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‘Democracy is not self-executed’: Obama talks political divides, tech’s impact, and the queen at Boston conference

Former president Barack Obama was the final speaker at Inbound, the annual conference for Cambridge marketing software company HubSpot.Benjamin Esakof

Former President Barack Obama closed out HubSpot’s Inbound conference in the Seaport on Friday afternoon, telling attendees the nation is “more divided than we were” when he made waves in 2004 with his stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention.

In a conversation with HubSpot cofounder and executive chair Brian Halligan, Obama received a standing ovation when he first came onstage at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

Halligan asked about a line from the speech he delivered 18 years ago at the DNC in Boston: that there are no red or blue states, but one United States of America. Halligan asked if Obama felt “better or worse” about the country since giving those remarks, and the former president didn’t hold back.


“I think obviously we’re more divided than we were even then,” Obama said, adding that hopefulness isn’t blind optimism. “It’s people fighting and struggling and overcoming great odds in order to make the world a little bit better. So that passage about being a United States of America was aspirational. ... It was a description of the world as we’d like it to be, but we have to fight for it.”

Without mentioning former President Donald Trump by name, Obama noted there are certain norms in a democracy, such as accepting election results.

“Even if you’re not happy, you say ‘OK, I accept the results because there is something that is more important than my immediate interests,’” Obama said. “Democracy is not self-executed. We need to continually agree and re-up for maintaining these kinds of norms and rules.”

He also suggested that too many people in the country are unwilling to have respectful debates about controversial issues.

There are “young people and not-so-young people” who “want to shut down” debate at times, he said.

“If somebody says something not quite the right way or [says] something that could conceivably be interpreted as offensive, the notion is, ‘I do not have to listen to you,’” Obama said. “As opposed to, ‘Let me listen to you and then answer’ — and I do think that is a mistake.”


The 61-year-old — clad in a dark suit and seated on a stage festooned with multi-colored, geometrical slabs — also cited “this explosion of technology” and its drawbacks.

“What has happened is that our national conversation has broken apart, and a lot of that has to do with technology,” he said, his voice echoing through the packed main stage. “The splintering of the single narrative into a million narratives and the degree to which, rather than having a single shared story — even if it was often flawed — we now have multiple stories, all that, I think, accelerated the sense that we were occupying different realities.”

In particular, he criticized social media and cable news, which he said are driven by an economic incentive to “accentuate conflict.”

“If we make them mad, it turns out they click more, or they watch more, and so that, I think, has helped to break us apart,” he said.

Former president Barack Obama seated with HubSpot cofounder Brian Halligan, who moderated the conversation.Benjamin Esakof

There were also some light moments. At one point, Obama mistakenly called HubSpot “hub stub.” And Halligan, an ardent Deadhead, asked why there were no Grateful Dead songs on Obama’s 2022 summer music list.

“I actually love the Grateful Dead,” Obama said. “Got a bunch of deep cuts on my personal playlist.”


Halligan asked what the Founding Fathers would think of the country today.

“I think it’s fair to say that if they looked out at this audience, they’d be a little shocked,” said Obama. “Both at the demographics, and also how casual everybody is. ... Nobody was wearing hoodies back then.”

HubSpot declined to comment on the fee it paid to bring Obama to the event. (Michelle Obama spoke at Inbound in 2017.) The former president reportedly was paid $400,000 for a single speech in 2017.

Obama also reflected on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.

“I was fortunate enough to know her,” Obama said. “And I always used to say, there were only a handful of people that I met while I was in office, or afterwards, that are exactly the way you want them to be — the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Queen of England.”

“Barack Obama,” added Halligan, to laughter and applause.

The queen, Obama said, spent “70 years maintaining that kind of grace and intelligence through these remarkable changes, not just in her own country but around the world” and functioned as “a symbol that [helped] hold that nation together, recover from war, reconstitute itself.”

Obama recalled a 2009 visit to the UK, when he gifted the queen an iPod filled with showtunes — a move much-ridiculed by the British tabloids, he added. He also recounted when the queen invited Obama’s daughters and mother-in-law for tea at Buckingham Palace, and later gave the girls a ride in her ceremonial golden carriage used for special occasions.


“None of this was ever reported,” Obama said. “It was just something that she did quietly.”

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6.