Obama Responds to Criticism Over "Snappy Slogans" Remark: "Everyone Has Different Roles to Play"

During an appearance on 'The Daily Show,' the former president also talked about the frustrations that young people feel with structural problems in the U.S.: "I welcome them feeling frustrated and impatient because that's how I got started."

Barack Obama responded to criticism of his remark that political candidates risk losing support when they turn to "snappy slogans" like "defund the police" during an appearance on The Daily Show with host Trevor Noah on Tuesday night.

The former president qualified that he made the comment, uttered during an appearance on the Snapchat show Good Luck America in early December, amid a book tour where he repeatedly praised 2020's social activism: "Nothing made me more optimistic in the past year than the activism in the wake of George Floyd's murder," he told Noah on Tuesday, saying that activists had "shifted the conversation in ways that I would not even imagine a couple of years ago." He added that, unlike some Democrats, he didn't believe the "defund the police" slogan had anything to do with the Democrats' 2020 election results in Congress.

Instead, he said that he was concerned that the ideas behind "defund the police" weren't getting adequately translated not just to "white folks" but also to "Michelle [Obama]'s mom." He said he wasn't advocating for obscuring the truth with language, or providing an easily digestible form of the idea: "The issue to me is not making [listeners feel] comfortable, it's can we be precise in our language enough" to persuade people who may be persuadable.

He added, "Part of this is also everyone has different roles to play: an activist, a movement leader is going to provide a prophetic voice and speak certain truths that somebody who is going to be elected into office will not be able to say."

Noah responded by asking why Democrats had to moderate their ideas when Republicans elected a few QAnon conspiracy supporters in the 2020 election. "In fact, the Republican Party is the minority party," Obama replied, arguing that the makeup of Congress and voting distribution obscured the fact that recent surveys and polls show most Americans are affiliated with the Democratic party and agree with its major tenets. Obama said Democrats have a more diverse voting swathe, which means Republican politicians can "talk to themselves" and "they don't have to appeal to as broad of a base" as Democratic candidates do.

Earlier in the conversation, Obama and Noah further talked about frustrations that young people feel with structural problems in the U.S. The former president encouraged younger generations not to take an all-or-nothing approach, using the Paris Agreement as an example: "The Paris Accord did not solve climate change but it did create the first global framework" to deal with global warming, he said. "You can be terrified at the pace at which we are burning up the planet and still think 'that was a worthwhile endeavor.'"

He added that "a certain impatience, a certain anger" is warranted in confronting injustice: "I welcome them feeling frustrated and impatient because that's how I got started, and then they'll get their own knocks on the head and things won't work out the way they want... it's that constant striving and wanting things to be better" that create change, he said.

The pair also touched on lighter topics during the nearly hour-long interview. Noah jokingly asked whether Obama was going to be more careful about who he "roasted" given that two people he had spoken critically of — President Trump and Kanye West — both subsequently ran for president. "Well, I should roast people I admire more. I'll start roasting you, man. Who knows? although you weren't born here, but look, I was able to get away with it apparently," he said, referring to the baseless Obama birther conspiracy theory.

What was it like to transition to private life in 2017 after spending two terms as president, Noah further asked? "The truth is that I did not have those kinds of withdrawals" that others have when they leave public life, he said. "Michelle and I, that's something we share. We feel good about the work we did. We don't feel anxiety about not being the center of attention." However, he admitted that they got "frustrated" at events they couldn't change.

Obama is currently doing the late-night circuit as part of his promotional tour for his memoir A Promised Land, the first in a two-part series that covers parts of his early life and his first presidential campaign through the third year of his first term as U.S. president.