Barack Obama on a Biden presidency, racism in the Trump era and what he misses about being president

Former U.S. president Barack Obama says the biggest challenge for president-elect Joe Biden will be to bridge the gulf that exists in the country and bring together a vastly polarized populace.

“You’ve seen growing divisions, some of which are deeply rooted in questions of race and gender and date back to the founding of this country, some of which are a result of a changing economy,” Obama told CBC Radio’s The Current in a Canadian exclusive interview that will air on CBC Radio Monday morning.

Obama said Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris would “set a different tone” from that of the Trump administration but will face a divided country, one where more than 73 million people voted for Trump and some still support the current president’s refusal to concede.

Obama served as the 44th president of the United States from 2008 until Trump’s upset victory in 2016. His new book, A Promised Land, published last Wednesday, charts his rise in politics up to the first two and a half years of his two-term presidency.

The book, the first of a two-volume memoir of his presidency, broke records, selling nearly 890,000 copies in the U.S. and Canada in its first 24 hours.

  • Listen to the full interview on The Current on CBC Radio One, Monday at 8:37 a.m., online or on the CBC Listen app.

Obama told The Current‘s host, Matt Galloway, that healing divisions will be especially challenging for a Democratic president because the “splintering of media has created a big ecosystem of conservative media that is very hard to penetrate.”

“If that’s your source of what’s happening in the outside world, then you would think that Donald Trump has not only done great work as president, but you would think that he’s justified in taking the positions he’s taking,” Obama said.

Obama meets with then president-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House on Nov. 10, 2016. Obama said the new president, Joe Biden, must find a way to heal the divide between those who kicked Trump out of office in the recent election and those who still support him. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

He warned that it’s important for Democrats to try to understand why people voted for Trump, because it will be “hard to get big stuff done if the country is this polarised.”

“How we bridge that gap between those who have strongly opposed this president and those who still support him is going to be a big challenge,” he said.

“There are all kinds of ways in which a determined opposition can block everything, not just some things. So, I think Joe is going to have to try to arrive at areas of potential compromise.”

WATCH | Biden must tap into ‘areas of potential compromise’:

Former U.S. president Barack Obama said in an interview with The Current that for president-elect Joe Biden’s first job will be to heal the deep divisions in the country, which run deeper than just the recent election. 3:45

Failure to lead

When asked whether he, as the country’s first Black president, saw his successor, Donald Trump, as racist, Obama said what’s important is that Trump was “more than happy to fan racist sentiments” during his four years in office. Whether or not he personally believed that rhetoric doesn’t matter, he said.

“I’m not interested in what’s in his heart. I’m interested in what he does,” Obama said.

“Whether he’s cynically riding that wave to achieve his ends or whether it taps into something he actually believes, here’s what I can say for certain: that he does not consider it his job to fight against racist sentiments.

“That, to me, is a failure of any leader.”

He said during Trump’s time in office, rhetoric that had been relegated to the fringes of the Republican Party moved “front and centre.”

“This fear of the other, this suggestion that somehow there’s real Americans and then there are people who, I guess, are fake Americans,” he said.

“And somehow, the fake Americans tend to look like me.”

WATCH | Trump ‘more than happy to fan racist sentiments’: Obama

Former U.S. president Barack Obama said in an interview with CBC’s The Current that while he can’t say whether or not Donald Trump is a racist at heart, the current president fans racist sentiments and is ‘cynically riding that wave to achieve his ends.” 4:43

Advice from the sidelines

Four years after he left office, Obama said he misses the camaraderie, the team work and “mental exercise of figuring out hard policy problems” — but not the pomp of the presidency.

Someone once asked him if he would serve a third term if he could.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to be out front,” he said.

“But if somebody had said, you can sit in your basement in your sweats, and there’s somebody else who’s playing the president with a microphone in his or her ear, and you can just kind of give suggestions and policy — then I might have enjoyed doing that.”

WATCH | What Obama misses about the presidency:

Former U.S. president Barack Obama doesn’t miss the pomp of the office but joked in an interview with CBC’s The Current that he’d like to be the bug in the ear of the president, offering real-time advice from his basement. 2:15

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