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The Axe Files with David Axelrod

David Axelrod, the founder and director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, and CNN bring you The Axe Files, a series of revealing interviews with key figures in the political world. Go beyond the soundbites and get to know some of the most interesting players in politics.

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Ep. 538 — President Barack Obama
The Axe Files with David Axelrod
Jun 15, 2023

Since leaving office in 2016, former President Barack Obama has been a careful observer of the ebbs and flows of democracy around the globe, speaking out on the subject and building coalitions through the Obama Foundation. President Obama joined David to talk about the state of democracy at home and abroad, how the economy and technological advances impact politics and polarization, the weaponization of the word woke, race, and his advice to the GOP.

Episode Transcript
Intro
00:00:05
And now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio, The Axe Files, with your host, David Axelrod.
David Axelrod
00:00:18
With democracy here and around the world facing multiple challenges and a fraying of our American community, I thought I'd check in with an old friend who I know remains very focused on these problems, former President Barack Obama. He has made repairing and strengthening democracy a central focus of the foundation he created after leaving office and recently produced an appeared in a Netflix documentary called "Working," which gets to some of the root causes of the alienation people feel from our politics and economy. One note: We had this conversation before the indictment of Obama's successor, and he made plain that he did not want to comment on Donald Trump's travails. Here's our conversation.
David Axelrod
00:01:07
Mr. President, it's good to see you.
President Barack Obama
00:01:10
It is good to see you, Axelrod. How you been?
David Axelrod
00:01:12
Good. I've been good. You know, I came down here from New York on a train, and it got me thinking about a lot of memories. And one of them was the first private plane trip we took, I don't know if you remember this, for the 2004 convention. You had to be in the Illinois State Senate voting. And you were supposed to be at the convention to be the keynote speaker and on "Meet the Press" the next day for the first time. And so we splurged and got this plane, which is commonplace now, I'm sure. But was, we were all kind of like, yeah, this is good.
President Barack Obama
00:01:51
It was pretty plush.
David Axelrod
00:01:52
It was plush.
President Barack Obama
00:01:53
But in fairness to us, it was a necessary splurge, because we weren't even sure if we were going to get out of Springfield in time.
David Axelrod
00:02:02
Yes.
President Barack Obama
00:02:02
We had votes until something like 8 o'clock.
David Axelrod
00:02:05
Yeah, it was a Saturday in July. The governor was pushing you guys a little there. So the, but the reason I bring it up is that, and this, everyone knows. You were anonymous pretty much when we arrived in Boston, you made the speech that changed the course of your life, changed the course of political history, changed the course of my life. And I went back and read it, because I loved that speech, I think may be the best speech you ever gave of a lot of good speeches. But the essence of it, and the thing that people remember was, were the lines: There's not a liberal America, not a conservative America. There's a United States of America. There's not a Black America, white America, Latino America, Asian American. There's the United States of America. We're one people, all of us, pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. You and I both know that that sentence ended differently, and we had to negotiate because somebody took the line from you. But leaving that aside, I believe in these lines. You believe in these lines, but they feel almost sepia colored now because of what we've seen since. And the question is, what happened?
President Barack Obama
00:03:16
Well, you know, I've reflected on those lines, and I've been asked about them. And I think sometimes it's presented as, look how naive Obama was before he got into office, because it was, you know.
David Axelrod
00:03:31
Yes.
President Barack Obama
00:03:31
And.
David Axelrod
00:03:31
Before Washington schooled you.
President Barack Obama
00:03:33
Yeah, exactly. And it's all lumped in with, you know, there were a bunch of post-racial fantasies and this and that and the other. Those lines are aspirational and always have been. And I think that they are always in tension and contradiction with what has been another version of America that is based on exploitation and violence and hierarchies and great wealth and power taking advantage of those who aren't powerful and big regional differences and cultural differences. So what is remarkable about this country has always been that tension, this yin and yang. We can have a Declaration of Independence and declare that all men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights. And then we can also have a 3/5 clause in a companion document that helps found the country. You know, we can have the person who wrote that, Jefferson, not just lift up those magnificent words, but also helped to operationalize this experiment in democracy. And you can also have Jefferson as a slaveholder. Right. And so we are always wrestling with the ideal, the world as we want it to be, and the world as it is. And our job, then, successive generations, has been to try to close that gap. The good news is, is that I think we are closer to an approximation of the ideal than we were 100 years ago or 200 years ago. But at any given moment in history, that gap can widen or shrink. And I think we are right now at a moment in which a particular sort of polarization, what's been called, what, the great sorting, in which the two major political parties have become much more rigidly segregated in their views across a whole spectrum of issues. That in some ways that tracks regional divisions, although oftentimes it's more metropolitan versus rural or or less dense parts of the country. Some of it is a little bit generational. All of it reinforced with a media that's splintered.
