Barack Obama—fresh off the release of A Promised Land, the first volume of his presidential memoirs—joined Complex News host Speedy Morman on the latest episode of 360 With Speedy Morman for a deep-dive into a number of pressing topics in the COVID-19 era.
It's particularly compelling to hear Obama speak on the pandemic—and much more—as the country moves further into the final weeks of Donald J. Trump's presidency, the last year of which has been defined by out-of-control coronavirus numbers and a refusal from Trump to formally concede despite very clearly having lost the election.
The full Obama x Speedy chat can be watched up top. Below, we break down 12 key moments from the interview, starting with the two-term POTUS' assessment of the current importance of promoting truth in a time when the media is "splintered into a thousand pieces."
Time stamp: 19:20
"It has to do with the fact that media is now splintered into a thousand pieces," Obama said when asked about the current state of media at large. "When I was very young, you had three TV stations. Three broadcast networks. You had, maybe, a handful of papers that were national and all of the journalists kind of followed the same playbook and reported on the same thing in the same way. So—whether you were conservative, liberal, Black, white—you basically got the same information and then you'd have arguments but you were kinda occupying the same head space."
Comparing the limited number of news sources from his youth to the litany of options available to everyday people in 2020, Obama noted that many have fallen into a habit of choosing sites that tell them "what they want to hear, not necessarily what they need to hear."
Over time, Obama added, this has only gotten worse.
"Now, obviously I'm a Democrat and I'm a progressive, so I think that—generally speaking—if you look at mainstream news outlets or outlets on the left, they fact-check and stick to journalistic standards more than a lot of these right-wing news sites do," Obama said. "And you witness right now with the election over and all of the objective folks, even Republicans who aren't in elected office, acknowledge that Joe Biden won. And yet, if you were watching some of those conservative stations, they're acting like there's all kinds of fraud and illegality going on when, in fact, there's no evidence of that."
Another 2020 example of this disparity between progressive and conservative news sources, Obama pointed out, is how some outlets have handled coverage of the pandemic.
"Reality will bite if you're not paying attention to it," he said.
Time stamp: 25:31
Getting a bit more specific on the impossible-to-overstate importance of tracking down the truth, even when doing so requires more personal work than some might assume is necessary, Obama strongly urged against mindlessly sharing articles or other information.
"One thing that I want all of us, particularly young people, to do—and I talk to Malia and Sasha about this sometimes—is do a little fact-checking on your sources," Obama advised. "Just because somebody posts something on Instagram doesn't make it true. And I think we have a habit now of, just because the format's nice and it looks official, that we automatically accept it. And I think we've got to develop our own filters of recognizing. If I read something that sounds crazy, well, let me see if I can check with some other sources before I forward that information."
Time stamp: 27:15
The sharing of false or misleading information, of course, has also had a continued impact on ensuring the general public receives the most accurate information possible regarding the path toward a COVID-19 vaccine. For Obama, the stance on the impending vaccine is one rooted fully in trusting the science.
"I will take it once the FDA approves it," Obama said. "If Dr. Fauci says it's alright, if the Biden administration—who I know will have surrounded him with the best scientists and experts—if they say, this is not only effective, but also safe, then not only will I take it, but my whole family will take it."
Time stamp: 29:53
When host Speedy brought up the unfortunate fact that some voters may feel their vote in the 2020 presidential election didn't matter due to Trump's refusal to concede, Obama assured Americans that the former Apprentice host will indeed be vacating the White House in 2021.
"Oh, he's gonna leave the White House," Obama said. "He may not like leaving. He may not be a gracious loser. But he lost. And he will leave. And Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will end up being President and Vice President of the United States and that will make a difference."
Time stamp: 31:40
31-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has inspired and emboldened many young voters to not only become more aware of how political races can affect their day-to-day lives, but to also get directly involved with the process. Asked if he believed AOC could one day become POTUS, Obama expressed support for her message and touted the necessity of young voices in the journey toward progress.
"It could," Obama said. "Look, she is a talented politician and public servant. She is charismatic. She, I think, is articulating a vision about what a lot of young people are looking for: a more responsive, equitable economic system. And so, I like seeing the young talent that is starting to come up within the Democratic Party. You need new voices pushing the boundaries of what's possible."
Time stamp: 34:21
Asked if he himself would "defund police" if given the chance, Obama broke down his interpretation of the phrase, which has received significant attention in 2020 while also being widely misconstrued.
"No, because I think the phrase implies that somehow we could do without the police or that the police are the only source of our problem," Obama said. "But what I would do is rethink how we do policing in a lot of communities." From there, Obama shared his assessment of prior reform efforts.
