RS1056/1057
A Conversation With Barack Obama
RS1056/1057: July 10-24, 2008

audio clips

  • On deciding to run for President
  • On the War on Drugs
  • On being endorsed by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen

Shortly after Barack Obama claimed victory in the fight for the Democratic nomination, I joined him aboard his chartered 757 campaign plane as a member of the press corps. He was flying from Chicago to Appleton, Wisconsin, for a town-hall meeting, one of a series he was doing in Midwestern and swing states to address constituencies he might have missed during the primaries — and, of course, to get some warm-up practice for any town-hall debates he has with John McCain.

The first thing I notice about the plane is how low-key it is, all coach seating from back (the press) to front (the candidate). There is no separate compartment for this potential president; he just holds down the second row for himself and his newspapers. There are no more than 10 staffers on the plane, and a dozen or more rows are empty, separating the senator from the Secret Service contingent and two dozen members of the traveling press corps. It’s not a big day or a big event: The primaries are done, and none of the media big names are along.

So far in this campaign, despite their evident admiration, Obama has held the press at a respectful distance. The limit for our interview is going to be 50 minutes, which I think says a lot about him and his campaign. Most every other presidential candidate I’ve met and interviewed has tended to be gregarious, talkative almost to a fault, eager to please and eager to impress. Obama, by contrast, is quiet, collected and effortlessly precise.

His calmness is reflected in the smooth and controlled campaign he is overseeing. In conversation, his thoughtfulness is punctuated by an easy wit, much as his clockwork campaign is a stage for his eloquence and charismatic gifts as a leader.

I am often asked, “What’s he like?” If you really want to know, read “Dreams From My Father.” It’s all in there, and it’s a wonderful piece of writing in its own right.

When we are done, his parting words are delivered with a dazzling smile: “OK, brother — take care.”

