We revisit our conversations with the president during his six previous appearances on the show, dating back to his days as a little-known Illinois state senator.
President Barack Obama
Tavis: In the spring of 2004, Barack Obama was a little-known state senator from Illinois who had a big political dream – to become a U.S. senator from his home state, which would make him only the third African American in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction.
I spoke to then-state Senator Obama just after his primary victory in Illinois at a time when most people knew him as a skinny kid with a funny name from the south side of Chicago.
[Begin previously recorded interview clip]
Tavis: The phrase that you have become accustomed to using, “the skinny kid with the funny name from the south side of Chicago,” tell me beyond your race, beyond that issue, how you got beyond getting people to vote for a guy whose name a few months ago they couldn’t even pronounce?
Then-State Senator Barack Obama: They still screw it up sometimes. (Laughter) They call me Alabama, they call me Yo Mama. There are all kinds of versions of it.
Obama: But one thing that I confirmed in this race is that the American people, at their core, are a decent people. They get confused sometimes, they’re busy, they’re stressed, they’re tired. Sometimes they’re watching “Fox News.” You know that’s going to get them confused.
Obama: But ultimately, when you talk to them about issues and you talk to them about the things that we have in common, our belief that every child should have a decent shot at life, the belief that the vulnerable among us should be cared for and the government has a role in that, people respond.
One of the things that I started off this campaign believing was that if people knew who I was, if they knew that I had helped reform the death penalty, if they knew that I had provided health insurance for children who didn’t have it, if they knew that I’d helped set up an earned income tax credit that gave tax breaks not to the wealthy but to people who really needed it, those kinds of messages are ones that would appeal across race, region, and class.
[End previously recorded interview clip]
Tavis: Most people with political ambitions can spend years trying to gain name recognition and a seat at the table of national politics. But then-state Senator Obama was clearly not just another political figure, and just four months to the day after his first appearance with us in 2004, he had just delivered what many described as one of the most electrifying keynote speeches in American history at the Democratic National Convention that year in Boston.
[Begin previously recorded interview clip]
Tavis: It’s been fascinating for me to see somebody who I’ve known for years come into the national consciousness. Jesse Jr. and I were talking the other day, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. Kwame Kilpatrick was on this show this week, we were talking, and for us it was just fascinating to sit here in this hall and to watch you come into the consciousness of everybody across the country. But you seem to be handling it well.
Obama: The nice thing, aside from having a wife who’s got a great sense of humor and doesn’t take this stuff too seriously, just to remind you who you are. Really what I tried to do in that speech was just give voice to what I’m hearing from voters on the south side of Chicago and down state Illinois.
It was really their eloquence that was communicated, and so it’s not that hard for me to keep it in perspective. This is really just an expression of I think a lot of the hopes and dreams of people all across the country who know we can do a little bit better, and I hope recognize that John Kerry and John Edwards are going to be the team that can help us do better.
Tavis: How did you decide what to put in, what to leave out of your speech? I’ve been in a number of conversations all this week, certainly since your speech, with people trying to analyze what you did say, what you didn’t say. As always, speeches get parsed.
Obama: Absolutely, right.
Tavis: I really felt for you, because it’s unfortunate in many respects that if, in fact, you win, you’ll be the only African American in the U.S. Senate. You’ve got to be all things to all people.
Tavis: How do you do a speech where you have to remain authentically Black -?
Tavis: – for those Black folk in Chicago on the south side you represent who know you, but at the same time to everybody else now you’re the face of the party.
Tavis: I heard Pat Buchanan say that you were great, that it was the best speech he’s heard in a long time.
Obama: Well, I think that I try to remind people that I’m rooted in the African American community, but I’m not limited by it. I think that basic philosophy applies to the speech and it applies to my politics.
When I try to pass a bill that is boosting the wages of low-wage workers, that helps everybody. But disproportionately, Black folks are low-wage. If I’m working on people who are uninsured or underinsured, well, that helps everybody, but Black folks are specifically underinsured.
