The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

David Remnick

Editor, The New Yorker

David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker and the author of six books, including the best-selling biography, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.

Remnick has interviewed Obama extensively over the course of the last eight years. In one recent conversation, Obama told Remnick, "Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past 10, 15, 20 years."

In the following interview, Remnick speaks at length about how Obama confronted a GOP that throughout his presidency, adopted a stance of "complete and utter rejectionism." Obama rose to national prominence in 2004 by declaring, "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there's the United States of America," but as Remnick says, "The notion that this was going to be a post-partisan America, and there are no blue states and no red states, just nonsense." Inside Washington's halls of power, he notes, "post-partisan America was not happening."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk on May 16, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Let's start with Barack Obama's 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention. Tell me what you saw, who he was.

Well, who knew? Who really knew Barack Obama outside of the state of Illinois in 2004? And he gets invited to give this speech. This is a normal thing. You find some young comer who represents something, new generation, in this case an African American from Hawaii by way of Illinois. He gets up and he gives this speech about there's no blue-state America, there's no red-state America, and everybody is excited beyond measure, and suddenly overnight, he is a household word. He gets to the airport; he can barely get on his flight to get back to Illinois.

... When Barack Obama gave this speech in 2004 that elevated him, he had just been in a position where he almost was out of politics entirely. He had tried to run for Congress against Bobby Rush, and he was deemed by that constituency as not black enough. He ran in a heavily black district on the South Side of Chicago. He got blown away by Bobby Rush, former Black Panther. And Michelle Obama really was about reaching the end of her rope, you know? She didn't like having a husband in Springfield and raising a child, and then eventually two children, more or less on her own.

He was a state senator, which is not a high office, and then he gets beaten for Congress. Then he decides to give it one more shot; he's going to run for Senate. It's in the wake of that 2004 speech that he then gets amazingly lucky. He benefits not by one sex scandal in the race for Senate but by two, and one favorite in the race falls away after another.

So this is the path toward 2008, and he wakes up having won a Senate seat in Illinois. The next morning, the next morning at the press conference, the first question is, "When are you running for president?" It's an amazing story.

... John McCain names Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee. What was McCain doing, and who was Palin and what did that do to the GOP side of the equation?

I think we know in retrospect that the choice of Sarah Palin to run as vice president was done on the fly with minimal background check and with just an inchoate feel. Let's get somebody young and attractive and a woman and who can give a speech and who's going to electrify that part of the base, interested in cultural issues and had a little more fiery rhetoric than old John McCain who's a kind of Washington regular who practically lives on "Meet the Press."

... She comes down to the convention, she gives a dynamic speech. You know, lipstick on a pig, remember all this stuff? And the base is excited. The base is excited.

... And when it ends, and McCain has stood by her through thick and thin, and to this day he won't denounce his own choice, he goes up to Sarah Palin and says, "You know, we've lost. But now you're the future of the Republican Party or one of the great hubs of the Republican Party. And the crazies are going to come to you and the talk radio hosts on the far right are going to come to you, and they're going to want to make you their standard bearer. Do everything you can to resist them."

... We did this interview with Eric Cantor last week, and he was talking about sitting up on the inauguration, up on the stand and looking; there's a black guy standing there getting the presidency. Here's a crowd, 2 million people, a million and a half of them black people, and it was a surreal moment, the way he describes it. Would you please describe what that scene was from your vantage point?

Well, my vantage point was a pretty lucky one. I'm sitting in the third or fourth row. I'm looking straight up at the podium, and not only is a man named Barack Hussein Obama about to get inaugurated, we're about also to hear from Joseph Lowery, one of the great pillars of the civil rights movement. He is going to give the final benediction after [evangelical pastor] Rick Warren earlier, which is a very clever combination by the planners. Aretha Franklin is going to sing "My Country 'Tis of Thee," and Aretha Franklin is not only a great pop singer, a great blues singer, R&B singer, but she's also a link to the civil rights movement. This is a woman who sang at the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. And stretched out across the Mall, as you say, are nearly 2 million people, a large percentage of which are African American, from around the country and from Washington, D.C.

And this whole thing is taking place in front of the Capitol dome built by slaves, and Barack Obama is about to go spend the first night as president in a house built by slaves. And if you can't get excited about that as a resonant American historical moment, then you have no sense of feeling or tragedy or progress at all.

I can't imagine a more symbolic inauguration.

... It's such a historically resonant moment that anybody there, anybody watching on television, and I think in large measure even opponents of Barack Obama, and John McCain, to his credit, more than once spoke of what a deeply important moment this was in American history.

This is our national wound, the deepest and longest-standing wound, race. And it doesn't end here on the steps of the capitol, but something significant is happening.

