found that persuasive and hopeful at the time But since then, our politics have become that much more nationalized. Our political identities become that much stronger. And this idea that these other identities are deeper seems less and less true. When the political cue comes, you really know what side you’re on. Do you think Americans have just become less persuadable?
I think that is what you just identified — in part because of the media infrastructure I described and the siloing of media. In part because of the Trump presidency and the way both sides went to their respective fortresses. Absolutely, I think it’s real. I think it’s worse. I think polling shows it. Anecdotes show it. Thanksgiving becomes a lot more difficult, what we’re seeing right now with respect to vaccines.
I mean, I think it’s fair to say that the difference in how George H.W Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations approached the basic issue of a pandemic and vaccines — there might be differences in terms of efficacy, or how well programs were run, etc. But it’s hard to imagine a previous Republican administration completely ignoring science, right?
Yeah, I’ve thought about what if this were a second term Mitt Romney.
Exactly. So that is a fundamental shift. And I think people’s identities have become far more invested as a result in which side are you on politically. It spills over into everyday life, and even small issues that previously were not considered, even political issues.
So if you’re a soccer coach now, there might be a conversation about why are all the refs white? Right? And suddenly there’s a long argument, and you’ve got each side immediately tweeting about it. And then Fox News might grab the story and run with it in the most sensational way, and next thing you know, Joe Biden is being asked about a soccer game in Maryland. Right? And when we see that pattern playing itself out in our daily lives, in a way, that’s unhealthy.
I think there’s some merit to this, that the decline of other mediating institutions that provided us a sense of place and who we are, whether it was the church or union or neighborhood — those used to be part of a multiple set of building blocks to how we thought about ourselves. And the way that the national conversation evolves, suddenly there’s a right answer across all those lines, right? Which is part of the reason why you don’t get ticket-splitting these days, right?
Even when I first came in, what was striking was the degree to which the conservative Democrat or the pro-choice Republican were getting winnowed out of each respective party. What’s interesting is how it filtered. Rather than the public saying we don’t like that, let’s try something else. In some ways, the public’s come to see themselves individually in those terms as well.
Also, the choices get starker for them. Something I was thinking about while you were talking was this idea that I think about sometimes that I call “ricochet polarization.” And I’m not asserting symmetry between the two sides. I don’t want to get flak on that.
I would jump on you in a second, don’t worry.
You were saying a couple minutes ago, that you thought people knew you were pretty left on social issues, on L.G.B.T.Q. issues, on a bunch of issues, but they thought you respected them. But you also — because of what you believed, or also because you thought folks were movable — were restrained on a lot of these issues.
You ran in 2008 and you were opposed to gay marriage. You talk in the book about how Axelrod and Plouffe were very careful about avoiding issues that would exacerbate racial conflict. And you guys focused a lot on economics.
But then, as people feel persuasion is not working and they see the worst of the other side coming at them, there’s a dynamic that happens, and I see it among Democrats, too, where people are more willing to say, Well, here’s what I really believe. And here’s what I really believe about you. If they’re still going to say I’m a socialist. Then well, maybe I am a socialist. They’re going to say I want to raise taxes on middle-class people, then maybe I do, actually. And each day the parties become a little less restrained because the benefits of restraint seem lower.
First of all — and you already offered this caveat, but I want to re-emphasize — it’s not symmetrical because Joe Manchin is still a Democrat in our party. And I think a lot of people look and say the guy’s got to run in West Virginia, a state that Joe Biden lost by 30 percent. And we understand that his politics are not going to be the same as Nancy Pelosi’s. So just by virtue of the fact that we have to earn votes from a lot of different places.
And needing center-right voters.
And needing center-right voters. Look, the challenge we have is that the other side just did not function that way. And that’s not because there aren’t people in the Republican Party who thought that way.
You mentioned Mitt Romney earlier. Well, Mitt Romney was the governor of Massachusetts. And when he was, he made all kinds of sensible compromises. He didn’t approach things the way I would approach things, but there was some sense of what the other side thinks matters. He’s the governor of a Democratic state. I’ve got to recognize that I’m probably more conservative than most people in the state, which means I have to make some accommodations. But as soon as he started running for the presidency, suddenly he’s got to pretend that he’s this hard-right, gun-toting, varmint-killing guy.
Severely conservative. Well, why is that? It’s because a dynamic has been created. And that dynamic, in part, has to do with public officials being lazy, and just saying, this is the easiest way for us to get our folks riled up is to suggest that Obama is a Muslim socialist who is going to take away your guns.
But some of it is a media infrastructure that persuaded a large portion of that base that they had something to fear. And fed on that politics of fear and resentment in a way that ironically ended up being a straitjacket for the Republican officials themselves. And some of them were gobbled up by the monster that had been created. And suddenly found themselves retiring because they weren’t angry or resentful enough for the base they had stoked.