WENNER:
You were endorsed by Bob Dylan a few days ago. What’s that mean to you?
OBAMA:
I’ve got to say, having both Dylan and Bruce Springsteen say kind words about you is pretty remarkable. Those guys are icons.
WENNER:
Do you have any favorite Dylan songs?
OBAMA:
I’ve got probably 30 Dylan songs on my iPod. I think I have the entire “Blood on the Tracks” album on there. Actually, one of my favorites during the political season is “Maggie’s Farm.” It speaks to me as I listen to some of the political rhetoric.
WENNER:
When did you begin to think you could or should be president? At what stage in your life did that idea first dawn on you?
OBAMA:
I would distinguish between thinking that, in the abstract, I could make some better decisions being president than the current occupant, and believing that, in a very concrete way, being president was something I would pursue. I would say that it wasn’t until I won my Senate primary and then went to the Democratic convention in 2004 that I had a sense that the message I was delivering might resonate with a broad cross section of the American people.
WENNER:
So it was that response at the Democratic convention that year?
OBAMA:
It wasn’t just at the convention. We had gotten a pretty powerful response while I was running in the primary in Illinois. After I won, there was a real sense that people were eager to move beyond some of the old arguments.
WENNER:
When did you say, “I’m black, my name is this... what the fuck, I could do this.”
OBAMA:
I was never lacking in...
WENNER:
Self-confidence?
OBAMA:
In confidence that my particular background would not be a barrier to me running.
WENNER:
Was there a moment during this primary process when you felt like you really hit your stride as a candidate?
OBAMA:
In the last month in Iowa, you could feel things coming together. You could feel the message, the movement on the ground, all of it was starting to click. And one of the central premises of this campaign has always been that if we could get the voters excited about participating, we’d have a good chance. You could see that happening in December in Iowa.
WENNER:
That gave you the juice and the confidence?
OBAMA:
Absolutely.
WENNER:
What part of the campaign have you enjoyed the most?
OBAMA:
I love the town-hall meetings, where I’m just interacting with voters, and they’re asking me questions and making comments. There’s an exchange there that’s real. I hear their stories... that actually is what then informs my speeches and the message that I’m delivering.
WENNER:
What have you learned in the campaign about America that you might not have known before?
OBAMA:
I’m not sure if this is a new lesson, but it reinforced my belief that we’re not as divided as our politics would indicate. You meet with the average person — I don’t care whether they’re Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal — they don’t think in labels. They’re not particularly ideological. Everybody is sort of a mix of what you might consider some liberal ideas, what you might consider some conservative ideas. But there is a set of common values that everybody buys into: Everybody thinks you should have to work hard for what you get, everybody believes that things like equal opportunity should be real, not just a slogan.
WENNER:
Are you surprised by how optimistic everyone is in their hearts?
OBAMA:
The American people are, I think, congenitally optimistic. Right now, they’re not feeling particularly optimistic about Washington — they’re genuinely concerned about the direction the country is moving in, they’re anxious about globalization and whether we’re going to be able to compete. But at bottom, they’re not fatalists. They always feel like there’s something we can do to make things better.
WENNER:
What have you learned about yourself during the campaign?
OBAMA:
I’ve learned two things, and I think these two things are connected. One is that the older I get, the less important feeding my vanity becomes. I’ve discovered that I don’t get a lot of satisfaction from being the center of attention, but I do get a lot of satisfaction about getting work done. And that, in turn, has led to a confirmation that I have a very steady temper. I don’t get too high when things are high, I don’t get too low when things are low, which has been very helpful during this campaign and is reflected in the people I hire and how we run our organization.
WENNER:
You’ve said you don’t need to feed your vanity. How do you feed your sanity during the campaign?
OBAMA:
Lately, because we’ve been campaigning in the Midwest, I get to go home each night. My nine-year-old is in the drama club, and last night they had a performance of Odysseus. It was outstanding. That’s my unbiased review.
WENNER:
Three books that really inspired you.
OBAMA:
Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” the tragedies of William Shakespeare and probably Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
WENNER:
You’ve gotten enormous support from the music community. Why do you think they’ve responded so strongly to your campaign?
OBAMA:
Musicians and creative folks, generally, may be inclined toward the idea of change, or at least open to it — to not just settle for what is, but what might be.
WENNER:
When you were at the Rolling Stone cover shoot, they were playing the Grateful Dead, and you recognized the music right off.
OBAMA:
Those guys did a concert for me during the primary — they got back together again. And not only do I enjoy the music, but I just like them as people.
WENNER:
Are we going to have a Deadhead in the White House?
OBAMA:
I’m not sure I fully qualify as a Deadhead — I don’t wear tie-dye and I’ve never followed them around anywhere. But I enjoy the songs.
WENNER:
You used “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen a lot on the campaign. Who chose that?
OBAMA:
We go through a lot of things. We’ve gone through different phases. We had Aretha on there for a while, Stevie... always solid. “Rising” we felt just sort of captured the spirit that we hope is in this campaign.
WENNER:
Bruce issued a pretty eloquent endorsement of you. What do you think of him and his work?
OBAMA:
Not only do I love Bruce’s music, but I just love him as a person. He is a guy who has never lost track of his roots, who knows who he is, who has never put on a front. When you think about authenticity, you think about Bruce Springsteen, and that’s how he comes across personally. We actually haven’t met in person.
WENNER:
He told me you gave him a call.
OBAMA:
Yeah, we had a phone conversation, and he was exactly how you hoped he’d be. He’s passionate and humble.
WENNER:
And you call him the Boss?
OBAMA:
You’ve got to.
WENNER:
What did you listen to growing up?
OBAMA:
I have pretty eclectic tastes. I grew up in the Seventies, so a lot of Seventies rhythm & blues and pop were staples for me: Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire, Elton John, Rolling Stones.
WENNER:
Is there anyone who you would say were musical heroes to you at the time?
OBAMA:
If I had one, it would have to be Stevie Wonder. When I was just at that point where you start getting involved in music, Stevie had that run with “Music of My Mind,” “Talking Book,” “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” and “Innervisions,” and then “Songs in the Key of Life.”

Those are as brilliant a set of five albums as we’ve ever seen. So that was a guy I loved, and I loved the Stones.