... Legendarily, there is, by the way, the night of this famous inauguration, a Republican gathering in a Georgetown watering hole where Newt Gingrich and many others get together, and they basically formulate the "just say no" strategy, from the very beginning.

See, this is the really troubling thing. To my mind, there's a deep difference between partisanship, which I think is a good thing, the argument over every issue possible, rigorous argument, and complete and utter rejectionism. ... And what you saw on that very first night in this Republican meeting was a firm decision to be the party of no, and that would only intensify with time.

It did, and of all the big issues, it did around the Affordable Care Act, the so-called Obamacare, which reaches its boiling point in the summer of '09 when what we call the Tea Party summer happens. Many things happen as a result of that. One of them is the acknowledgement by the president that, "Wait a minute; everybody doesn't like me out there."

Well, the common notion in the Acela corridor, in the corridor that stretches as far north as Boston and certainly to Washington, D.C., was that if Barack Obama had only gone out to have a drink more often with Mitch McConnell, if he'd played more golf with John Boehner, if he'd invited more people over for dinner, if he had called more people up at 2:00 in the morning like Bill Clinton used to do, everything would have been smooth sailing; that health care and economic reform and tax reform and all these big issues would somehow have gone more smoothly and maybe even more in the president's direction.

I have to say this flies in the face of a certain set of facts, one of which is complete Republican rejectionism among the leadership from the beginning, coupled with a real attempt to delegitimize the presidency of Barack Obama. Now, you saw this in the Clinton presidency, too. You saw all kinds of attempts to delegitimize the mere fact of Clinton's election and presence in the White House. It culminated in, thanks to Bill Clinton's own misbehavior and helping it along, an attempt to throw him out of office.

Barack Obama--we're now coming to the end of eight years; there are no major scandals. As presidencies go, this is about as clean as you can get. I've always thought that ideologically, Barack Obama was a left-of-center Democratic and was hiding in plain sight. But running along this parallel track was an attempt to delegitimize him, and the birther movement, which is front and center in the Tea Party rhetoric, especially in the right wing of it, the right-right wing of it, was ever present.

You now have a presidential candidate for the Republican Party who is the foremost birther of all. So the notion that we'd have there's no red states and no blue states, that was over on day one. Over.

... I was just wondering if at that time you were ever talking to him, let's say, in the summer of '09. As Congress recesses, they're going to the town meetings; they're finding these people screaming and shouting. There are pictures of him as Hitler or, worse, a jungle African person.

Well, let me just say that when it came to seeing pictures in protest of him that were intensely racist, all that kind of stuff brought back memories for me as an observer of the Middle East of similar demonstrations portraying Yitzhak Rabin as a Nazi. Now, one knows immediately that this is nowhere near a majority sentiment on the right, just as it wasn't in Israel. But the use of these kind of inflammatory symbols, which of course was most prominent on social media--that's where politics lives; certainly some of the crazy politics live intensely in social media--that scares the hell out of me because of my memories of 1995 in Israel.

It's not by accident that the Secret Service, by all accounts, got more and more and more threats as time went by. The racial component of this is not to be ignored. This did not sit well with a lot of people. And the more demagogic voices on the right stirred this up.

I think it was [presidential adviser David] Axelrod who first told us that it was, for Obama, a dawning. He sees it on the news, he sees it out the window, and he says: "My God, this is about me. This is not about Obamacare."

... I remember interviewing President Obama about race for a book of mine, and he would answer the questions in that Obamian way, very careful. You can hear the grandfather clock ticking in the Oval Office. Every sentence is measured. When you transcribe it, the paragraphs are shapely paragraphs. No thought is ill considered.

Then the interview is finished, and I start to leave, and the president was going down the hall rather quickly to the next meeting, whatever he had to do, and then he turned around on his heels, and he came back, and he said, "Look," and he came really close. He said: "Look, I can't talk about these things in the way I know you want me to talk about them. I can go just so far because you have to remember, you have to remember, that for me to talk about race, and if I set a foot a little bit wrong, I have the capacity with a word to inflame a huge number of people on this side or that."

In the same way he can affect a financial market with an ill-considered word, ... the same happens with race. He was very, very careful. And there were bromides that he would come up with as a way to talk about it because he'd get asked the same questions. So he would say: "Yes, I'm sure there were some people who would never vote for me in a million years because I'm black. But on the other hand, there were some people that were excited about the possibility for an African American president, so it worked in my favor." So he kind of came up with these formulations.

But not for a minute do I believe that's the depth of his thinking about this. And I don't think we'll know it until he really decides to write a serious book about it, and even then I wonder, I really wonder, if we'll ever get to the point of his full emotional reckoning with this experience. How could you?

How much of what happened in that summer, that Tea Party summer, is racially driven by your lights?