I think it’s fair to say that you’re critical of the media at points in the book. In your experience watching it, how much do you feel the media reflects politics, and how much do you feel it shapes politics?
Well, look, there are certain bad habits that the media cultivated, and had to then re-examine during the Trump era. The classic being what constitutes objectivity.
I joke about “President Obama today was savagely attacked by the Republicans for suggesting the earth is round,” right? Republicans suggested that there’s some hidden documents showing the earth is, in fact, flat. In response, Obama said, well — and then it goes on. But it’s presented as he said, they said, and that’s reporting. And you’d have some vague corner of the press room engaged in fact-checking after the fact. But that’s not what appeared on the nightly news.
And that taught somebody like a Mitch McConnell that there is no downside for misstating facts, making stuff up, engaging in out-and-out obstruction, reversing positions that you held just a few minutes ago, because now it’s politically expedient to do so. That never reached the public in a way where the public could make a judgment about who’s acting responsibly and who isn’t.
I think that the media was complicit in creating that dynamic in a way that understandably is difficult, because, as we discovered during the Trump administration, if an administration is just misstating facts all the time, it starts looking like, gosh, the media’s anti-Trump. And this becomes more evidence of a left wing conspiracy and liberal elites trying to gang up on the guy.
Yeah, there’s the objectivity critique, which I actually think, in many ways, the media got better on. But there’s another one laced through the book. And it’s interesting because I think you both benefited from it and become wary of it, which is that in the media, one of our central biases is towards exciting candidates. And you were an exciting candidate in 2008. But later on that’s also something that Donald Trump activates in a different way. You have a big set piece at the White House Correspondents Dinner where the Washington Post invites Donald Trump after a year of birtherism. And even in a broader sense, exciting candidates usually shape perceptions of parties. On the right, they tend to be quite extreme. They tend to be, in both parties, either more liberal or more conservative. But part of the dynamic is the media is pressured by social media, and like you look around at who’s up there on Facebook and on Reddit.
Conflict sells. And that’s a way in which I think the perceptions of the parties are changing for people. Because whoever is chair of the House Ways and Means Committee —
Who’s considered the voice of —
Exactly. Who becomes the voice? How do you reflect on that? You came up, social media is great for you. It seems to me you’ve got some different views on it now. How do you think about that trade-off between excitement and some of the other qualities that are a little bit more nuanced that you worry people are losing sight of?
Yeah, I think it is entirely fair. And you’re right, even during my campaign I got weary of it. What my political adviser David Axelrod called — the Obama icon, right? You got the posters, and you got the crowds. And very much focused on me as this comet bursting onto the scene.
But I have to tell you that there’s a difference between the issue of excitement, charisma versus rewarding people for saying the most outrageous things. I don’t think anybody would accuse me of just creating controversy, just for the sake of it. The excitement I brought was trying to tell a story about America where we might all start working together and overcome some of our tragic past. And move forward and build a broader sense of community. And it turns out that those virtues actually did excite people.
So I don’t agree that that’s the only way that you can get people to read newspapers or click on a site. It requires more imagination and maybe more effort. It requires some restraint to not feed the outrage-inflammatory approach to politics. And I think folks didn’t do it.
The birtherism thing, which I was just a taste of things to come, started in the right wing media ecosystem. But a whole bunch of mainstream folks booked him all the time because he boosted ratings. And that wasn’t something that was compelled. 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? That’s a harder thing to come up with.
Let me get at that piece of it, too. So I covered the Affordable Care Act pretty closely. And I’ve thought a lot about its political afterlife. It survived the Republican attempts to gut it. It did become popular.
Yeah, my timeline — I thought it was going to happen a little bit quicker. But it did happen.
But at the same time, the thing that is striking to me is it didn’t convert many voters over to the Democratic side, including Republican voters who relied on it, who would have lost it if the folks they were voting for got their way.
Do you think, given how intense political identities are now, that policy can persuade people to vote differently? Or is partisanship now almost immune to the material consequences of governance?
I think over time it does. I think it’s not as immediate. And look, I think it’s important to just remember that when we came into office, the economy was in a free fall. We had to scramble and do a bunch of stuff, some of which was inherited, some of which we initiated to stabilize the financial system. People hated it.
It’s hard to just underscore how much the bank bailouts just angered everyone, including me. And then you have this long, slow recovery. Although the economy recovers technically quickly, it’s another five years before we’re really back to people feeling like, OK, the economy is moving and working for me.
And the truth is that if Donald Trump doesn’t get elected — let’s say a Democrat, a Joe Biden, or Hillary Clinton had immediately succeeded me, and the economy suddenly has 3 percent unemployment, I think we would have consolidated the sense that, oh, actually these policies that Obama put in place worked. The fact that Trump interrupts essentially the continuation of our policies, but still benefits from the economic stability and growth that we had initiated, means people aren’t sure. Well, gosh, unemployment’s 3.5 percent under Donald Trump.