WENNER:
What’s your favorite Stones stuff?
OBAMA:
“Gimme Shelter” is a great song.
WENNER:
What are you listening to now? What’s on your iPod?
OBAMA:
When I was in high school, probably my sophomore or junior year, I started getting into jazz. So I’ve got a lot of Coltrane, a lot of Miles Davis, a lot of Charlie Parker. I’ve got all the artists we’ve already talked about, but I’ve got everything from Howlin’ Wolf to Yo-Yo Ma to Sheryl Crow to Jay-Z.
WENNER:
What do you think of rap? Has it been unfairly attacked for destroying family values?
OBAMA:
By definition, rock & roll is rebel music, which means if it’s not being criticized, it’s probably not doing its job. I am troubled sometimes by the misogyny and materialism of a lot of rap lyrics, but I think the genius of the art form has shifted the culture and helped to desegregate music. Music was very segregated back in the Seventies and Eighties — you’ll remember that when MTV first came on, it wasn’t until “Thriller” that they played Michael.

I know Jay-Z. I know Ludacris. I know Russell Simmons. I know a bunch of these guys. They are great talents and great businessmen, which is something that doesn’t get emphasized enough. It would be nice if I could have my daughters listen to their music without me worrying that they were getting bad images of themselves.

WENNER:
Overall, what do you think of pop culture today? Is it a harmful or a healthy influence?
OBAMA:
I’m not somebody who thinks that popular culture should carry the whole freight; it both shapes and reflects what’s happening in the country as a whole. What I have seen is a shift in attitudes of young people wanting to be more engaged and more involved, and you’re going to start seeing that increasingly reflected in music as well. Every time I talk to Jay-Z, who is a brilliant talent and a good guy, I enjoy how he thinks, and he’s serious and he cares about his art. That’s somebody who is going to start branching out and can help shape attitudes in a real positive way.

My sense is that artists go through phases. They start off expressing what they know and the stories they have to tell, and they’re not necessarily thinking in terms of making a social statement. I don’t think that should be a criteria for music. Over time, their worldviews broaden, and their music starts expressing that as well.