Well, I think a lot of conservative analysts are right when they say you're overlooking some of the legitimate issues that people have. There are, just as some populations and some people in the country are way better off than they were before, thank God, there are people that feel themselves slipping in American society, and you see it in the base of the Trump vote as well. You can't say that everybody who couldn't stand Obama was an out-and-out racist any more than you can say that everybody who's going to pull the lever for Donald Trump is an out-and-out racist, as ill considered as I think that may be.

But to dismiss it is folly, to not take into account the racial component of this, the middle-name component of this, and the decisions that go along with it. When some people see Barack Obama go to a black church, and clearly feel at one, a kinship, there are people who are freaked out. This is the case. You see it all over social media; you see it in people's conversations. It's not a hidden factor. It's not a hidden fact of life.

The "You lie" moment, Joe Wilson jumping up, South Carolina, white guy.

Well, Barack Obama is giving a State of the Union message. Joe Wilson, white congressman from the state of South Carolina, a Republican, yells twice, "You lie." Now, in other parliaments, in other legislatures, national legislatures in the world, this is nothing, right? People get in fistfights; they scream and yell at each other. But in the strange decorum of modern Congress, this was an outlying moment.

And Obama dealt with it in the Obamian way, which is to say he just kept on going, and the apologies eventually came, and he accepted the apology with equanimity. But again, you have to wonder what he really felt, what he really thought about such a moment. It was a manifestation of what, that this guy felt free to do this on national television? It was an astonishing moment, and it was emblematic of a lot of the rage, some of it racial, some of it ideological, that was being felt all over the country.

... Skip Gates gets arrested by an officer in Cambridge. ... Here we go again.

Henry Louis Gates, the Professor of African American Studies and English at Harvard, the creator of the Dubois Center, a huge figure in American academics, gets caught breaking into his own house in Cambridge. And Obama then addresses it at a press conference. I don't think he went out of his way to, but he was asked to. And this was an instance where he, I'm sure in retrospect, felt he went too far because he dared to say that this could have happened to him in Chicago. And then he even joked, "If I'd been trying to break into my own house now, meaning the White House, I would have gotten shot." Ha, ha, ha.

And the polls revealed way more support for the cop. And so Obama did this very awkward thing where he called in Henry Louis Gates and the police officer, and they had this beer summit. I don't think it pleased anybody. And I think for the rest of his presidency, President Obama was very careful to avoid such moments.

... Let's talk just a moment about the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, in the sense that it represents kind of capitulation, in some way, to this bipartisan ideal, certainly by the time Christmas comes along in '09 and he says: "Let's get it done. Let's push it through. Let's go."

That's called politics. Look, from a liberal point of view, from a progressive point of view, what's the real solution to this incredible mess? It's staring us in the face. It's single payer. It's a European model in some way or another, Obamacare. There's no question it's flawed. Some things are a little worse; most things are a good deal better. A lot more people have access to health care. But it's an ungainly system, still. So it happened because of politics. That's how far it could go. He won by one vote. Single-payer was not going to happen.

So to hear in political campaigns this is a failure, it's only single-payer, this is just ignorant of politics. This is my problem with Bernie Sanders when it comes to the so-called bailout. "Terrible deal, terrible, terrible, terrible deal," Bernie Sanders tells us. But wait a minute. Wait a minute. Yes, you would have gotten moral satisfaction in some ways if the banks had been punished judicially and financially way, way more than they were, because they basically, most got off scot-free.

But what did the bailout achieve? It averted an economy spiraling into a depression worthy of 1929. We didn't have that. And the government got its money back.

... Let's talk a little bit about to the extent that you know anything about the creation and the development of the Young Guns and the beginnings of the Tea Party people who are about to be elected in 2010. Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan: What do they represent in terms of the other side of what the president is trying to do?

It's very interesting. You know, we're in the middle of the Trump revolution, which is--let's just put it this way--ideologically inchoate, OK? These guys are ideologically pure, and their causes are primarily financial. They believe in the religion of deficit cutting, that this is the worst crisis that faces America. To a lesser degree than their forebears in the Republican Party, they're interested in social issues. I don't think it's as primary as financial issues in many ways because they're losing. On social issues, the conservatives know in their hearts that they're kind of losing all the time, whether it comes to gay marriage or rights of any kind. That's not happening; support's not there. Even to some degree, on abortion they're not necessarily going to win that battle.

So I think first and foremost is there's a financial aspect to them, and there's also an aspect of them that's about resistance--resistance to liberal advance; anxiety about demographic change; anxiety about shifts in voting patterns in places like Virginia, North Carolina and even one day Texas. So I think there's some of the heart of it.