Now I would argue, and I think a lot of economists that I know would suggest, that mostly that had nothing to do with Donald Trump’s policies, and mostly had to do with the fact that we had put the economy on a footing where he essentially just continued the longest peacetime recovery and sustained job growth in American history. But if you’re the average voter you’re kind of thinking, well, you know, looks like Republican policies are working for me to some degree, which probably explains why Trump was able to make some inroads — modest, overstated but real inroads — among non-white voters who were feeling like, what, I’m working and making decent money, and things feel pretty good. So that clouds what I think would have been a more impactful shift in political views towards Democrats as a result of my presidency.
I think that what we’re seeing now, is Joe and the administration are essentially finishing the job. And I think it’ll be an interesting test. Ninety percent of the folks who were there in my administration, they are continuing and building on the policies we talked about, whether it’s the Affordable Care Act, or our climate change agenda, and the Paris [climate accord], and figuring out how do we improve the ladders to mobility through things like community colleges.
If they’re successful over the next four years, as I think they will be, I think that will have an impact. 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. But at the margins, if you’re changing 5 percent of the electorate, that makes a difference.
Most importantly, I think it does have an impact for young people as they are forming their ideas about politics and who they are. I was both a manifestation of the more progressive views that young people brought to politics in 2008, and 2009, 2010, and I think my presidency helped to solidify a huge tilt in the direction of progressive politics among young people that is now continuing into their 30s as the millennials, and even the Gen Zers, are starting to marry and have families, who know their political identity has been shaped and changed in pretty significant ways.
One area where you’re more optimistic than in the book is the idea that better political communication can really change the way people receive policy. I tend to think more about, How could you do policy design so the policy itself could speak more clearly?
I actually think we agree on that. I think you hear in the book arguments that we would have — there’d be a bunch of bad reporting around the economy. And I’d get all grumpy, and call in my advisers. I’d say, I need to do more press conferences. I need to give another speech. And they actually were pretty clear to me. They were all, like, look, as long as unemployment’s still at 9 percent, it doesn’t matter how many speeches you give. It’s not going to change things.
On the other hand, when people ask me what would I do differently, a lot of times I’ll give broad generalizations, because I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds. But being a policy nerd, you’ll appreciate this: the Making Work Pay tax cut, that was part of our stimulus — where Larry Summers talks me into the idea that we should spread out the tax cut in people’s weekly paychecks, in the drip, drip, drip fashion because the social science shows that they’re more likely to spend it. But if they get a big lump sum, then they might just pay down debt.
And we needed more stimulus. And I thought, well, that makes sense. But of course, as a result, nobody thought I’d cut taxes. Or everybody was confident that I had raised their taxes. That’s an example of a policy design where we were too stubborn, I think, initially, around — we’ll just get the policy right and the politics will take care of itself. And as I point out in the book, I should have done a deeper dive in F.D.R., in recognizing that you’ve got to sell the sizzle as well as the steak because that creates the political coalition to continue it.
The New Deal had all kinds of policies that actually didn’t work as well as they should have. We get political phrases like pork barrel, and logrolling, and a lot of that comes out of the mismanagement of the federal programs. But you know what? People saw it. They felt it. And they associated their lives getting better with those policies. That’s important.
I think a fair critique of us when I look back is the fact that I was sometimes too stubborn about, no, we’re going to just play it straight. And let’s not worry about how the policy sells if it works. Then that’s what we should do.
Are there other design ideas that you would advise people to take seriously? I realize there are technical reasons this happened, but I think a lot about how the Affordable Care Act took four years to begin delivering the bulk of health insurance benefits.
It’s a good example. I think that there’s no doubt that the team that is now in the Biden administration and thinking about, whether it’s the Covid stimulus package, or how do you build off the Affordable Care Act, they’re mindful of these lessons and they’re saying to themselves, all right, we’ve got to sell this.
So on health care in particular, how do we make this simple and stupid so that it’s easily explained, it’s easily understood? The expansion of Medicaid, for example, was probably the part of the Affordable Care Act that had the biggest impact. Quick, easy to administer, didn’t have a lot of moving parts because it was building off an existing program.
And look, there are times where it is important in fact to go ahead and plant some seeds even if it doesn’t yield quick political benefits. I use the example, in our stimulus, of the $90 billion we invested in the green economy. Politically that wasn’t a winner for us. We knew that we were going to get some Solyndras, for example, the famous example that the Republicans beat us over the head with where we gave a loan to a solar company that goes belly up.
But the truth is, that the reason now we’re seeing such enormous breakthroughs in terms of everything from electric cars to solar efficiency to wind power — all those things that we can now build on in pursuit of future climate policy — a lot of that relied on those programs we started that didn’t have a lot of political benefit. And so you’ve got to calculate.
