Barack Obama tells Prince Harry: leaders must stop corroding civil discourse
Politicians, and others in positions of power, should stop corroding civil discourse and seek to unify society, the former US president Barack Obama said in a rare interview conducted by Prince Harry for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Obama reflected on the day he relinquished power to Trump and said: “Overall there was serenity there, more than I would have expected,” but his sense of achievement was laced with a sense of “all the work that was left undone”. He said he viewed each presidency as part of a relay race, but felt he had passed the baton on successfully. “We had run a good race,” he said.
Since leaving office, he said, life appeared to move in slow motion, but he insisted this slower pace could be liberating if it meant he “could spend an extra 45 minutes talking to Michelle or having a long breakfast”.
Trump has been fiercely critical of Obama personally and politically since he entered the Oval Office, but Obama in his first interview since leaving office did not take the chance to hit back, possibly reflecting his wife Michelle’s famous dictum: “When they go low, you go high”.
He showed that he regarded his health reforms, providing insurance to 20 million people, as his greatest legacy, and since leaving office he has been using social media to encourage Americans to take up the extended offer of insurance.
Prince Harry and Obama spent part of an often personal interview – the first since he left office – discussing their shared “obsession” in empowering a new generation of young civic leaders worldwide, an issue that lies at the heart of the Obama Foundation, the central vehicle for Obama’s post-presidential public work.
He said: “This generation is the most sophisticated, the most tolerant in many ways, the most embracing of diversity, the most tech-savvy, the most entrepreneurial, but they do not have much faith in existing institutions.”
He feared their energy, often displayed on the internet, was being held back by “the bias of those who are comfortable with power the way it is currently exercised”.
Insisting as a former constitutional lawyer that he did not wish to censor social media, Obama said: “The question is: how do we harness this technology that allows a multiplicity of voices, a diversity of views but does not lead to a Balkanisation of our society but rather continues to promote ways of finding common ground?”
He added: “All of us in leadership have to find ways to recreate a common space on the internet. One of the dangers of the internet is people can have entirely different realities. They can be just cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases.”
One of the best ways to fight this tendency was “to make sure that online communities do not just stay online, but move offline”, he argued.
Social media had a power to convene and connect but people should then “meet in a pub, a place of worship, or a neighbourhood and get to know each other”, he said.
“The truth is, on the internet everything is simpified, but when you meet people face to face it turns out it is complicated,” the former president said, adding it was then possible to find surprising areas of common ground.
He commented: “It is harder to be as obnoxious and cruel in person as people can be anonymously on the internet.”
Saying he now wanted to create platforms for social change for young people, Obama advised that “sending out an hashtag in of itself can bring about change, it can be a powerful way to raise awareness, but you have to get on the ground and do something”.
Reflecting on the personal change of being off the treadmill of public office, he said: “It is wonderful to be able to control your day. The job entailed a wide range of responsibilities and a constantly full inbox. Now when I wake up I can make my own decisions on how to spend my time, and what to do to forward the things I care deeply about. That is obviously hugely liberating.”
“I don’t have the same tools. I have to rely more on persuasion than legislation but a lot of the things that still motivate me and move me continue until this day.”
Asked about anything that he had missed since leaving office, he said he missed the camaderie of his team, adding: “I used to cause traffic, I now experience traffic.”
He said his first thought on leaving office was that he had been thankful that Michelle “had been my partner through that whole process. She is a spectacular, funny and warm person. She is not someone who is naturally inclined to politics, so in some ways though she was as good a first lady as ever been, she did this largely in support of my decision to run.
“For us to be able to come out of that intact – our marriage strong, we are still each other’s best friends, our daughters turning into amazing young women – there was a sense of completion, and that we had done the work in a way that maintained our integrity and left us whole and fundamentally unchanged.”
”When I got off the treadmill it did not feel like my identity was wrapped so the break did not feel that abrupt.”
Harry was asked about becoming the interviewer rather than being the interviewee, and said: “I haven’t done that many interviews but it was quite fun, especially interviewing President Obama despite the fact he wanted to interview me ... it’s been a big learning curve but also these are incredibly important topics we all need to think about and need to be discussed.”
The interview was recorded in Toronto in September during the Invictus Games and was kept under wraps for three months.