So my approach is generally to say the African American experience is not unique to America, and that we are all aspiring for the same common dreams and common hopes, so that if I help everybody, I can help the African American community in particular.
Now, there’s some issues like affirmative action or discrimination in which those are specific to minority communities, and I’m going to stand foursquare behind dealing with those issues. But see, I have optimism that white America wants to see justice done as well, and I don’t think those things are contradictory.
[End previously recorded interview clip]
Tavis: After his historic Senate victory now, U.S. Senator Obama was making a name for himself in states all across the country and while even some of his closest friends and advisers counseled him not to seek the highest office in the land so soon after joining the Senate, Barack Obama sensed that the time might be right for a White House run.
When president candidate Barack Obama joined us here in the fall of 2007, he was running behind a better-financed and better-known frontrunner named Hillary Clinton. But as he joined us on that October night, he displayed a quiet confidence that would ultimately carry him all the way to the White House.
[Begin previously recorded interview clip]
Tavis: In the Senate he sits on the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, and in that capacity has been a key voice in the debate over Iraq. His most recent “New York Times” best seller is “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream,” the book out in paperback November the 6th, as if there’s anybody in America who does not have it in hardback already. I was just reading – you sold over a million copies of that book.
Then-U.S. Sen. Obama: We did all right.
Tavis: Isn’t that amazing?
Obama: Almost as many books as you sell, Tavis.
Tavis: Get out of here, get out of here. Good to see you, man.
Obama: You doing all right?
Tavis: Yeah, I’m hanging in. You all right?
Obama: Good. I’m doing fine.
Tavis: Seriously, that’s an amazing thing, to have your personal story sell, and your viewpoints sell a million copies plus in hard –
Obama: It’s a great honor. The first book that I wrote, “Dreams from My Father -”
Tavis: “Dreams,” sure.
Obama: – ended up selling a million copies in paperback, and that was out of print for 10 years, just about. So it’s been a real blessing, and you’re right – what it does is it gives people a chance to get to know me in a way that usually you don’t get to know presidential candidates. In fact, up in New Hampshire they’ve organized these book clubs where supporters will invite people, not for money, but just to read the book, because their feeling is the more that they get to know where I’m coming from, the better off we’ll do.
Tavis: What’s your sense – and this requires setting your humility aside for just a second – what’s your sense, though, why yours connected in that way, and I raise that, Barack – Senator Obama – because there are so many people on the campaign trail who when they decide to run put a book out, of course. But yours is just blowing away everybody else’s.
Obama: I think part of it was the first book was written well before I ever thought about politics, and so it was personal. I think it was candid enough where people said, “Oh, he obviously wasn’t thinking about running for office when he wrote that.” (Laughter)
So I think that there was an element of trust where people felt that hopefully I’m not just going to give the canned responses. That ended up carrying over to the second book as well.
Tavis: Yeah. In either of those first two books, though, who knew – you and Dick Cheney, cousins?
Obama: Listen, (laughter) I don’t think I’m going to the family reunion. I don’t know how I’ll be greeted. But no, these folks have been doing all these genealogies on me, and they’ve found all sorts of strange connections.
Tavis: This has got to be the strangest, though.
Obama: Well, listen, if you go back far enough, you’ve got all kinds of crooks and thieves in your family. (Laughter) I’m not necessarily drawing that analogy, I’m just saying you don’t know who’s back there.
Tavis: I’m just reading this stuff every day. You, of course, are the guy, you’re the candidate. How much truth to the stories that we’re reading that you are having to do some damage control where your supporters are concerned, who are fretting, your wonderful answer notwithstanding, fretting that if these numbers in the polls don’t start to move, the campaign’s in trouble.
Obama: No. Listen, campaigns always go through ups and downs, and what I’ve always said to my folks is if you were looking for the safe choice, you shouldn’t be supporting a 46-year-old Black guy named Barack Obama (laughter) to be the next leader of the free world.
