Barack and Bruce. Obama and Springsteen. The Boss and Mr. President. Or maybe you can just call them renegades.
Launched in February, the Renegades podcast consisted of a series of candid conversations between iconic musician Bruce Springsteen and former President Barack Obama, recorded in the summer of 2020 during the height of the pandemic.
One episode dissects the idea of masculinity and fatherhood. Another sees the two delving into their experiences with race. In another, they dig deep into music: what kind inspires them and Springsteen’s career spent making it. And for those wondering how Obama and Springsteen came to be perhaps the most unlikely podcast-hosting duo of the year, there’s even an episode about how they first met.
As they discuss their lives and careers, the recurring thread of their conversations is one that’s a shared passion: the love of their country, despite its flaws and troubled history (and present struggles).
It’s a common theme in Springsteen’s music: You’ll hear it in “Born In The U.S.A.,” a song that’s at once a rumination on the experience of so many veterans while doubling as a celebration of patriotism. And it goes without saying that Obama ran for president on a platform of hope for a better America.
Now, their podcast has been turned into a book. Renegades: Born In The USA takes these open and honest conversations and combines them with powerful (and personal) photos as well as a few intimate artifacts, like handwritten notes.
Their new book is slated to hit shelves on Oct. 26. Ahead of that, Obama and Springsteen sat down in their studio at Springsteen’s New Jersey farm — where they recorded the podcast — for an interview with Audie Cornish, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered.
Among the topics discussed in the interview was hope: hope for the country and hope for change. That’s something worth fighting for, Springsteen explained.
“That’s why I use the term ‘fighting optimism’ — because I don’t see any other choice,” he said. “I think you’ve got to adhere to the truth. You’ve got to adhere to the basic values of our institutions. And those things are important. They’re there for all to see. And then you’ve got to fight — fight for them to remain healthy and relevant.”
Obama said that optimism has to be extended to people — even, or perhaps especially, to those we don’t agree with.
“Sometimes we put [other people] in a box and we assume that they’re never going to change, and I reject that,” Obama said. “I think the country has … shown itself capable of changing.”
On recording a podcast in 2020
Obama: It was a tumultuous time during the recording. I think our general attitude was that America was going through a reckoning; we had to figure out who we were. And part of the goal of the podcast and now the book was to maybe offer, with some humility, the sense that there is a common American story to be had under all the polarization of division and anger and resentment that had been fanned during that year. Do I think we’ve gotten through all of that? No. Do I think that there’s the possibility, the hope that we can? Yes.
On the idea of a unifying American story
Springsteen: Well, music searches for commonality basically. I mean, that’s the job that I’m in. I create a space of common values at night when I come out and perform, and that space manifests itself and comes alive. There is a sense of that common narrative … in the room, in the evening, when I’m performing. What the artist does is he tries to get his audience to experience those common values, that sense of shared narrative and to take that outside with them and to put it into practice in their everyday lives and in the real world. As a musician, that’s basically my job.
People are feeling disoriented, socially. Culturally, they’re feeling disoriented and we’re going through historical growing pains. I think that’s the best way to look at it and that the future of the country … certainly my generation, I’m a baby boomer, has a greater sense of the nation as a place that is coming to grips with itself, its own imperfectness and the fact that people think that there was a moment when that common narrative was shared, whether it’s the ’50s or the ’40s, when our nation was at war. But that moment left out a large portion of our American citizenry who is simply in the process, [for] the past 30 years, [of] looking for a place at the table. And it seems we’re in a moment now where the tension created by, whether race or economic disparity, has really come to a head.
On hope for the country
Obama: The truth is that either we tell each other stories that allow us to see each other as fellow travelers and humans, or we have conflict and clash and whoever gets the most power wins. And I would argue that at its best, America’s been able, with a pretty major exception in the Civil War, to try to make progress in perfecting the union without resorting solely to violence, solely to power. That conscience and morality and values and shared sentiment have played a role in the civil rights movement, women getting the right to vote, in the LGBT movement, most recently.
And there’s always a danger of thinking that it’s naïve to think that we can reconstruct a common story. I prefer that, though, to the cynicism that says there’s no chance for us ever to reconstruct a common story. And I will say that, as I traveled when I was running for office and now when I travel and meet young people around the country and different communities, once you get outside the media bubble, attitudes are a little more complicated than they are portrayed, and there are openings and places where people see each other as fellow Americans as opposed to members of the red or the blue team. But that is not what’s predominating right now, and I think this is part of the reason why we want to resurface some of these older conversations, remind ourselves, “Alright, here’s the past we’ve traveled, here’s where we came from.” Maybe that will allow us a chance to get back to a place that is an inclusive common story about America.
