Barack Obama Says Joe Biden Offers a Presidency "That's Actually Paying Attention"

'A Late Show with Stephen Colbert' and guest Barack Obama during Tuesday's November 24, 2020 show.
CBS

'A Late Show with Stephen Colbert' and guest Barack Obama during Tuesday's November 24, 2020 show.

As Barack Obama's book A Promised Land is on track to becoming the bestselling presidential memoir in history (selling nearly a million copies in its first 24 hours), the former president took time to speak with The Late Show host Stephen Colbert about the legacy of his presidency, the handling of the ongoing pandemic by the current administration, and what he foresees for president-elect Joe Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris.

The first volume of Obama's 768-page memoir, released Tuesday by Crown, features an honest account of his presidential campaign and time in office, as well as the personal journey he and former first lady Michelle Obama went through during both terms.

During his first in-person interview on late-night television, Obama reflected on how the conversation went with the former first lady when he decided to run for president — a decision he notes he's "never fully gotten out of the dog house for."

Obama explained that after having just been elected as a senator for Illinois, he realized he was "the shiny new object" for the Democratic party and chatter arose on whether or not he'd pursue the highest office in the land. The couple then agreed to consider "all the different elements" of what a run for the presidency would entail, and once Michelle changed her mind — the rest is history.

"What is absolutely true," Obama admitted, "is that I put her and our kids through an extraordinary, stressful, difficult sequence in deciding to run for president right after I went through a tough race."

Turning the attention to Trump's presidency, Obama described the handling of the pandemic a "shambolic nature" of government response. While he said this nature of a national crisis "would have been hard for anyone," Obama noted the multiple ways in which over 260,000 deaths by COVID-19 might have been lessened.

"Communicating effectively, respect the science, not undermining the leading epidemiologist in the country and saying he's an idiot, being consistent with masks and social distancing, not suggesting this is some act of oppression rather than just a common sense thing to prevent people from getting sick," he listed off.

Colbert brought up one more benefit to responding quickly and efficiently to the pandemic, aside from it being "the responsible thing to do and economically vital thing to do" — the political advantage.

To this, Obama quipped the surge of conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns that have surged during the pandemic are a "detriment to the country" and are the opposite of "smart politics if Republicans wanted to maintain the White House."

"Now it's no longer strategic. You're drinking your own Kool-Aid in a way that’s troublesome," Obama added, saying one of the biggest challenges Biden will face is "figuring out how to puncture that information bubble" that Republican officials and a large number of voters are within.

A memory of his final days in office was brought up by the late-night host — the infamous Oval Office photo op between Obama and Trump days after he won against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Colbert asked the 44th president what went through his mind sitting next to the incoming 45th — noting he himself found it "a chilling moment" considering all the ways the power of the presidency could be abused in the next four years.

"There was a concern," Obama shared. When pressed if those concerns furthered over Trump's first term, Obama responded "exceedingly."

When asked how he thinks Biden will handle his presidency, amid accusations by Republicans that he cheated, and how he will further his empathy for those who did not vote for him, Obama had hope for his former vice president. "They are going to have big challenges ahead," Obama said of both Biden and Harris. Yet he has hope with there being an incoming president "that's actually paying attention."

As for how Biden will reach across the aisle?  "The fact that he won is indicative of the message he sent of wanting to unify the country," Obama shared. "I do think people are exhausted of just this constant cage match. People just want to feel like a day passes without it being dominated by something crazy coming out of the White House."

With the interview winding down, Colbert had one last request of the former president — a quick game of wastepaper basketball. The stakes were high: an Obama win meant Colbert would have to make a donation to his presidential library; a Colbert win meant Obama would have to mention the host in his next book.

Despite Obama having gone viral a few weeks ago for shooting a 3-pointer while on the campaign trail for Biden, he struck out 8-0 against the late-night host.

"I lost my swag on Stephen Colbert," Obama said with a grin.