That’s not where the smart money went, especially when you’re running against the dominant political force in the Democratic Party over the last 20 years. People have gotten involved in our campaign because they believe that politics as usual, business as usual, is not adequate.
It’s not that they dislike some of the other candidates. They just think that if – let’s take the example of healthcare. If we can’t break the gridlock between Democrats and Republicans, but if we also can’t overcome the insurance company or the drug company lobbyists that have a lock on the debate in Washington, we’re not going to get anything passed.
It doesn’t matter whether John Edwards’ or my plan or Hillary’s plan is better. That, I think people understand. The second thing my supporters understand, the day I’m inaugurated this country looks at itself differently, and the world looks at America differently. If you believe that we’ve got to heal America and we’ve got to repair our standing in the world, then I think my supporters believe that I am a messenger who can deliver that message around the world in a way that no other candidate can do.
Tavis: They would look at the U.S. differently for what reason or reasons?
Obama: Well, I think if you’ve got a guy named Barack Hussein Obama, that’s a pretty good contrast to George W. Bush to start with. Somebody who’s lived in a foreign country, somebody who knows what it’s like to see family members in dire poverty.
Somebody who has a grandmother who lives in a village in Africa without running water and without heat, and without indoor plumbing. A village that’s been devastated by HIV/AIDS.
When I go to Africa I’m not speaking as based on what I’ve read or what I hear in a hearing or what I’ve seen visiting the ambassador’s residence in Nairobi. I’m speaking from experience, in the same way that when I talk about issues facing the inner city here in the United States, I’m not looking at it from a distance.
I’m speaking from somebody who’s worked in public housing projects and dealt with trying to find ex-felons a better life for themselves. So that experience, I think, gives me more credibility to talk about these issues.
Tavis: Going back to Hillary Clinton for just a second, since we raised her earlier, one could argue that these national polls notwithstanding, people really don’t like Hillary Clinton.
Tavis: You say that people like the Clintons, they like Bill, they like Hillary. One could argue, if you dig deep in these numbers, one could argue at least that they really don’t like Hillary in that these numbers seem to suggest in many of these polls that she is not the most electable Democrat in a face-off with two or three people on the other side of the aisle.
Obama: Exactly, right.
Tavis: In part because her negatives are so high.
Obama: Are very high.
Tavis: All right. So what do you make of that?
Obama: See, I think the question is can we get beyond the gridlock that we experienced during the ’90s. Who’s in the best position to point forward? Part of the reason – when I sat down with Michelle and I said, “Should we do this race?” we asked three questions. One, could our family survive it? Since Michelle’s exceptional and my children are above average, we figured they’d be okay.
The second question was could I win. We looked at it and we said we can win, because I’m not interested in running a symbolic race. That’s been done. The third question was is there something I can do that no other Democratic candidate can do?
What I believe is that the country is ready to get beyond the old arguments that we’ve been having since the ’60s about Vietnam and the sexual revolution and the role of faith in society.
All these things that we’ve been arguing about, and the American people have moved beyond that. That’s part of the reason why you see consistently in polls that among Independents and among Republicans we do very well.
When we get these big crowds, I’m always shaking hands afterward, and I always have folks saying, (whispers) “I’m a Republican, Barack, but I support you.” And I lean over, I say, “Thank you. Why are we whispering?” (Laughter)
But they almost surprise themselves. I think it has to do less with the positions I’m taking than the tone I’m taking, which is I’m going to listen to everybody and I want to break down this red state-blue state divide. That’s part of the reason why the convention speech I did in 2004 went so well, it’s because it’s not that my positions were different, but the language and the tone was one of let’s unify the country.
Tavis: Your dear friend, my dear friend and your supporter, Dr. Cornel West, and I were in a conversation the other day and we were going back and forth, as we tend to do about these issues. The point was made that if you had the support, speaking of symbolism, if you had the support that Jesse Jackson had in Black America in ’84 or ’88, this race would be over.