On “Born in the U.S.A.” being misunderstood
Cornish: You talk about this song as being misunderstood and I’m really intrigued by that because it is something that Reagan embraced. Trump played it at rallies. And you’ve had moments where you’ve had to raise your voice to say, “This is not how I want my music used,” but are the people who you wrote that song for originally still people who vote anything like you?
Springsteen: Well, I think that the reason that song is sort of becoming a bit of a political football is one, because it expresses great pride and identity as an American. That’s attractive to any political side. But at the same time, it’s also a song that, at its core, is about a critical patriotism, a patriotism that basically accepts the weaknesses of the country and is looking forward to that reckoning. I don’t know if it’s an issue [of] are those particularly people voting the way that I vote right now. I think plenty of them are and some of them aren’t, you know?
On the future
Springsteen: You’ve got to speak to the best in people and you have to believe that speaking to the best in people is possible … that the country will be able to find a common narrative again in the future and that what we’re experiencing now are historical growing pains that are very painful. But I think what you need at this moment is a kind of fighting optimism. You’ve got to be willing to address the fact that there’s a large portion of our politicians right now who are willing to simply subvert democratic institutions. And that, yeah, you’ve got to stand up and you’ve got to fight, you’ve got to fight for that and against it.
Obama: Maybe one thing that Bruce and I share — his music, my politics — is the belief that people aren’t static. And I think I think America is proof that things are not static. So you’re absolutely right that we go through moments of backlash. It’s always happened. You can argue that there was a pretty strong backlash after I was elected. And you know, I think that people are still reacting to women in positions of power and, you know, the LGBT community not being willing to be quiet and unseen. And so, you know, we’ve always seen those reactions, and there are going to be times, because of that backlash, where we get a sense of despair, in the sense that we’re stuck, that there’s no way to move forward and escape this tragic loop that we have been in. And yet Bruce just described, and I like that phrase, you know, sort of a fighting optimism.
Part of what I have seen and I particularly see in a younger generation — I see it in my own kids and their friends, and I see it in Bruce’s children, I’ve seen it in unlikely places — is the people, they change. Their attitudes aren’t fixed and part of it is those of us who are lucky enough to have a platform, whether it’s in concert or political speech, doing our best to try to bring out what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Lord knows we’re not always going to succeed.
On volatile school board meetings
Obama: So, the very fact that we’re even having the conversation in the school board about what stories are being told, whose stories are being told, that’s an indicator of progress, not reversal. Now, are we going to be able to push all the way through? Are we going to be able to do it in a consistent way in every community, all at the same time? Probably not. It’s going to happen in fits and starts, and there will be communities that say, we want to keep our narrative, you know, in a way that is comfortable for us and excludes a whole bunch of other people. And you know, you’re gonna lose some fights there. But there are also gonna be some places where people go, “Huh, you know, I didn’t think of that. Maybe we should rethink how we tell this story about who we are and what we’re about.” And part of, I think, what our podcast and this book has been about is reminding people that it’s always been bumpy. It’s always been contradictory, and yet, there have been moments of real awakening and progress.
On the importance of taking action
Obama: Here I think is the thing that we all have to confront, we all have to wrestle with, and we try our best to confront, not just in our podcast and this book, but I’ve confronted it in my presidency, Bruce confronts it when he’s writing his music, is that we can either just throw up our hands and say, “You know, this experiment has failed and it’s not working,” and so we will all retreat into our positions and see where that takes us. Or alternatively, we are going to have to figure out how we come together to actually get stuff done.
One of the lines that I value coming out of our conversation was Bruce and I concluded that even when we fall short of the ideal, we have to acknowledge how far we’ve fallen short of the ideal. But you know what? It’s useful to have a North Star and the belief in the possibility that we can still deliver on an ideal like all men are created equal, or all people are created equal. And it’s important for us to affirm and believe the possibility that everybody in this country should have a shot at a decent life, even if we know that we’re falling short of it. Because that’s the horizon to which we are marching. And if we don’t have that, then I think we’re losing.
Courtney Dorning and Matt Ozug edited the audio version of this story.