Sometimes I have my friends in the Democratic Party who criticize us, who misapprehend this idea that we had sort of a — what’s it called? Neoliberal perspective. That we had some ideological aversion to pushing the envelope on policy. That’s not the case. We had just political constraints we had to deal with, and we had an emergency we had to deal with.
But one thing I was pretty clear about early on, and showed with the Affordable Care Act, was that given we were in a hole economically anyway there was no point in us trying to go small bore. Bill Clinton was able, in his second term, to politically go small because the economy was humming and people were feeling good. We were dealing with what at that point was the worst recession since the Great Depression. Politically, we were going to get clobbered in the midterms. It really didn’t matter what we did. And so we just tried to do as much as we could within the political constraints that we had.
And I think that the environment now is such, partly because Republicans spent $2 trillion of their own stimulus — and shockingly weren’t concerned about deficits when they were in power — partly because of the urgency of Covid, and the pandemic, and people recognize they just needed immediate relief and help now. I think we’re now in an environment where if we just get some big pieces in place, building on what we did before, people will notice. And it will have a political impact.
It doesn’t override all the deep subterranean political dynamics of our culture — race obviously being at the top of that list, but also changing gender roles, and those who still are engaged in organized religion feeling attacked by sort of an atheist culture. Those things are deep. They’ve always been here. They’re not going away anytime soon. But I guess what I am still confident about is, if we can get some stuff done that works, and we give people the benefit of the doubt, and we continue to reach out, as opposed to yell, that we get better outcomes rather than worse outcomes.
I heard you say the other day that you’d like to know what those U.F.O. objects are, too.
If it came out that they were alien, if we got an undeniable proof of that, how would that change your politics, or your theory about where humanity should be going?
That is an interesting question.
Well, first of all, depends. Have we made contact with them? Or we just know.
We just know —
These probes have been sent?
But we have no way of reaching out?
We can’t get in touch. We just know we’re not alone and someone’s been here.
It’s interesting. It wouldn’t change my politics at all. Because my entire politics is premised on the fact that we are these tiny organisms on this little speck floating in the middle of space. When we were going through tough political times, and I’d try to cheer my staff up, I’d tell them a statistic that John Holdren, my science adviser, told me, which was that there are more stars in the known universe than there are grains of sand on the planet Earth.
Your staff must have loved that.
Well, sometimes it cheered them up; sometimes they’d just roll their eyes and say, oh, there he goes again. But the point is, I guess, that my politics has always been premised on the notion that the differences we have on this planet are real. They’re profound. And they cause enormous tragedy as well as joy. But we’re just a bunch of humans with doubts and confusion. We do the best we can. And the best thing we can do is treat each other better because we’re all we’ve got. And so I would hope that the knowledge that there were aliens out there would solidify people’s sense that what we have in common is a little more important.
But no doubt there would be immediate arguments about like, well, we need to spend a lot more money on weapons systems to defend ourselves. New religions would pop up. And who knows what kind of arguments we get into. We’re good at manufacturing arguments for each other.
Here’s another wonky question. What do we do now that humanity will be judged for most harshly in 100 years?
Well, if we don’t get a handle on climate change, then if there’s anybody around to judge us, they’ll judge us pretty harshly on it, because the data is here. We know it. And we have the tools to make real progress with it.
One thing that the pandemic has done is to start getting people to think in scale. You can actually put a dollar figure to what it would take to transition to a clean economy. It’s in the trillions of a year globally. But when you think about how much was spent and how much was lost in one year as a result of the pandemic, suddenly making investments in public health systems seem like a pretty good investment.
Similarly, maybe it opens up people’s imaginations to say we can actually afford to make this transition. There are some sacrifices involved, but we can do it.
And then finally, what three books do you recommend to the audience?
A book I just read is “The Overstory,” by Richard Powers. It’s about trees and the relationship of humans to trees. And it’s not something I would have immediately thought of, but a friend gave it to me. And I started reading it, and it changed how I thought about the Earth and our place in it.
You’ll never walk through a forest the same way.
You really don’t. It changed how I see things and that’s always, for me, a mark of a book worth reading.
“Memorial Drive,” by Natasha Tretheway, a poet. It’s a memoir, just a tragic story. Her mother’s former husband, her former stepfather, murders her mother. And it’s a meditation on race, and class, and grief. Uplifting, surprisingly, at the end of it. But just wrenching
And then this one is easier. I actually caught up on some past readings of Mark Twain. There’s something about Twain that I wanted to revisit because he’s that most essential of American writers. His satiric eye, and his actual outrage that sometimes gets buried under the comedy, I thought was useful to revisit.
This transcript has been updated to more closely reflect the audio version.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Kristin Lin.