And they're out there using Obamacare and other things to drum up a kind of new Republican in this moment where the Democrats have everything and the president can--

Yeah, but remember one thing: There are moments when certain factions in a political movement or a party can be rich with ideas. You know, the Reagan Revolution was rich with ideas. They weren't my ideas necessarily, but you couldn't fault them with a certain kind of Americans saying it's ideological coherence. There was a coherence to it. It wasn't about rejectionism; it was about a fully formed sense of the Cold War, America's place in the war, American power, tax policy, etc., etc. It was a coherent view.

Again, not my view, certainly not the Democratic Party's view, but it was coming in the wake of a Democratic Party--I wouldn't say crack-up necessarily, but decline. I don't think there was the same sense of coherence in the Tea Party at all. There was a lot of fury; there's a lot of anger; there's some coherent politicians. But this was not the Reagan Revolution. They're sort of feeding off of aspects of the Reagan Revolution from 20 years before, 25 years before.

The interesting thing is the guys that they bring up, the guys that win, the 87 that win in 2010 are not exactly the guys they would have made to order if they wanted a certain kind of person. But now they've got a tiger by the tail.

They do.

And certainly in 2010 they may not have known what that tiger was, but they had him.

Remember, the Gingrich Revolution was pretty short-lived. It didn't succeed. You know, Karl Rove really thought that he had been behind a political wave that was going to stay in power for a generation. All these hopes are always illusory. Democrats ought to take note of that now, that the notion that somehow you're going to seize power, not just for your guy, not just for George W. Bush, but that somehow this is a completely transformative, almost permanent state of affairs is usually an illusion. It was an illusion for Gingrich; it was an illusion for the Tea Party, because what you're seeing now in Trump is not the Tea Party. It's something completely different. And the Democrats should take note of it as well.

... Now we're at the birther moment. What does this represent on the continuum of things about Barack Obama we're concerned about? Why does this ring a bell with people? Why does Trump ride it out?

See, I think this is just pernicious. This is horrible. This is the notion of getting people to look at a black man and saying he is other; he is not American; he is not one of us. And there are little facts that you can turn into the pixie dust of this. It's absolutely true that Barack Obama's father was Kenyan; we all know this. But we know exactly where he was born. There are documents to prove it. There always were. And it wasn't just Trump; it was a lot of politicians played at this game.

Lot of people running for president when Obama was running for re-election were perfectly willing to raise this, would have asked the question. It was a disgusting, prolonged moment in American politics, and it was the height of demagoguery. It was connected to the notion of "He is not us; he is an other." And if that isn't racism, if that isn't race-baiting, then I don't know what is.

What do you think Trump was doing, really doing?

Well, look, I think Trump is willing to play a lot of dangerous games in his own self-interest. He's willing to arouse feelings against Mexicans, Mexican Americans, against African Americans. He's willing to stimulate any sense of fear, ethnic or otherwise, in the self-interest of getting votes.

Unfortunately, as he knows all too well, there are still currents in American life, persistent currents in American life, that are either dormant or active, that can be aroused by the right voice. And Donald Trump, for whatever reason, is a billionaire populist, if in fact he's a billionaire, as a reality show host, as someone who uses political correctness as a battering ram to say things intended to make people furious in his support. He's willing to do and say anything.

There's a long history of this in the United States, in Europe, elsewhere around the world, and the results are hideous and ugly.

Imagine what Obama's response was to the Trump birther claims and the fact that it kind of caught fire.

Well, I know for a fact that Obama's analysis of the birther claims are as dark as anything as I can give you. But what he chose to do was, as he often did, use humor as a way to reflect his own anger. Remember, angry and black are said to be problematic in public life, right? You can't show yourself to be an angry black man, which is why Key & Peele is such an incredibly funny thing about Obama's anger translator.

I remember, as everybody else does, I think it was three years ago, that at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, a peacocking event every spring at the Hilton, Obama got up, and he just crushed Trump on the birther stuff. It was the week that they finally decided to issue his, I think it's called certificate of live birth at a hospital in Honolulu. He just banged away at Trump, but through jokes. But I don't think humor was the only way that Barack Obama processed this, no.

And Trump's response to that berating that night?

I was two tables away from Trump. ... The conventional way in Washington of absorbing a joke at the White House Correspondents' Dinner is to, you know, keep your chin up and at least pretend to have a sense of humor about it, even if you go cry into your pillow that night. Trump was steaming. His face was all locked in. He was not having a good time. And there were some of us who were there who imagined that somehow this night was the origin story of his decision to run for president. I'm sure that's an exaggeration. I'm sure many factors went into his decision-making process.

But I don't think that being humiliated by the president of the United States in front of a couple thousand of your closest friends is something to discount.

Let's go to the other side now, the effort to be as progressive as he can be. The Occupy Wall Street demands, it seems like a lot of progressives were like: "Where is Barack Obama when we need him? We need him to be arresting bank presidents. We need him to tighten the rules and the regulations."

