Obama Joins Letterman to Talk Life After Presidency

In his first appearance as a late-night host since 2015, David Letterman picked a conversation partner whose return to the small screen could overshadow even his own — former President Barack Obama.

In the first episode of Letterman's new, monthly talk show on Netflix, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman, released early Friday morning, the former host of NBC's Late Night and CBS' Late Show sat down with the 44th U.S. president for Obama's first talk-show appearance since leaving the Oval Office.

Over the course of the hourlong conversation, the pair discussed Obama's life after the presidency, the state of facts in America and moving Malia Obama into college — all while never mentioning current president Donald Trump by name but alluding to him nevertheless. 

Kicking off the program was a clip from the May 4, 2015, episode of Late Night, the last time Obama and Letterman sat down for a televised conversation. In the clip, the 44th president jokes that after he leaves the Oval Office, he hopes he and Letterman will meet again to play dominos and grab Starbucks. Just a few minutes later, Letterman surprises a live audience at City College of New York by meeting up with Obama in semi-reclined chairs for his newest late-night show, with no tabletop games present.

Letterman opened the conversation by discussing a topic both could relate to: how it feels to leave what Letterman called "long-term jobs." 

"We did. I was not fired, though," Obama joked, referring to an earlier joke Letterman had made to the audience about being let go from CBS' Late Show in 2015. (Officially, Letterman decided to leave at the end of his contract; he was replaced by Stephen Colbert.) Obama told the late-night host that after relinquishing his role as leader of the free world, he had enjoyed sleeping in, traveling with his family to the British Virgin Islands and "fighting with Michelle for closet space" in the family's home in Washington, D.C., after departing Pennsylvania Avenue.

Letterman then turned the conversation to Michelle Obama, asking why a first lady doesn't have a presidential briefing. As he praised his wife, Obama also reflected on his time in office, suggesting that he might have tried to connect more with constituents.

"One of the things Michelle figured out in some ways faster than I did is that part of your ability to lead the country has to do with … shaping attitudes, shaping awareness," he said. "When you become president and you're in the office, you think, now I have to act presidential. And we lost track of what had gotten us there, and that was our ability to tell stories and relate to people." He added that the "collapsing economy" and "two wars"— the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan, in both of which the U.S. was engaged in 2008 when Obama entered office — had particularly made him feel serious.

After his two terms, Obama added that the long-term problems that remained in America were growing inequality and rising college and health care costs, "though [those were] not [rising] as fast as when I went into office."

Letterman danced around discussing President Trump and Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election at the beginning of the show, asking, "hypothetically," whether a president diminishing the press or a foreign government interfering in elections was more of a threat to democracy.

Without calling one more devastating than the other, Obama found a common thread to the two premises. "One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don't share a common baseline of the facts," he said. "We are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than if you listen to NPR." When his 2008 and 2012 campaigns harnessed social media to connect and reach out to supporters, he said he didn't realize the same technology's capacity to "manipulate and propagandize."

Letterman segued into more personal issues toward the middle of the program, asking Obama about the impact his parents had on him (he says his mother was the "guiding spirit" of his childhood) and what the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, meant to him. In an in-the-field segment, Letterman and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) walk across the bridge and connect the 1965 march to Obama's rise to the presidency in 2008.

In the final stretch, Letterman asked about Obama's role as a dad, inquiring about what it was like to drop Obama's eldest daughter, Malia Obama, off at college in the fall of 2017. "It was like open-heart surgery," Obama said, launching into a humorous anecdote about how he was a useless wreck on move-in day and took half an hour to assemble a four-part lamp. He called it "pathetic."

But as Letterman attempted to end the episode on conversation about the former president's work with the Obama Foundation, Obama turned the tables and asked him a question: After a successful career in entertainment, "Don't you say to yourself, 'Boy, am I lucky'?"

Letterman, becoming serious, said that at this point in his life he had been "struggling with … being nothing but lucky." In the month after the Selma march in March 1965, Letterman said, he and his friends took a cruise to the Bahamas, where they got "shitfaced" for an entire week. "Why wasn't I in Alabama? Why was I not aware?" he said, concluding the episode by reiterating his respect for Obama.

Next month, George Clooney will join Letterman onstage. Other guests set for the six-episode run include Jay-Z, Howard Stern, Tina Fey and Malala Yousafzai.