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Obama, in Washington Post interview, rejects criticism he didn’t push hard enough for Democratic policies

Says divisions between parties have grown so great that an “institutional reboot” is needed for Congress to pass much-needed legislation

This Feb. 19, 2019, file photo shows former President Barack Obama speaking at the My Brother's Keeper Alliance Summit in Oakland, Calif.
This Feb. 19, 2019, file photo shows former President Barack Obama speaking at the My Brother's Keeper Alliance Summit in Oakland, Calif.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Former President Obama on Monday rejected criticism that he was not forceful enough in pushing the Democratic Party’s agenda, repudiating what he said was the view that he spent too much time seeking to understand and work with his political opponents.

"The implication is, if you can see the other side, then somehow you are paralyzed . . . that you are stuck because you don't know which way to turn," Obama said. He had no choice but to try to work with those who opposed him if he wanted to get things done, he said in an interview with Washington Post Live about his new memoir.

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But he said that as his former running mate, President-elect Joe Biden, prepares to take office, the divisions between the parties have grown so great that an "institutional reboot" is needed for Congress to pass much-needed legislation.

Like many authors before him, Obama expressed frustration with assessments of his book. In the week since the publication of “A Promised Land,” a New York Times review said he “seemed genetically incapable of being an ideologue,” and The Washington Post wrote about “Obama’s innate caution, of his skepticism – hopeful slogans notwithstanding – of dramatic change.”

Without citing specific reviews, Obama said, "There have been a couple of, you know, reviewers and commentators who say, ah, look, at Obama, he's like on one side, on the other hand, he's overthinking things."

As he did in the book, Obama blamed Republicans for obstructing his policies and also noted that he faced pushback from members of his own party – from liberals who said he wasn’t far enough to the left and moderates who said he was too far to the left. When his efforts at compromise failed, he said some in his own party wondered what had happened to the oratory that twice got him elected president.

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“Sometimes progressives in particular overestimate the degree to which high rhetoric is going to actually move votes,” Obama said. He noted, for example, that he had to win over not only recalcitrant Republicans but also Democrats such as Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the senator who had once been a local leader of the Ku Klux Klan and represented a coal-heavy state.

Obama wrote in the book that while some people may have seen him as a revolutionary figure, he viewed himself as a "reformer" who didn't want to upheave the social order. He said in the interview that he drew his inspiration from Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, in which the president who presided during the Civil War said he spoke "with malice toward none, with charity to all."

"I think that informed everything I did," Obama said. But "in our current political environment, we have a lot of impatience with that kind of being able to see the other side." While some believed that Obama was paralyzed by his outreach, the former president said "it was just the opposite . . . It's precisely because I could see both sides or all sides to a problem or an issue that I would then feel as if I was making a good decision."

"This idea that overthinking problems was or is a weakness in politics I think is indicative of a culture in which we want to simplify and eliminate all gray areas and just have our way and beat the other team," Obama said.

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While he said he understands why some wished he had unalterably pushed for his agenda in the same partisan manner as President Trump, “that is a mistake because the outcome in terms of policy ends up really bad.”

Obama noted that he ended the book by contrasting his government's collective decision to kill Osama bin Laden and "the circus of birtherism" in which Trump promoted the false allegation that Obama was not born a U.S. citizen.

“It’s not at all clear which is the more prevalent trend in American politics,” Obama said. “Is it that kind of conspiracy mongering, racially charged spectacle, or is it this deliberate, thoughtful, professional, analytically robust process of solving problems and getting stuff done? And so at the end . . . we don’t know yet.”

Obama said there are "a whole bunch of things that the majority of Americans" want done on issues such as the minimum wage and immigration reform, but "you can't get Congress to do anything about it." Obama said there are "all kind of institutional reboots that have to be done" that would require "some reengineering." He said that the "villain" of his book was the filibuster, under which 60 votes are needed to keep a bill from being effectively killed.

The control of Congress will be key to Biden’s ability to pass legislation, and Obama said he would “do what I’m asked” to help elect Democrats to Georgia’s two seats in the US Senate. If Democrats win both races, each party would have 50 seats in the chamber, with the tie broken by Vice President Kamala Harris.

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"It's a huge, critically important election," Obama said of the Georgia races. "If I'm doing some robocalls or some guest appearances, it gets people excited. But ultimately, it's the people of Georgia recognizing their own power that makes all the difference."

Obama expressed optimism that Biden can make significant progress reversing Trump’s policies on the world stage, where some initiatives won’t rely on congressional approval as much as diplomatic skills. He noted that some of those picked for top jobs by his former vice president worked in their administration, including Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.

“It’s going to be important to recognize the confidence that our allies had and the world had in American leadership is not going to be restored overnight,” Obama said in the interview. “They’re going to be greatly relieved and pleased to see people like Tony, you know, at various conferences around the world and returning to the traditional leadership role that the US has played.”

Biden plans to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and to revive the Iran nuclear deal soon after taking office. But Obama pointed to such reversals of position during the Trump administration and said they could "create some inhibitions in terms of entering into agreements, not always being certain whether or not they will be reversed by future administration."

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"So there has been some damage done that is going to take some time to dig ourselves out of," he said. "But there's no doubt that Joe's got the right people to do it, and I have every confidence they'll be able to do it. It just may not happen instantaneously."

Obama was interviewed by Washington Post opinion columnist Michele Norris and Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The book is the first of an expected two volumes that will chronicle his two terms in the White House.