Obama: Well, and –
Tavis: Of course, I shot back if you had that number in Black America, you might not have $75 million, either. What do you make of the fact that if you had Jesse’s support in Black America in this primary, it’d be over? You’d be the champion right now.
Obama: Well, what is absolutely true is this – that Black folks certainly have fondness for the Clintons. Black women in particular have fondness for the Clintons, and if right now nationally the poll numbers showed us getting that kind of 80, 90 percent African American support, then –
Tavis: It’d be over with.
Obama: Well basically, that gap between me and Hillary would be entirely closed.
Obama: Look, what’s going on, I think, in the African American community is the same thing I saw in the U.S. Senate race. Up until a month before the race I was getting 25 percent of the Black vote. The reason is because Black folks didn’t know me, and they’re looking, “Barack Obama? We don’t know. Where’s he from and what’s he about?”
We went up on TV and by the end of it, we got 80, 85 percent. Now my support in Illinois is 90 percent among African Americans – the same thing you’re starting to see happen in this race in those states where I’m active. So in South Carolina, I started off at 10 percent.
Now we lead among African Americans, and that’s before we’ve run any television. But the interesting thing among Black voters is what we hear again and again. Number one is folks are somewhat concerned about my safety, and I’ve got to remind them that I’ve got the best protection on Earth. We’re going to be all right. Don’t fear on that.
The second thing is they’re not sure white folks will vote for me, and what I try to say is don’t sell ourselves short. Don’t anticipate that this can’t be done, because when we made progress at each juncture, it’s been because we made a decision we’re going to break through those barriers.
You can’t tell me that I can’t do something. People said I couldn’t win that U.S. Senate race. We won it by record numbers. I got the most votes of any elected official in history in Illinois. We won the white vote, Black vote, Hispanic vote, Asian vote, rural vote, urban vote.
Don’t tell me I can’t do it. What I want us to do is to focus on the fact that this can be done, and then once people break through that threshold, then they can ask themselves okay, is this guy a guy who is going to care about me and work on behalf of my issues?
There, I can say look, look at my track record. As a community organizer, I didn’t go to the fancy white shoe firm. I worked as a civil rights lawyer, I worked in public housing. I had fought on issues that are hard, like criminal justice issues, where there’s a political cost to pay.
I will put my record against any of those candidates, and once they realize that record, then I think we’re going to be in a strong position to win.
Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago your personal safety, and in addition to being a fine candidate, you must be a prophet as well, because I was literally in my car driving to the studio to have this conversation with you today, and you and I are both admirers, lovers – I certainly see myself, and I think you do; we’ve talked about it many times on camera – we see ourselves as part of the Kingian tradition in this country.
Tavis: I’m in my car on the way to the studio just an hour or so ago listening to some King stuff. I brought the CD in and I want to play a clip from it. This is King speaking at a church in your hometown in 1966, talking about his own fear for his own life.
As you know, he didn’t talk about this very often in public, but here he is in a church on Chicago, dateline 1966, Barack Obama’s hometown, the words of Dr. King. Take a listen. I want to ask you something about this.
[Begin audio clip]
“Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:” They started making nasty telephone calls and came to the point that some days more than 40 telephone calls would come in threatening my life, the life of my family, the life of my children.
I took it for a while in a strong manner, but I never will forget one night, very late. It was around midnight. You can have some strange experiences at midnight.”
[End audio clip]
Tavis: He goes on to talk about the fear for his own life, and this, of course, King speaking about Montgomery, Alabama, when he was leading the movement there.
I listened to that and thought about you on the way to the studio, wondering how it is that you process that, and so you led me into it when you suggested, as Michelle has, your wife suggested, that Black folks should not be afraid to vote for you because of what they think might happen to you.
Tavis: We know that there’s Secret Service all around this studio right now – other candidates don’t have – that because of threats against your life. How are you dealing with that, seriously?