WENNER:
Change is the byword of the campaign and the definition of your strategy. Can you describe what change is? What does it look like? Not in policy terms, but what change you want to bring to America as a whole.
OBAMA:
I want people to feel connected to their government again, and I want that government to respond to the voices of the people, and not just insiders and special interests. That’s real change. I want us to think about the long term and not just the short term, whether it’s climate change, energy policy, how we’re educating our kids, what kind of investments we’re making in our infrastructure, how we’re dealing with the federal budget and national debt. I want us to think intergenerationally, something we used to do more of and we have lost. I want us to rediscover our bonds to each other and to get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics. That’s not to say it’s possible or even desirable to squash real policy arguments, but the tit-for-tat, “gotcha” game that passes for politics right now doesn’t solve problems. I want to get beyond that.
WENNER:
All the young people who are backing you and who have placed such hope in you and your promise for change — what will change for them?
OBAMA:
The sense that they can help shape the direction of this country. I always knew — partly because as somebody who has been a community organizer, I’ve helped mentor a lot of young people and talked to groups involved in public service — I always knew there was this real hunger to get engaged and involved on the part of young people, but they didn’t see politics as an avenue to do it. What this campaign has done is said, “Even as you’re organizing about Darfur, even as you’re involved in that environmental group, even as you’re joining Teach for America, there is a need for you to be part of this central conversation about our politics and our government.” And they’ve responded.
WENNER:
How are you going to connect your support among young people to the governing process?
OBAMA:
This is where the Internet is so powerful. One of the things that surprised me in this campaign is how well we were able to use technology to organize people. There’s enormous promise — but we’ve just scratched the surface of what’s possible when it comes to making government work for people. Virtual town-hall meetings, increasing transparency, accountability on legislation. You think about all the inefficiencies in government. We basically have a New Deal government in a 21st-century economy. We’ve got to upgrade it.
WENNER:
So you’re consciously aware that this will have to be part of how you govern?
OBAMA:
Yes, absolutely. The Internet gives young people a tool to be informed continuously. It gives them an opportunity to speak to each other and mobilize themselves. It gives them the opportunity to hold me accountable when I’m not following through on promises that I’ve made. It gives me a powerful ally if Congress is resistant to measures that need to be taken.
WENNER:
If you are president, what do you think will make the traditional Washington establishment most nervous about how you approach policy and government?
OBAMA:
The relationship between lobbyists and legislation and the revolving door that’s been created between people in government and K Street is not something you can eliminate, but it’s something you can curb. People are going to be nervous about the fact that I’m interested in curbing it. Lobbyists have a function to play; they have a representing interest as part of our democracy. But the degree to which, during the Republican Congress, you literally had oil companies writing energy legislation or drug companies writing drug legislation, without regard for the public interest — that’s got to change. And that will make some people uncomfortable, partly because it’s very lucrative, and it’s grown massively over the last decade. I don’t think people understand
WENNER:
The way legislation has been outsourced to private interests?
OBAMA:
Yeah. I don’t think people understand how much the lobbying industry has grown, and how much money is involved in it. A lot of people are getting paid handsomely.
WENNER:
Would you say it’s overtaken the elected representatives themselves, in terms of their power to write legislation?
OBAMA:
I don’t think it’s overtaken the legislature, but I think that it has become an unhealthy symbiotic relationship.
WENNER:
Last week, the Senate failed to pass a measure that would have strongly addressed global warming. What’s your plan to get meaningful climate-change legislation passed in the face of opposition by the oil, coal and auto industries and their allies in Congress?
OBAMA:
Let’s start with what we have to do. Every scientist that is serious about looking at this question will tell you that, at minimum, we’ve got to reduce carbon emissions by about 80 percent.
WENNER:
By what date?
OBAMA:
2050. And it’s not going to happen precipitously. We’ve got to start now and steadily ratchet down our carbon emissions.
WENNER:
Are you going to take the toughest of the policy approaches that have been proposed?
OBAMA:
In order to actually get something passed, we’re going to have to get the stakeholders involved and recognize, “Look, this is a painful process.”
WENNER:
These are tough guys with billions of dollars at stake.
OBAMA:
But look, the oil companies are still going to be making money. Here’s my point: Whenever you transition to a new technology or a new way of thinking about structuring our economy, the old is going to resist the new. The key is to make the new profitable, job-generating and appealing enough that more and more people embrace the new and let go of the old. That’s where government can play a role. If we institute a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, that’s going to generate billions of dollars. Now, that’s also going to mean higher electricity prices for consumers, so a huge chunk of that has to go back to consumers in the form of rebates, so they don’t feel the pinch as badly. That’s point number one.

Point number two is we’ll put $15 billion a year into alternative energy. We want to give encouragement to existing utilities, existing energy companies, to invest in solar and wind and biodiesel. When you have a guy like T. Boone Pickens, who made his money on oil, investing in wind farms, that’s how you can start getting the alignments to bring about change. On the other hand, if you think you’re just going to shove this down their throats without any consideration for their economic interests — not just the big players but the workers who have jobs at risk or those who need to worry about their electricity bills — then people are going to be resistant.

WENNER:
You’ve been a big supporter of ethanol. But studies show it doesn’t do anything to reduce global warming, it’s actually a less efficient way to produce energy than gasoline, and it’s contributing to growing food shortages worldwide. Are you going to continue to back it?
OBAMA:
Corn-based ethanol I see as a transitional technology. We’ve got to invest in alternative fuels.
WENNER:
This one is ranked as pretty bad.
OBAMA:
I understand, which is why we’re going to have a transition from corn-based ethanol to cellulosic ethanol, not using food crops as the source of energy.
WENNER:
So you foresee this coming to an end.
OBAMA:
What I foresee is us transitioning into other ways of developing these energy sources. The fact that we had corn-based ethanol, and that industry has matured, provides us with distribution networks and infrastructure that can ultimately be used for other ethanol sources.
WENNER:
In “Dreams From My Father,” you recount the bigotry your parents faced because of interracial marriage, which was illegal then. What is the difference between that and the current bans on gay marriage?
OBAMA:
Well, I’m always careful not to draw easy equivalents between groups, because then you start getting into a contest about victimization or who has been discriminated against more. What I’ll say is that I am a strong believer in civil unions that would provide all the federal rights under federal law that a marriage contract would provide to people. I think that the country is still working through the idea of same-sex marriage and its entanglement, historically, with religious beliefs.