Well, this goes to the key point about the difference between the prophetic voice and being the president of the United States. I don't think in his heart of hearts Barack Obama saw the Occupy Wall Street movement and was completely rejectionist of it. He understood perfectly well where that came from, just as he would have said the same thing about any number of other movements. It is not the job of even the most progressive president of the United States. And I don't think that, by the way, is Barack Obama's place in history, as the most progressive president in history. There are many things where he was not.

But he's not there to lead movements. That's not the way it works. Movements are there to push presidents this much or this much. That's the way it works. And if you identify yourself too much with a movement, you then become responsible for the whole movement--its rhetoric, its style, its excesses. So you can't do that. You don't do that.

Look at the game that Barack Obama played with gay marriage, or, as it became known, marriage equality. When he was a state senator, he filled out a questionnaire--I have a copy of it--he's asked one of the many questions, "Are you for gay marriage?" Donk, yes. But then as his political exigencies developed, and he was no longer a state senator from Hyde Park, which is a little bit like being a representative from Greenwich Village or Berkeley or something, he started talking about, well, civic unions, maybe this, maybe that. He wasn't telling the complete truth about his political feelings on this issue. ... It's very different being president of the United States and state senator from Hyde Park.

Same thing with Cuba. Look at Cuba. Did Barack Obama want to continue a blockade of Cuba forever and ever? No. But did he take care of it in his first term when he still had to win the state of Florida for re-election campaign? No, he waited until the second term. That's the difference between political movements and ideas and ideology and politics.

... As the clock ticks on, we find ourselves with Trayvon Martin. There's three stages to the Martin story--

Remind me.

"He could be my son." There's the other one, which is, "He could be me." And then there's the verdict, and this is all over a period of time, where he kind of really decides: "I'm going to go a little bit further. I'm going to push on. This is my level of outrage." But in the first instance, until Obama says, "Could have been my son," it seems like everybody thinks [George] Zimmerman's a whack job and this poor kid. Then the black president says anything, and the fuse gets lit.

I think Obama recognizes that most people in this country, white people by and large, don't have this experience. They don't have the sense that it could be them. They don't get pulled over while driving while black. Their kids are not patted down at random on the street, and much, much worse. It's interesting that for decades, African Americans have been telling us about mistreatment by police and in many other realms, and it's only now with 911 calls and cell phone videos that somehow people go, "Oh, my God, the horrible things that must be happening on this 18-month period." No, it's not the 18-month period. It's that you have a technology that now makes it unavoidable. You can now see, thanks to cell phone video, an African American man trying to run away from a policeman after he's been pulled over because of a bad light, shot half a dozen times in the back like a deer, like an animal.

And this is coincident with the presidency of Barack Obama. How does he talk about it? Again, he's not the leader of a movement. How does the president talk about it so that something comes of it? And he can't be judge and jury from the White House press room, so he keeps his rhetoric in check. He's learned ... that if he goes too far, it can be counterproductive.

So every time there's an incident--and oh, by the way, in the course of a two-year period, there's countless incidents, many of which we remember, many of which will be forgotten. And each time, his rhetoric is examined with a tuning fork. Each American is listening: "What is he saying? What is he saying to me? Is he telling the truth? What does it mean to me?" All these things. It's a very, very difficult rhetorical, emotional, political and intellectual set of moments, and it never satisfies everybody. It's very, very difficult.

... One of the things about the Martin case, if you try to put yourself in his place, what it must be like to [have] little things he says from the beginning, how that catches fire, how there's something out there waiting all the time for him to just slip a little bit.

And yet there's genuineness to it. He comes into the White House press room more than once, and he says: "I am sick of having to do this, the sense of 'Here we are again.'" Same thing with guns. "Here we are again, mass killing with guns," and the deep frustration, and by the way, the sense of limitation of what it is to be president of the United States. He's not the king. He can't sweep up all the guns. He's more than sophisticated about the complexity of the place of guns and this psychology of a lot of Americans, the distance between people where I live who don't even understand why guns are important to anybody, and why anybody other than police officers should have them, or armies, and then on the other hand, people who count it as part of their way of being, their culture, what they do on weekends, the naturalness of guns in their lives, the distance from here to there is enormous politically. It's not something that's going to be solved instantly, and it's a tremendous amount of money and politics involved in that.

... You mentioned guns. We made a film about the NRA and guns, and that moment where he comes into the press room after the Newtown slayings and is so emotional, it really felt like something might happen now.

I think it represents the moment of deepest domestic frustration in the entire presidency. Barack Obama had to feel that in the wake of those killings in Connecticut that the political tide was such, sense of sympathy was such, the antipathy toward the gun industry and the gun lobby was such that there would be at least nominal legislation put into place that would limit the proliferation of guns somehow, nominal. And there was nothing. And the frustration surrounding that in the White House was intense.

