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Interview with ZDF heute journal : Obama: We have the better Story


The former US president stated that the police appeared to be less prepared for the storm on Capitol Hill compared to Black Lives Matter protests in the United States.

Claus Kleber: Good evening, Mr. President. Thank you for coming to us.   

Barack Obama: It's wonderful to be with you.   

Kleber: You wrote a remarkable book. You promised your readers that you would make them feel how it is to be president, how it is to be in the White House. You do that. You are very frank about all the shortcomings and mishaps and frustrations and mistakes that have been made. And I wonder: Didn't you want to protect the mystery and secrecy of the White House a little bit more, because, you know, power can emanate from that.  

Obama: I think in a democracy we benefit from transparency because ultimately, an effective democracy is a conversation between those who've been elected and citizens. And you know, when citizens are not well-informed, when they see government as some distant object that is acting upon them rather than something in which they have a say and their voice matters - that's when you start getting a breakdown in democratic practice.

And so I thought that this was a good opportunity for me to go back over what was a very eventful presidency and be able to describe for people: here's how decisions were being made. Here's what I was seeing, here are the choices that were presented. Because, you know, the kinds of crises and challenges that I confronted were significant. But, as we're seeing now, today, in the midst of a a hundred year pandemic, they're not unique. And I think, that ultimately, we have a stronger society and a stronger government, when you have a well-informed citizenry. And I hope this book contributes to that.

Kleber: When one reads your book, you cannot escape asking yourself, is this president really be erecting the occurrence of time, or is he drifting aside the occurrence of time? And when you look back at these eight years, has that been more drifting than you previously expected?  

Obama: That's a debate I used to have with myself and my staff, often, and it's one that historians always grapple with, you know, how much are we the authors of our fate and how much are we just being carried along by broader economic and technological and social forces. And I think the answer is both. As I describe in the book, I could not start with a blank page. We already had 180.000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and had already engaged in a mission to defeat Al Qaeda. And, I'm inheriting a legacy of a healthcare system that is largely private sector and leaves a lot of people without health insurance. And, we have a century of our economy being built on the automobile and cheap fossil fuel.

So, if I want to initiate a policy on climate change, or if I want to make sure that everybody has healthcare, or if I want to wind down these wars, in each of those cases I have to deal with the past. And the way I describe it is, that the US government is really an ocean liner. How you turn the wheel makes a difference, but it's not a speedboat, right? You don't suddenly just go in a 90 degree angle in an opposite direction. You're moving at maybe five degrees out. 10 years from now, the fact that you steered in a direction that hopefully takes climate change seriously or is more concerned about economic inequality or addresses issues of racial justice. Hopefully, five years from now, things are better than they would have been, but when you're in the middle of it, it often feels painfully slow. And you feel like you're hitting icebergs and getting stuck all the time. 

Kleber: While you were doing all this, somewhere somehow out in the country was laid the ground of dissatisfaction, of a reclusiveness of people, of people who would describe themselves as patriotic, religious and conservative Americans. And they didn't feel represented by you at all. And that was the ground on which Donald Trump in the end came in. How did you, and all, overlook this slowly boiling anger in the country? 

Obama: Well, I don't think we overlooked it. It was there from the beginning. It was there, as I write about in the book, with Sarah Pailin. And before I had been elected, it was there with Newt Gingrich. In the United States, there has been always a long tension between progressive forces that have moved towards a more inclusive society and have championed women entering into the workplace and having more power and a recognition of African-Americans and the civil rights of people who are not white. And you've had those, who've been very protective of the existing hierarchies and privileges that existed in our society. And that dates back to the earliest days of our nation, a civil war was fought around these issues. There were huge battles in the sixties, around civil rights on these issues and women's rights on these issues. So, in that sense, that tension in America has always existed. Obviously electing a president who looked like me and didn't look like the previous 43 presidents, magnified some of those tensions and we were mindful of them. And we did our best. 

Kleber: Were you mindful enough? Because the result doesn't seem to confirm that. 

Obama: You know, this is an example of where you have an assumption that any politician has complete control over the national psyche. If you have 400 years of racial grievance and suspicion and division, that doesn't get overcome by virtue of me being mindful of it. Any politician in any country is going to be able to completely disentangle a century of cultural conflicts that may have existed. I think that the thing that added to it, and this is something that is not unique to the United States, but you saw in Europe, was the financial crisis of 2008, 2009. Because it created greater instability, greater fear and anxiety. And I think that conflict, social conflict, is more likely to happen when people feel insecure and afraid about going backwards in terms of their station in life. 

