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Former President Barack Obama described the Sandy Hook shooting as the “saddest day” of his presidency but, he said, “when Congress failed to do anything in the aftermath,” it also became “the angriest” he ever was.
“I was disgusted and appalled by the inaction. You had parents who just lost their children sitting in front of senators and asking them for very modest reasonable approaches. This wasn’t some radical agenda,” Obama told Oprah Winfrey in a hour-plus episode of The Oprah Conversation that debuted on Apple TV+ on Tuesday. “It was all viewed as politics as opposed to this human moment we should’ve been able to respond to as a society.”
And he uses the title of his book to address whether the United States is close to a solution on the issue of gun violence.
When Winfrey asked him, after Obama had touched on the “anguish” of Sandy Hook, if he thought if people saw the victims of mass shootings and the “carnage” if that would change how Americans feel about gun violence, Obama said, “Gun violence is one of those issues where we are far away from the promised land on because it’s become such a cultural hot-button issue.”
“It’s become wrapped up with people’s sense of identity and the degree to which the country’s divided and some of this is a big rural, urban split,” he added, referencing hunting and how in particularly remote communities one might want some sort of protection, living 15-20 minutes away from the local police station. “It’s gotten very polarized. I think unwinding the polarization around that issue is going to take some time.”
While Obama was furious about the inaction on gun control, he was surprised when, early in his presidency, he received an early morning phone call from his press secretary telling him that he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize, so much so that his first reaction was, “for what?”
“At that point I was seven months into my presidency. At the time, I shared the assessment of many of my critics that it was premature,” Obama told Winfrey as he recalled his early win. “It actually fed into a narrative among Republicans and some conservative appointments that I was this celebrity favorite who was more hype than substance.”
The first volume of Obama’s 768-page memoir A Promised Land, 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.
Obama explains to Winfrey the meaning behind his memoir’s title. “It captures the sense that I believe there is a promised land out there,” he said. “The stakes in making America work are not just important for Americans but for the world.”
He adds, “If people who are on the surface different, if people who have different face, who are of different race, have different customs, if folks cannot learn to see each other and respect each other and work together and govern themselves, then we will perish.”
Throughout the first volume of his book — a date for the second volume has yet to be announced — Obama gives readers a look into the major issues he face during his first term.
And he addresses his decision to run for president, which he notes his wife, Michelle, wasn’t entirely happy about, explaining, as both of the Obamas have before, that she doesn’t like politics and didn’t want to subject her family to that rough-and-tumble world.
At one point, as they discussed him running for president, Winfrey summarized from the book, Michelle said, “God, Barack, when is it ever going to be enough?”
The former president does get into how much of a role “vanity” or “ego” played into his decision to run for office, as heard in an audio excerpt from the book that aired during the interview.
Obama writes, “Why would I put [Michelle] through this? Was it just vanity? Or perhaps something darker — a raw hunger, a blind ambition wrapped in the gauzy language of service? Or was I still trying to prove myself worthy to a father who abandoned me. Live up to my mother’s starry-eyed expectations for her only son and resolve whatever self-doubt remained from being born a child of mixed race? It’s like you have a hole to fill, Michelle had told me early in our marriage.”
But, he said, by the end of his campaign in 2008 and start of his first term, “a lot of those questions had burned off.”
“The ego part of this, the vanity part of service didn’t interest me any more and what interested me was what could I get done,” he told Winfrey. “To actually imagine yourself running for president requires a certain amount of megalomania and insanity.”
As President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris prepare to begin their term, Obama, who says he was “thrilled” when he heard the news that they’d won, explained that he thinks they both can help “level set” the country and “set a different tone” after Trump “breached so many norms” and strayed from “so many basic assumption of what a president should and should not do.”
Examples Barack Obama cited of what Biden and Harris can change from Trump’s presidency include, “to reestablish that we don’t just use the Justice Department for example to go after political enemies,” to not “call journalists enemies of the stage,” and ensure “there’s an expectation that the president doesn’t routinely lie or reshape the truth to his own convenience.”
“Those kind of things which in some ways we became numb to over the last several years, that’s the stuff that can be fixed,” he said. However, he emphasizes that work in civil society is also important “to overcome these deep divisions that keep producing gridlock.”
Winfrey asked Obama about some of the “coolest” moments from being president, with him citing “all-star” “music concerts” as one of them, name checking performances from Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Common and Paul McCartney, “singing ‘Michelle’ to Michelle [Obama].”
“You’ve got a front seat and you’ve got the greatest musicians in the world performing,” he said of the experience, calling it “a great joy that never got old,” and revealing that he would sometimes sneak down to watch rehearsals.
The former president also revealed that on election night this year, he and Michelle opted for pizza, thinking that they could keep eating it as the night went on even if it got cold. Their daughters were with them, but the former president admits, “there may have been some liquor involved” on the tense evening.
While the former president appeared to be sitting quite close to Winfrey for their chat, it was all an optical illusion, as is revealed at the beginning of the more-than-an-hour-long conversation. The former president was in D.C. and Winfrey was at home in Santa Barbara but they used green-screen technology to make it look like they’re in the same room, in front of a roaring fireplace.
He joked that they should have picked a more elaborate backdrop.
“We should have done this on outer space,” he said. “We could have both been sitting on Neptune in a bubble.”
Continuing on the lighter note, Obama shared that for fun during the pandemic, he and his family have been having “game nights.”
“Although sometimes I get too competitive,” he added. “At least that’s what Michelle says because she’s been losing.”
Both Obama and Winfrey also revealed they were fans of Netflix’s British royal drama The Crown.
“What’s interesting is knowing the Queen pretty well, it’s fascinating to see that trajectory of her life,” Obama said.
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