Now, how good a job they did in marshaling it and following through, you can judge for yourself, but it was a period of enormous frustration.

They say he hands it to Joe Biden because his people have said to him: "It can't be you. I know you've won re-election, but it can't be you, because if it's you, the Republicans are going to go the other way on this."

Well, that worked. ... Numbers weren't there. The impulse was there. People want to get re-elected, and they see the numbers, and they see what money is pouring into their coffers or not, and that's it, and the issue went away. And it was a horrific tragedy that it did, in my mind.

Let's go back to the 2012 re-election effort. He is who he is. A lot of people we talked to say this is the moment: "Bipartisanship, forget about it. I'm now at war. I'm now going my own way. If it existed even after the vote on Obamacare, I'm not going to sit at a table as a rational man and hope I'm going to be able to talk to John Boehner or anybody else. I'm going out, and I'm going to fight now, and I'm going to get re-elected, and I'm going to do what I can. Forget legislation; forget separation of powers. I'm just going to go for it."

Well, look, after the re-election, there were moments that were pretty grim. The rollout of Obamacare was a cartoonish disaster, right? The computer breakdown surrounding it. The Republican Party was able to point to it and basically say, "This is emblematic of the Obama presidency." And Obama was very down about all this.

I think at a certain point, though, he decided to use executive orders, which is not unprecedented. He had been using executive orders far less frequently than most of his predecessors, [but] somehow the notion that this is--again, this is very effective propaganda--the notion that Obama is acting like a king. You hear this all the time, that he's acting like a dictator. He's doing what's within the law, but it's also a recognition that politics in the conventional sense, legislative politics, has come completely [undone]. With the exception of getting a budget bill passed and much other minor stuff, nothing of consequence has happened in many, many, many months.

Let's look at what is probably the worst year of his presidency, 2013. They all decide to start work on immigration. "All right, we're going to do it. We'll do it. The Gang of Eight wants to do it. Everybody wants to do it." And people are telling him: "You can't do it. Don't talk." When he goes to Vegas, he wants to give a speech. They say: "Forget the talking points. Just walk right on by and let the Senate do it, because nothing's going to get done if it has your fingerprints on it."

True enough. ... So I think his advisers are probably right. I think it's very hard to imagine that there would have been comprehensive immigration reform at that point. I don't think he had the juice in Congress to do it.

... During this year, another thing is happening. ... You have basically the end of the Republican Party. I mean, in lots of ways, this is it. Boehner--the kids have taken over; they're driving the car.

And they've given up. John Boehner gave up. He didn't want the aggravation anymore. You have a kind of collapse of party discipline, a fracturing of ideology, a lack of success, by the way, and the beginning of a presidential race that is going to make the party, I don't know what. ...


Look at the difference ideologically between Ted Cruz, for example, who is putatively the second place finisher, and Donald Trump. Ted Cruz is all about social conservatism, about strict financial conservatism, about a very kind of hardened version of Tea Partyism. That's not Trump, unless he needs to be. Unless he needs to borrow from it, unless it's useful to him.

Trump is driving the Republican Party elders, not the electorate, the elders, nuts because of his ideological inconsistency, because of his thousands and thousands of contradictions, because of his wing it as you go, his lack of reliance on the party elders.

... In the bad year and beyond, Ferguson happens. Then Charleston happens. What do you make of Ferguson?

Look, Ferguson clearly was about the shooting, but it was also about the dynamics of Ferguson, the racial dynamics of Ferguson, who's in charge, who's not in charge, who's the majority population and who's not. And the uprising had to do with what had happened and what was local, but also the culmination of what had preceded it. It was about how the police responded. It was about the sheer optics of seeing the gigantic police reaction to these demonstrations, all of it.

And then you get to Charleston, S.C., and here I think this is something that we're going to remember for decades and decades, is a deluded, to say the least, mentally unbalanced racist kid steeped in Confederate nostalgia, in fear of the black man taking the white woman, all these old tropes of American racism that we know only too well, but in modern times comes into a church basement, into a prayer seminar and guns everybody down, people who welcomed him in. Takes out guns from his backpack and guns down nine people.

And the undeniability of that, the starkness of this tragedy in a house of God. Then to see the relatives of these victims face Dylann Roof, the killer, in his arraignment, and forgive him as a way of unburdening themselves was a moral episode and tragedy that people could not look away from, that people couldn't fail to see.

And Obama went to Charleston, S.C., for the funeral of the state senator and the pastor of the church. And he was remarkable. Every hesitation, every sense of reluctance, every sense of hyper-caution that had been so anathema to some of his critics on the left was gone. And he gave full voice to his not just outrage, but his passion for decency of the people who had lost and the memory of those who had been lost. If you're cynical about it, you say it's a political performance. But it is not just that. Yes, there's a performative aspect of it, and that's important, but it seemed as genuine as anything could possibly be in the political realm.