And populist politicians have been able to exploit that in your country and mine, in places like Turkey or the Philippines. And part of what I wanted to describe in this book is the degree to which all of us are seeing a contest of ideas, between those who believe in a liberal, free, inclusive society based on rule of law and a set of principles, that are universal and a much older tradition of thinking tribally and organizing ourselves based on sharing a similar religion, or looking the same way, or speaking the same language. And oftentimes a politics is based on strong men and power. And Donald Trump is not different than some of theleaders in Europe that we've seen like Orban or in places like Turkey with Erdogan, or in the Philippines where Duterte, or obviously Putin and Russia who promise a return to the old glory. And that contest did not start with Donald Trump, and it will not end with Donald Trump. But I do think that at the end of the day, we, me and the political tradition I represent, have a better story. And that young people find that story more compelling than the backward looking story that somebody like a Trump is telling. 

Kleber: Since you finished your book, January 6th happened. The storm on the Capitol. Did you imagine in your wildest dreams that something like that would ever be possible in Washington? 

Obama: No. But I am not surprised by the sensibility that was behind the riot that we saw in the Capitol. What I saw in the Capitol surprised me just because the failure of the Capitol Police and our security forces from anticipating it, that surprised me. And as been noted many times since it happened, the authorities were much more concerned and much better prepared with peaceful protesters during the Black Lives Matter protest in the summer, then they were about these insurrectionists. Which says something again about some of the long-term issues with race in America. But one thing, Claus, that I haven't mentioned, but I talk a lot about in the book, is the rise of right-wing social media combined with networks like Fox News, feeding people information that, from my perspective, is detached from reality, but is designed to encourage anger and  resentment.

As you and I were talking earlier about people being afraid after I was elected, that I didn't care about them. Well, part of it is because they were watching Fox News all the time. And Fox News was saying, he doesn't care about you, or he doesn't believe in Christianity, or he's trying to brainwash your children with liberal ideas and Sharia law. None of which was true, but that was the reality as people understood it. And, and I think part of what we've seen around the world, and what we tend to think of as more advanced, sophisticated societies are just as vulnerable to this as misinformation in Rwanda or in Myanmar, where we've seen conflict erupt into violence. If you feed people lies, distortions, conspiracy theories, if politicians try to exploit that in order to gain an advantage, over time, social trust can break down and can result in tragedies. Like the one we saw here in the Capitol. 

Kleber: Let's go back 12 years ago to the young American president who started under the headline of hope. And when you read these promising chapters of your book, you have the impression, you can feel, that he is this president, very aware of the fact how little experience he has in executive power. He was a junior Senator from Illinois. He was a very successful campaigner, a very dynamic new president, but what he lacked was running a big operation. You had this insecurity in you, to a point, and at the same time, you needed to establish your authority towards your own Congress, your own military, experienced generals, and to the likes of Putin, Edogan, Xi Jinping and all the others. How do you remember this personal learning curve? 

Obama: It's interesting. It's a great question. I'll be honest with you, I should have probably been more insecure than I was. I actually walked in there, I felt pretty confident. I was like, you know, I know what I'm doing.  

Kleber: Isn’t there the word "bravado" for that.  

Obama: it wasn't a false bravado. One of the few virtues of an American campaign - it's terrible, that it just goes on so long compared to, let's say in Germany, it's endless and it's expensive and it's exhausting and it's frustrating - but it is sort of like a training. By the time I was finished, I was running a billion dollar organization with thousands of employees and having to make decisions every day. And when you then are on top of the federal government, which now you've got a trillion and a half dollar budget and two million employees, but by that time I was comfortable making decisions and dealing with probabilities. I think that, as I write about in the book, the thing that I think I lost sight of ironically is the very thing that I was the best at during the campaign. If I have one regret or a mistake that came from inexperience during my first two years, I was so focused on policy and management and the mechanics of power that I actually neglected telling a story to people and communicating what we were doing in as effective way. 

Kleber: You were running a broken system in a way. You give this impression. Because in dealing with the Congress for your healthcare proposals, you point out that, Congressmen and -women, and Senators, they voted against it without ever reading it. And most of them were very much afraid of losing their jobs and positions in the next election and deals were made and nothing had to do with the subject matter that you had in mind. And we also noticed that a lot of these difficult issues like gun control or free higher education like healthcare and so on, they have substantial majorities in the population, still they don't become law. How is that not a dysfunctional system? 