My sense is that a consensus has already established itself that when it comes to hospital visitation, the ability to pass on benefits like Social Security, that people shouldn’t be discriminated against, everyone should be treated equally. I think that is a starting point — that consensus is what will grow over time. If you want to use the analogy of the civil rights movement, Dr. King and others didn’t lead with assaults on anti-miscegenation laws. They focused on voting rights and civil rights. Once those rights were secured, the culture shifts.

WENNER:
The War on Drugs has cost taxpayers $500 billion since 1973. Nearly 500,000 people are behind bars on drug charges today, yet drugs are as available as ever. Do you plan to continue the War on Drugs, or will you make some significant change in course?
OBAMA:
Anybody who sees the devastating impact of the drug trade in the inner cities, or the methamphetamine trade in rural communities, knows that this is a huge problem. I believe in shifting the paradigm, shifting the model, so that we focus more on a public-health approach. I can say this as an ex-smoker: We’ve made enormous progress in making smoking socially unacceptable. You think about auto safety and the huge success we’ve had in getting people to fasten their seat belts.

The point is that if we’re putting more money into education, into treatment, into prevention and reducing the demand side, then the ways that we operate on the criminal side can shift. I would start with nonviolent, first-time drug offenders. The notion that we are imposing felonies on them or sending them to prison, where they are getting advanced degrees in criminality, instead of thinking about ways like drug courts that can get them back on track in their lives — it’s expensive, it’s counterproductive, and it doesn’t make sense.

WENNER:
What do you think went wrong with the Bush administration? How did things get so bad in these last eight years? What happened to us?
OBAMA:
It’s hard to know where to start. I think it starts with a president and a team that came in with a very ideological vision about what they wanted to accomplish. They said, “We are going to push through trillion-dollar tax cuts come hell or high water,” without thinking through, “What does the country need right now? Are we falling behind in our investment in education? Are we failing to deal with our infrastructure? In the context of globalization, are we preparing citizens so they can access the global economy and succeed? Are we doing something to lessen growing inequality?” Those weren’t questions they were asking. They just had this idea, “We’re going to cut taxes massively, especially for our friends.”

Then, because of a lack of curiosity about the world outside our borders, when 9/11 hit, the response again was ideological. There was an appropriate and pragmatic response when it came to going after the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But almost immediately, there was this sense of “Let’s broaden our goal here to impose our will on the world as the lone superpower.” And we have an administration that doesn’t listen and doesn’t have a negative feedback loop that helps make midcourse corrections. As a consequence, we’ve got some big problems, both home and abroad.

WENNER:
Is there a marker you would lay down at the end of your first term where you say, “If this has happened or not happened, I would consider it a negative mark on my governance”?
OBAMA:
If I haven’t gotten combat troops out of Iraq, passed universal health care and created a new energy policy that speaks to our dependence on foreign oil and deals seriously with global warming, then we’ve missed the boat. Those are three big jobs, so it’s going to require a lot of attention and imagination, and it’s going to require the American people feeling inspired enough that they’re prepared to take on these big challenges.
WENNER:
There is little doubt that you are going to be “Swift boated” in some way during the campaign and that we are all once again going to be hit with the politics of fear. How do you deal with that? In the past, Democrats have cowered in front of that.
OBAMA:
Yeah, I don’t do cowering. You have to respond forcefully, quickly and truthfully to attacks. So far, we’ve held up pretty well.
WENNER:
Do you think the American people have learned their lesson when it comes to that kind of attack?
OBAMA:
One thing they know is we can’t afford to be distracted right now. Look at the headlines in USA Today: In addition to floods, you’ve got “Gas Could Peak at $4.15” and “Credit Crisis Shortchanges Some Student-Loan Breaks.” People are having trouble making ends meet.

My point is that if I’m honest and straightforward and they trust me, these old tactics won’t work.

WENNER:
Good luck. We are following you daily with great hope and admiration.
OBAMA:
We’re going to get this done.