Obama: It is not something I think about. Part of when I listen to that tape is I think about the courage that that man went through, because he didn’t have Secret Service protection, and law enforcement in the towns where he was working were against him.
Some of them were Klansmembers. So I can’t even comprehend the degree of courage that was required, and yet look what he did each and every day. Getting up, speaking out, marching, leading. It just reminds me of that tradition where the stuff we go through now, I get called names.
People call me up, they say, “Oh, I’m sorry about that bad newspaper article about you.” “Oh, that review on the debate, that was rough. I thought that was really unfair.”
I’m thinking, listen, (laughter) nobody’s throwing a brick through my window. I do think that the country has changed in a profound way, and when I’m traveling through Iowa, which doesn’t have a large African American population, and you see the responses of people and the crowds we’re attracting, you really get a sense that folks are ready to transcend some of these issues.
Now that’s not to say that the country’s going to be colorblind in this race. Obviously, that will be an issue both for Blacks and whites. One of the things my candidacy has surfaced is people have some confused views, both in the white community and the African American community, about this.
But what it does say is I think the vast majority of Americans right now, what they want to know is how are you going to help me hang on to my house now that the subprime lending crisis is in full force? What are you going to do to help me deal with my job now that the plant moved to China?
How can I save for my child’s college tuition ad my own retirement at the same time? If I can answer those questions effectively in the last few months of this campaign, then we have an excellent chance of getting this nomination.
Tavis: Speaking of the issues, one of the strategies that it’s clear that the Obama campaign is employing now is to remind people of your opposition to the Iraq war before the vote even went down to contrast that with one Hillary Clinton and others who voted to support the war and give President Bush what he asked for.
The question is whether or not you think that strategy works, and I ask that against the backdrop of whether or not looking back and reminding them of what was is a good strategy versus where the American people are now with trying to figure out who has the best solution – pardon the pun – regarding a way forward.
Obama: Right. Well, two points I’d made on it. Number one, you’d be surprised the number of people who – again, this goes back to knowing me – don’t realize that I opposed the war at the beginning. So part of politics is redundancy.
You’ve just got to repeat stuff sometimes, even when you get tired of saying it. (Laughter) You’ve got to keep on repeating it because you assume everybody knows, and it turns out they don’t.
But the second thing is I don’t talk about my opposition to the war, which has been consistent since 2002, just to say I told you so. It points to how I exercise judgment around foreign policy, and that is relevant to looking forward, because what got us into Iraq was a conventional brand of thinking about our foreign policy that not just Republicans but Democrats brought into it, and Hillary, to some degree, still buys into.
So when we have a debate and I say we need to meet with all leaders, I’m not afraid of losing a propaganda battle because I’m meeting with Hugo Chavez. But for America not to meet with these leaders sends a signal that we’re arrogant and that we’re going to do things on our own, and that will not repair the damage that’s been done to our foreign policy as a consequence of George Bush, and that will make it more difficult for us to mobilize the international support, whether to get Iran to stand down on nuclear weapon or to deal with the situation in Darfur.
So what I’m saying is if you look at that opposition to the war, I didn’t just stumble into it. I laid out precisely what I thought would happen, and I want voters to understand we’re going to have another set of difficult decisions on Iran or North Korea or anything out there that we don’t know yet.
They need to ask themselves shouldn’t it be relevant who got the most important foreign policy issue of our generation right and who got it wrong, and how that will bear on their decision making as president. [End previously recorded interview clip]
Tavis: One week from today President Obama will be sworn in at his second inauguration in Washington, only the fourth Democrat to win a second term for the White House in well over 100 years. The next four years will determine the legacy that President Obama will leave behind, but regardless of how history will ultimately judge his time in office, as we have seen tonight, his meteoric rise in American politics has been one of the most unlikely and transformative journeys in American history.
That’s our show for tonight. Tomorrow night we’ll switch gears from politics to Prince and a few memorable nights on this set with the music icon over these 10 seasons. Until then, good night from Los Angeles, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.