Obama: No, I think right now it is dysfunctional and you're seeing now a debate take place as Joe Biden takes office and the Democrats have a very slim majority in Congress, about how to rebuild a functioning legislative process. There are some things that are unique to the United States, that are counter majoritarian. The Senate itself is not a majoritarian body. California with 33 million people gets two senators, as does Wyoming with half a million people. What has added to that is this custom, that's not in our constitution, but has developed and become essentially a roadblock to any progress called the filibuster. In which now you need a super majority to pass any significant legislation so that the opposition party is able to block any initiative, that they disagree with or just because they don't want the president to look strong, because he's from an opposite party. 

So there there's some structural changes that have to be made. But to go back to the point I was making earlier, what I learned as president is, that policy matters, but we tend to think of politics as a dirty word. Politics at its best is being able to communicate and connect with the public, describe and explain what is happening in their lives and how, if they joined together, we can make it better. And in my first two years as president, during much of what I record in this book, I was very proud of the decisions and the work and the policies that we made. But we lost ground politically because I didn't tell the kind of story that I needed to tell. Some of this was bad luck. I was coming in at a time when the economy was in, you know, the financial crisis had been stopped, but unemployment and hardship was still at its peak. And one of the things that you learn about being president is that luck matters just as much as a good policy sometimes. 

Kleber: But somehow then, Donald Trump had for his narrative, his story, a much more apt way of transmitting it to his people, because that became a very powerful movement. And he turned the course of the country around, in no time.  

Obama: Well, Claus. First of all, you notice, he didn't get reelected. Point one. I did. 

Kleber: I noticed that. 

Obama: Point two, his approval ratings were never as high, or probably at their peak, were where mine were at my lowest. So, I think we tend to overstate the impact that he may have had versus what we were able to do over the course of eight years. 20 million people still have healthcare insurance, even though he promised to reverse it. He pulled out of the Paris Accords, but because of what we unleashed in terms of clean energy, our carbon emissions continue to go down and now Biden is rejoining Paris. Across the board, the progress that we made was not undone, but what is true, is that we have not seen a resolution of this debate that we are having across the world, as well as in the United States about how are we going to live in a globalized world with diverse people and an information overload. How does democracy still function? 

How do we adjust our market systems so that it produces better results for more people, you know, how do we learn to live with each other, in a way that is cooperative rather than full of conflict. And I think that there's still a lot of work to do, on the progressive side, on the left center left to address some of the, the ongoing appeal that you see from right-wing populism. Because at the end of the day, I think we have a better,  we have a better idea, a better product to offer, people, but we have to be able to market it in a way that,  people accept.

Kleber: In all this, let's talk for a moment about the office and the power of the president. We always described the American president as single most powerful individual in the world. And then you weren't, going back a little bit in history, you weren't even able to close Guantanamo prison, a military installation. You are the Commander-in-Chief and you couldn't close it. How powerful or powerless really is your office in today's terms when you have so many conflicting currents, both in the administration and in society. 

Obama: Well, I think that both things can be true at the same time. You know, in terms of the office of the US president, if there is a crisis anywhere around the world, people still call Washington, D.C., they don't call Beijing or Moscow, or New Delhi. Because whether if it's a disaster I don't describe this in this book but describing the next chapter or in the next volume: You have an Ebola crisis in Africa. It's the United States that has to mobilize the world in order to respond quickly and effectively on that. You know, even our critics, even our adversaries expect us to help organize an agenda and act as a responsible international steward when it comes to the world financial system or maintaining trade or dealing with a national security challenge. 

So, in that sense that what the US president still has is an enormous impact in part because the US government has a bandwidth that is unparalleled. We have diplomats and military assets and institutional experience that is global in a way that even great powers like China have not yet developed. That may not be the same 50 years from now as it is today, but it certainly is still true today. But what is also true, is that the individual US president is only as effective as his ability or hopefully in someday her ability, to mobilize Congress on many issues, including even issues like Guantanamo, that would appear to fall under the jurisdiction of the Commander-in-Chief. And when our legislative process is broken, when Congress is not functioning, then that does a badly hamstring or a straightjacket to the executive branch. 