And in lots of ways, an example of where he is--

But put the two things together. Put the inauguration of 2009 and Joe Lowery, a Southern preacher, blessing this inauguration, using the words of James Weldon Johnson's "Negro National Anthem," a moment of unbelievable progress; people talking about post-racial America, even--ill-advised, but there was such talk. There was such semi-utopian talk. Bookend that with Dylann Roof, and it tempers your sense of the "how far we've come" notion. And I think it goes to Obama's point, that with all great progress there are steps back. There are people and currents and unfortunately even movements that resist. With revolution comes reformation and resistance.

So I understand, I really do understand, when Obama's particularly African American critics want him to go farther, faster, deeper, are impatient, and I get why that's the case. But at the same time, he's a politician; he's not the leader of a movement. And if I had to get a sense of, or give a sense of, racial awareness when it comes to criminal justice, when it comes to who we are, what we are, where we're going, we are becoming more diverse. We aren't in control of and masters of and good at all these issues by any stretch of the imagination.

But where the racial consciousness of the country was in 2007 and where it is in 2006, much less in 1970s or '80s, I think you have to say it's going forward. Fast enough? No. Complete, no.

Let's talk a little bit about the 10 days in June where he has an awful lot of great stuff that happens to him. All of a sudden, the Supreme Court says yes to gay marriage; Supreme Court says yes to Obamacare.

Yeah, and South Carolina.

And the Confederate flag comes down. Talk a little bit about that.

Sure. I mean, there are prolonged periods of blues in any presidency, including Obama's. ... 2013 represents a pretty low moment, prolonged low moment in the Obama presidency in many ways. There are moments, though, later, the so-called 10 days in June that are remarkable for their sense of culmination, both tragic and the opposite, tragic with the killing [by] Dylann Roof and then Obama's appearance in South Carolina.

And then you had this unbelievable triumph, gay marriage, in the Supreme Court. Again, again, does it mark the disappearance of homophobia? No. Does it mark the disappearance of anxiety about sexual politics or gender difference or all those lingering issues? No, it doesn't. But it's a moment of fantastic advance, fantastic advance. The whole population of people in the millions and millions are equal in the eyes of the state to everybody else. And again, it's not a moment of completion or end, but to ignore it or to minimize it I think is wrong.

You can imagine that he's sitting there saying, "We're moving the ball now." If you are an incrementalist--

Well, this is the important thing to point out. There was a moment early on, I forget the year, but some time while he's thinking about running for president. He's in a Washington hotel, Obama is, and he sees a portrait of all the presidents, and a lot of them are pretty forgettable. And I don't just mean Millard Fillmore. There's a lot of them that are of modest consequence. And Obama, in all his immodesty, says, "I want to be just not president; I want to be a president of real consequence."

Ronald Reagan set out to be a conservative politician and president of real consequence in economic affairs, on social issues, on issues like--well, principally the Cold War. And depending on who you are, you felt those consequences. If you had HIV/AIDS, you felt those consequences. Certainly in the Cold War, not something a great deal better in my mind.

Obama set out to be a consequential president who was left of center. To me, there are a number of failures. Some of the failures have to do with congressional resistance; some of it has to do with Obama's own shortcomings. But there's also a category of advance that is undeniable. In the area of foreign affairs, his mission was to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet we're still there to some degree, and in some degree we're going to be there for a long time.

But in business like gay marriage, racial consciousness, health care, our sense of a changing America, even if there's no immigration bill, but a sense that this needs to come to some fruition, there has been an enormous amount of events. How much can we compare it to the Reagan presidency? That's up to historians.

The interesting thing about the list is that the list is a list he's caused in some ways by himself. He hasn't done it with the collaboration of the Congress.

I think that any Obama partisan--and I think it's a fair analysis--has to start with the fact that the first part of the presidency was a rescue mission. You had an economy that was absolutely cratering the moment he walked in the door. I don't mean that it was in a slight recession. I don't mean the inflation rate was up or there was a gas crisis. We were on the brink of a national and potentially worldwide depression, prolonged depression, that required probably action and swiftness that hadn't been required since 1929, coupled with the fact that the country was at war, a disastrous war in Iraq, extremely complicated conflict in Afghanistan, with seemingly no way out, with terrorist threats all over the place; a Russia that was becoming not more democratic, but the opposite; a China that was feeling its oats in any number of ways, and, and, and. So a sense of immediate, not-being-able-to-breathe crisis was what introduced Barack Obama to his presidency the day after his great triumph on the Washington Mall.

And a Congress that wouldn't play.

The Congress wouldn't play from day one. It only got worse. It only got worse and worse and worse, and I don't think that Obama saw it as ever a possibility to be rescued by social graces or embrace or seduction.