"The truth is, we've never tried robust reform," Obama said.
Time stamp: 36:44
"You know, I don't know what's in his heart but I do know that he is OK with racist rhetoric," Obama said when asked whether he himself considered Trump to be a racist. "I do know that racial groups or racist groups have embraced him and when asked to condemn them he's been unwilling to."
Obama, however, is more interested in holding elected leaders at large accountable for their actions than he is in attempting to figure out why someone like Trump is who they are.
"When asked about anti-lynching legislation and other civil rights legislation, people said, 'Well, that's not gonna change somebody's heart and change their minds.' And [Martin Luther King Jr.] said, 'You know, that's alright as long as the law stops them from lynching me. I'm OK with that.' And that's my attitude. I'm less interested in figuring out the psychology of what a Donald Trump is than I am in making sure that our elected leaders are on the side of not discriminating against people, not being biased, not directing hate crimes against folks. And if you can't simply and clearly say there's a right and a wrong when it comes to these issues, I've got a problem with that."
Time stamp: 38:21
Earlier this month, Obama's comments from an Atlantic interview about "rap music" being "all about the bling, the women, the money"—and how that connects with Trump—drew criticism. Here, Obama was asked to clarify his statement, the problem with which Obama said was his use of the word "all" in the original comments.
"Look, you're speaking to a president who brought Common, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole into the White House, whose every playlist has hip-hop," Obama said. "So I am the first to recognize the power of hip-hop not just as music but as social commentary. I am a huge fan of all kinds of rappers and many of them are my friends. So what is true, though, and—I think—every time I make a statement like this, I get pushback and I'm like, 'Come on, y'all. What, you're not listening to these lyrics? You're not watching these videos?' There are many, many—even among rappers I love—attitudes with respect to women or material belongings that reinforce the sense that the measure of the man is how much stuff he's got and sexual conquest. And that is not a controversial statement."
Still, Obama made clear, he has deep "admiration" for many artists.
Time stamp: 46:51
Drake, in Obama's own words, is "talented" and "seems to be able to do anything he wants." As for that power perhaps one day extending to include portraying the former POTUS in a biopic of some form—Drake has previously said, "I hope somebody makes a movie about Obama’s life soon because I could play him"—Obama seems fine with it.
"You know what, Drake has—more importantly, I think—my household's stamp of approval," he said. "I suspect Malia and Sasha would be just fine with it."
Time stamp: 47:31
Obama had no problem diving back into the longstanding debate about who’s the better example of a GOAT: LeBron James or Michael Jordan. While Obama kept his answer noticeably diplomatic, he still made it clear just how powerful it was to be able to see Jordan at his absolute peak. LeBron, meanwhile, still potentially has several more years left of his career.
"LeBron is making strides in the GOAT debate," Obama said. "His career's not over yet. We don't know how many more rings he might win. Here's what I will say about LeBron, who is indisputably one of the top two already, his longevity… He doesn't look like he's lost a step. I know that he is benefiting from the kind of training and nutrition and treatments and all that that folks in Michael's generation just did not benefit from. But part of it is just he's a freak. And right now, it looks like he could keep on doing what he's doing now for another five years, right? If at 40, you know, he's still an All-Star and competing in this way, you know, you have to factor that in."
Time stamp: 52:25
In his book A Promised Land, Obama reveals he felt the nation was, at the end of his presidency, in "better shape" than it was when he first began his two terms. Asked if Trump could say the same about the end of his single term, Obama explained why the outgoing POTUS couldn't reasonably make the same claim.
"Some of this has to do with the pandemic," he said. "He will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to have lost jobs during the course of his presidency. Some of this has to do with policies he's made to encourage pollution instead of trying to clean up pollution, to weaken legal protections and civil rights rather than strengthen them. So, no, I don't think the country is stronger and it's certainly more polarized even than it was when I left office."
Time stamp: 54:30
At the end of Barack Obama's extended interview with Speedy, he was asked to point out anything he felt Trump did "well" during his time in office.
"You know, I actually think that some of the work he's done around getting hostages rescued," Obama said. "He seems to have taken an interest in that and that's always a good thing. I think that, although his rhetoric was inconsistent and over-cranked and not ultimately that effective, it's important for us to challenge China on some of its trade practices that historically have hurt U.S. manufacturing. Beyond that, I'd have to give it a little more thought."
When Speedy noted that it seemed like that was a hard question to answer, Obama agreed, then expressed optimism about moving forward in 2021.
"The good news is that we have a chance with a new president and a new vice president to make more progress," he said.