It is one of the disadvantages of not having a parliamentary system. You can have the best platform in the world, in the United States, but you need a Congress that is elected independent of you. And on the one hand that creates some stability because whether it's me or Donald Trump, we can't instantly initiate our agenda. But what it does mean is at a time when, on issues like climate change, for example, we need to move rapidly to deal with this issue and forcefully the federal government right now is not able to respond fast enough. And that is something that I hope will be addressed and can be addressed. But it's gonna require a great effort and public support. 

Kleber: Let me get to a point in your book, which maybe touched me the most. It was about the story when an American freighter was kidnapped by Somali pirates, young guys around 20 or so. And in the end, you had them shot through a Navy seal, so special commandos, and you freed the now-famous Captain Phillips. And you think in your book about these young people who had a youth of no hope, of no prospect of education or income or family or anything, and you write about how much you would like to give them some kind of future. And then you say: In the world we have, and the machine I’m commanding, I’m rather killing them than helping them. That was for me the ultimate dilemma of your character, because you wanted to make the world a better place. And then you run a significant part of a less than perfect place. How did you deal with that?  

Obama: You are right. That was intentional on my part to lift up that contradiction. It's a contradiction that I try to develop in the Nobel prize speech that I delivered in Oslo. You take on this enormous power, but as I said, you don't start with a clean slate. There is a world as you want it to be and there is the world as it is. And your job is, to try to reconcile those. But you have to occupy both worlds. I did not have the luxury of ignoring genuine threats like Al-Qaeda or ISIS. And in order to protect the United States, our people, our allies, there were times where I am ordering the machinery of our military to deal with these terrorist organizations.

And yet, my moral impulse, my deepest desire, the reason I ran for president, is not to engage in conflict, but rather to see if it's possible to deliver education to children who need it and food to those who are hungry and shelter to those who don't have it. And so, you find yourself trying to move the world in a better direction, but still having to manage in that process. But there are tragic and often ugly realities that you're confronted with on a daily basis. And you can't escape that. And there were times - and I try to describe this in the book … It wasn't always critics from the right that frustrated me. There were times where there were critics on the left, whose values I shared, but who had the luxury of not having to deal with these decisions and so could pretend as if there is no contradiction involved, who could suggest, that we should completely dismantle the military intelligence complex that George Bush built except Al-Qaeda is still there. And, those on the left still don't want their apartment complex blown up by an angry young person, even if ideally we wouldn't find ourselves in that choice.  

That is still a choice that I found myself sometimes in. And that's what I mean. I think, when I say that you have to keep both your North star, your focus on where you want to go, but you have to understand, where you're starting from. If you're going to be effective, if all you're doing is responding to the here and the now and the reality, then I think you become cynical. You don't have a vision. And the country and the world don't move forward. They probably move backwards. But if all you're thinking about is, what's possible without understanding what is, then I think, you're going to be ineffective. 

Kleber: When you got awarded the Nobel peace prize, your wife, Michelle, turned around in bed and said, ‘wonderful, honey’ and fell to sleep again. Your first question was - I know all of it from your book - and your first question was: For what? And that is in a way, it's still an unanswered question. 

Obama: As I write in the book, I think the Nobel committee, their idea was to give it to me inspirationally. I was still in my first year in office, and we were still in the middle of two wars. But I think, they recognized, that the idea that America at its best represented is still very important to the world. That the work that I was attempting to do to reduce nuclear weapons and to deal with climate change in a serious way and to broker a deal that avoided war, but ensured that Iran wouldn't have a nuclear weapon, that all these issues were important. And they wanted to use the prize as a pat on the back or an encouragement for me, but it was premature and I acknowledged as much. 

And it actually probably caused me more political problems at home at the time. I'd like to think after eight years with the Paris accord and the Iran nuclear deal, and the New START Treaty with Russia and a few other things that, maybe I was less uncomfortable with the idea that I did a pretty good job. And the one thing I could say for certain, I think this is at the end of the day, all that you can ask for, when you assume this office. It was undeniable that both, the United States and the world were better and more hopeful when I left office, then when I came in. I described the presidency as a relay race. You take the baton, you run your stretch, then you hand it off. You don't know how the race will end, but what I can say is that at the end of the day I had moved forward the baton during the course of the eight years I was president. 

Kleber: Mr. President, thank you for talking to us and we let you go work on the second volume. 

Obama: Thank you so much. Bye bye. 

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