... Then a Supreme Court justice [Antonin Scalia] dies in the last year of his presidency, and all that has come before, within hours, the body is not cold--

No, it wasn't cold.

Just boom, Mitch McConnell steps into the game and away we go again.

Yeah, I think what we're witnessing is an incredible political game, piece of gamesmanship. I think history will show that nobody thought that Merrick Garland was going to advance to the Supreme Court, certainly not before the election. And I don't know this for a fact, but I think history will show--I'll be interested to see--that on some level, it was at least a tacit if not explicit agreement between the president and Merrick Garland to say, "Look, you're in your 60s"--again, I don't know if he said this--"but I probably would have selected, if I thought I could get somebody through, somebody in their 40s or 50s. You do this for me. You're not going to lose your place on the Court of Appeals. But this will demonstrate the recalcitrance of the Republican Congress to any nominee," because God knows, Merrick Garland is a perfectly decent choice for a Democratic president, but he's far from the most left-wing choice. Among the other names we had and all the names available to you, Merrick Garland is a pretty up-the-middle choice and to many Republicans, completely acceptable. But they know for reasons of party that they can't say yes, ... but there are no hearings. There's no advance. This is where we are.

This was his chance to throw a liberal on the court. I mean, under other circumstances, but it was never--

First of all, Merrick Garland is, relatively speaking, a liberal. He might not be the left view of somebody that's completely in synch, but Merrick Garland is certainly not Antonin Scalia by any stretch of the imagination, and probably a more reliable liberal vote than anybody in the so-called middle of the court, certainly more so than [Anthony] Kennedy.

But it wasn't going to happen.

So he goes to these meetings. It's like a dumb show, meeting after meeting, and they're polite, and they give him a glass of water, and they hear him out. Then they go into the corridors and say, "Nice guy, Merrick Garland, but no way." This is what your tax dollars are paying for.

But this is the amazing thing about all this, David. There's no consequences anymore.

... The consequence is if you say yes to it, then you're not loyal to the party, and you're not loyal to the ideology of the Tea Party or whoever, and you risk your seat or your funding or both. Believe me, these guys are risk-averse. They're not outliers.

Let me just go back one second. We were talking about why is Obama not a backslapper, not a golfer, not a this, not a that.

Well, he's not a backslapper. I don't think that anyone becomes state senator, senator, president twice, named Barack Hussein Obama, is not a skillful politician. When I hear from people in the business class or in any world go on and on about, "Oh, he's a bad politician"--and I've heard this from high-ranking other politicians, that he's a bad politician--this is hilarious. This is a guy named Barack Hussein Obama who's black and became president of the United States, and he's a bad politician? That's rich.

But what they mean is golf courses, dinner invitations, all the rest and that would have solved everything, I just think that's baloney.

... The 2016 State of the Union, Obama comes and says his biggest regret of his presidency was his failure to bridge the partisan divide in Washington, and then he goes to Springfield, sort of his valedictory in some way. Could you tell us about those two speeches?

Yeah. You know, the second inaugural is notable as his most progressive national speech. I mean, it sets out a bill of particulars and a sense of history that's distinctly progressive. You could not think of a more progressive national speech. He's announcing goals past; he's announcing goals that he's headed toward. And he achieves some of them in the next few years.

At the same time, in a number of speeches this year in 2016, he's admitted to the failure of making good on the 2004 speech having to do with partisanship. But I think that argument stopped on day one of the presidency. The notion that this was going to be a post-partisan America, and there are no blue states and no red states, just nonsense. There might be changes within those states on the ground--you see it in North Carolina; you see it in Virginia; you see it all over the country, Colorado, Arizona; you see the purpling of those states in some ways; you see them changing in many ways--but in the halls of Congress, in the halls of power in Washington, post-partisan America was not happening. And Obama, I guess--again, it will be left to historians--what he could have done to make this less of what it was, or a better situation than what it was, you can argue about this until the end of time, and we will, but nobody can count that as a success.

You say that the 2004 speech was a fiction, but did Obama believe it was a fiction? And when does he come to terms with it, with that?

Let me say this. I think the 2004 speech was dreamy. It was the speech of a very young politician saying something at a political occasion where unity is what's asked for, where you're in a tight presidential race between John Kerry and George Bush, you're battling over battleground states and you're hoping to sway the middle. It's the speech of a guy that is more in command of his rhetorical tropes than he is maybe of the complete honesty of those tropes.

I don't think Barack Obama is a particularly naive person. I think he knows perfectly well about the history of partisanship and argument and battle in politics in the United States. That speech was a winner for him; it catapulted him. But was it the most honest assessment of American politics you'd ever hear coming out of his mouth in the following dozen years? No. ...