There's a reason that former President Barack Obama's 2020 book, A Promised Land, was named one of the 10 Best Books of the year by The New York Times — and it's not liberal bias. Obama is as thoughtful and weighty a writer as they come, and his prose in print is as evocative as his public speeches often were. At times it's granular, at others grandiose (but without the pretension that usually accompanies the latter). Obama spoke to us about Fox News, LGBTQ+ rights, President Biden, and whether Republicans are winning over voters with their war on trans people.
The Advocate: I love that you describe your maternal grandparents as Midwesterners, with no ideological or partisan leanings beyond what they thought of as common sense. Near me in Idaho, there was a billboard for several months last year that read, “Whatever happened to common sense?” Why do so many of these previously unaffiliated folks nowadays sound as though they’ve been seduced by Fox News in the last decade?
Barack Obama: I think a lot of it has to do with how we get information. Until relatively recently, most people got their news from a few broadly trusted sources. And for the most part, those sources agreed on a common set of facts.
Today, news is everywhere. And that’s a good thing if it means more stories and perspectives are being shared. But too often, different sources can’t even agree on what’s happening — so people who watch Fox News perceive a different reality than people who read The New York Times. And those differences are amplified by social media, which allows people to live in bubbles with other people who think like them.
If truth is up for debate, our society doesn’t work. And common sense will be a lot harder to come by if we don’t have much in common. I can’t give you the answer, but I do believe this “truth decay,” as a report by the Rand Corp. called it, is one of the biggest threats facing our democracy today.
You had to use executive orders just to get what young people today think of as very basic LGBTQ+ rights (like granting hospital visitation rights and domestic partnership benefits at the federal level). You were clearly the president who did the most for LGBTQ+ rights in history. Do you ever worry that’ll be overshadowed or forgotten?
I would love my legacy to be overshadowed, because it would mean another president was doing even more to protect LGBTQ rights.
It’s why I was so happy to see President Biden sign an executive order on his first day in office directing federal agencies to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He also rolled back the previous administration’s ban on transgender Americans serving in the military, and took other steps to support and protect LGBTQ communities here around the world.
Now, we obviously have more work to do. We need to do even more to guarantee basic rights and protections for every American. My hope is that whatever success we had while I was president proves that progress is possible.
Instead of doing an executive order for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," you said that you wanted to build consensus and support and survey the troops (which found that two-thirds of them already supported the repeal and many had a fellow out LGBQ colleague in the military already). Did you feel like supporters understood in the long run, or were your actions overshadowed by the court rulings around this?
From the outset, some LGBTQ activists supported the executive order option — which I understood, especially because I had used executive orders and memoranda to grant hospital visitation rights and the extension of benefits to domestic partners of federal employees.
But by short-circuiting the consensus-building process that came with passing legislation, we increased the likelihood of resistance inside the military and slower implementation. Plus, a future president could always reverse the decision.
The process of going through Congress took longer, but I felt it was the best way to strengthen repeal and allow us to create more lasting change.
Thirty-three states have introduced more than 100 bills that aim to curb the rights of transgender people across the country. My home state of Idaho has had numerous bills already (and my husband is transgender, so it’s a key issue to me). Does this surprise you? Are Republicans winning over voters with their war on trans people?
For many years now, we’ve seen some Republicans seek political advantage by pitting us against one another, often by going after certain groups of people who just want equal treatment.
These bills are doing real harm — especially to young people — whether they end up passing or not. Growing up is hard enough, and at some point we all struggle to find our place in the world. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for young people to know that some leaders — including people who are supposed to be representing you — don’t think they deserve equal rights.
It breaks my heart. This is not who we are. America has always been at its best when we open our arms wider and help more people feel like they belong — not treat them like second-class citizens because they’re different.
After Bill Clinton did some press interviews at the White House in support of your tax bill negotiations, you said that you had learned by then you “never looked as smart as the ex-president on the sidelines.” Will President Biden have that problem?
Some of that is inevitable. As a former president, you’re always held to a different standard. And it’s easier to look smart when you’re not the one actually making the decisions.
But I have enormous faith in President Biden — his empathy, his decency, his belief that everybody counts. That’s who Joe is. It’s why, when I was president, I wanted him to be the last one in the room with me whenever I had to make a big decision.
I’ll do whatever I can to help him succeed. But I also think it’s important for people to hold a president accountable — whether it’s me, President Biden, or anyone else. That’s why people need to stay informed and engaged, and keep voting — not only at the federal level but at the state and local levels too.
You said in 2009 when you announced the Afghanistan deployment that sending young people to war was one of the hardest decisions you made. What do you think now that we’ve been in that war for so long?
Sending young people into combat was always the hardest decision I made, and I prayed that I and others who commanded them were worthy of their trust.
In the case of Afghanistan specifically, I think President Biden made the right decision in completing the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Americans and their families have made extraordinary sacrifices there, alongside our allies and the Afghan people. But almost two decades after the war started, it’s time to turn the page.
There will be difficult challenges ahead for Afghanistan, and we should stay engaged diplomatically and continue to support the Afghan people — especially those fighting for human rights. But after nearly two decades of putting our troops in harm’s way, it’s time to recognize that we’ve done all we can militarily and bring our remaining troops home.
You talk a lot about how exhausting and sometimes overwhelming being in the White House was for your whole family. Are the girls, at least, able to be more anonymous now?
There’s no doubt that being the daughter of an ex-president is easier than being the daughter of a sitting president. And it’s also easier now that Sasha and Malia are a little older and don’t have Secret Service agents dropping them off at school here in Washington every day.
But as a father I just want to say that I’m extraordinarily proud of both our daughters — not just because they’re smart and accomplished, but because they’re kind people. They don’t have an attitude. I write this in my book, but the thing Michelle and I were most worried about when I was thinking about running for president was that we were going to screw up our daughters somehow.
While I can’t speak for them, from my perspective they’re still the same wonderful people they’ve always been. And now that they’re in college and heading out on their own, I can’t wait to see where life takes them.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama was published in November 2020 by Crown, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House.