Obama says GOP backlash to first Black president reflects 'the history of America'

44th president’s wide-ranging interview with Ezra Klein touches on polarisation and ‘teachable moments’

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 01 June 2021 19:12
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Obama says ‘institutional constraints’ prevented him speaking up for Black victims
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In a wide-ranging interview, former President Barack Obama reflected on right-wing backlash to the election of the nation’s first Black president that saw the emergence of Donald Trump and acceleration of a “shift” in the Republican Party.

“That’s been the history of America, right?” he told Ezra Klein in The New York Times.

“There is abolition, and the Civil War, and then there’s backlash, and the rise of the KKK, and then Reconstruction ends, and Jim Crow arises, and then you have a civil rights movement, a modern civil rights movement, and desegregation,” he said.

Mr Obama added: “What I take comfort from is that in the traditional two steps forward, one step back, as long as you’re getting the two steps, then the one step back, you know, is the price of doing business.”

The 44th president’s election and actions in office helped “precipitate a shift in the Republican Party that was already there” and “probably accelerates it,” he said.

He also suggested that the current right-wing culture war is parallel with incremental social progress, particularly on issues relating to identity, race and gender, which “invariably will release some energy on the other side by folks who feel threatened by change.”

Mr Obama discussed how those confrontational exchanges have shaped the “cancel culture” debate and “teachable moments” – including the murder of George Floyd and police reform, disingenuous concerns from deficit hawks over the federal deficit against a tide of socioeconomic inequities, and the asymmetrical governance in Congress with effective GOP control of a Democratic agenda that won’t touch the filibuster.

Asked whether he believes Americans have become less “persuadable” in the face of intense polarisation, he pointed to the media ecosystem, the Trump presidency “and the way both sides went to their respective fortresses.”

“I think that the media was complicit in creating that dynamic in a way that understandably is difficult, because, as we discovered during the Trump administration, if an administration is just misstating facts all the time, it starts looking like, gosh, the media’s anti-Trump,” Mr Obama said. “And this becomes more evidence of a left wing conspiracy and liberal elites trying to gang up on the guy.”

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