David Axelrod
00:06:06
Well.
President Barack Obama
00:06:06
You know, that I think is going to be a challenge that we're going to have to deal with. The interesting thing is it's not just here in the United States, it's around the world. We're seeing these kinds of divisions.
David Axelrod
00:06:17
So a second thing that I was thinking about when I was coming down here was a conversation that you and I had early in your campaign for president in 2007. You went to Cupertino and you visited Steve Jobs and you came back and you said, he showed me this product that they're going to be rolling out in June that is going to change the world. And you quickly reminded us, none of us to buy any Apple stock, because we've all go to jail.
President Barack Obama
00:06:45
I had inside information at that point.
David Axelrod
00:06:47
But but it was the iPhone.
President Barack Obama
00:06:49
Yeah.
David Axelrod
00:06:50
And it has changed the world, and in some ways for the better. But on this issue of democracy, social media, and the sort of ubiquitousness of these cell phones and the fact that we're all online all the time, this thing collecting data about us every minute of every day.
President Barack Obama
00:07:13
To further market, micro target us and sort us.
David Axelrod
00:07:15
Exactly. And the great inspiration, and I'm telling you things that you've been speaking, you and your foundation have been doing great work on this issue of democracy. But the great insight of the social media platforms and their algorithms is that outrage, division.
President Barack Obama
00:07:34
Resentment, anger.
David Axelrod
00:07:35
Yeah, conspiracy theories. These things keep people online and all they care about is keeping you online.
President Barack Obama
00:07:42
Right.
David Axelrod
00:07:42
But, man, that has been, that has fought the aspirations that you spoke of in Boston in a really big way.
President Barack Obama
00:07:53
Well you and I, that, you know, we've obviously talked about this a lot. A lot of this precedes social media. So sometimes I always want to make clear, because I'm spending a lot of time talking about technology and its role in democracy, we always have to remind ourselves that, you know, using old technologies, people were pumping out misinformation.
David Axelrod
00:08:15
Yeah. Samuel Adams, for example.
President Barack Obama
00:08:17
Samuel Adams, right, what folks said about Lincoln. You look at people like Joe McCarthy and, you know, Father Coughlin, you know, using the new technology then.
David Axelrod
00:08:28
Radio.
President Barack Obama
00:08:28
Radio.
David Axelrod
00:08:28
Yeah.
President Barack Obama
00:08:29
So even before my presidential campaign, when we were in the Senate, we used to talk about the degree to which Rush Limbaugh and Fox News had changed what you and I grew up with. This somewhat stolid, and and, you know, it had its own limitations. But, you know, three networks, Cronkite or Brinkley.
David Axelrod
00:08:55
Right.
President Barack Obama
00:08:56
Or whoever.
David Axelrod
00:08:56
Right. Peter Jennings.
President Barack Obama
00:08:58
Everybody sharing the same basic set of facts and then maybe drawing conclusions from it, and you'd have commentators like William F. Buckley or others who were who would work off that to make different kinds of arguments. But you did not have big chunks of the population receiving an entirely different reality. That that started before.
David Axelrod
00:09:20
Yeah.
President Barack Obama
00:09:20
Social media. What you are absolutely right about is that social media turned it into a science, monetized it at a scale that, you know, we have not seen before. And so now the splintering of the American people, so that we are never confronted with things we don't agree with.
David Axelrod
00:09:45
Yeah.
President Barack Obama
00:09:46
We're not seeing the complexities of other people, because the only time we interact with them is where we hear those things about them that make us the most angry, right.
David Axelrod
00:09:56
Right.
President Barack Obama
00:09:57
That has changed. You know, you've heard me say this before. In our first U.S. Senate race, you know, I'm driving down to southern Illinois. And I could get a fair hearing, because even though I was a Black, liberal, civil rights lawyer and attorney and.
David Axelrod
00:10:16
I remember being thinking that was really curious what you'd call and say, hey, I had a great meeting. It's like, really?
President Barack Obama
00:10:22
Yeah, well, because back then, it wasn't as if there weren't already some divisions between Chicago, big city, versus downstate and rural areas. But, you know, you could walk into the publisher of some little small town newspaper.
David Axelrod
00:10:38
Which probably doesn't exist anymore.
President Barack Obama
00:10:39
It doesn't exist anymore. It was wiped out. But at the time, he'd meet you and you'd talk to him, and you might talk about high school sports. You might talk about sort of international trade. Everybody had kind of quirky views on certain things. Nobody was following sort of some strict ideological litmus test, and I could get a fair hearing. And as a consequence, we won a bunch of counties that were basically, what, 95% white?
David Axelrod
00:11:07
Yes.
President Barack Obama
00:11:07
60% evangelical.
David Axelrod
00:11:10
Right.
President Barack Obama
00:11:10
Because people could see you. There wasn't that filter. That doesn't exist anymore. And part of it is the nationalization of the news.
David Axelrod
00:11:19
Right.
President Barack Obama
00:11:19
Right. Local interests, regional interests, those have all been set aside because everybody's looking at this news feed on their phones. And everything is national. Everything is a referendum on Trump, Biden, abortion, etc.. Nobody's actually talking about like, hey, you know, what about that road that is driving, you know, everybody's traffic is.
David Axelrod
00:11:45
You know.
President Barack Obama
00:11:46
It's killing us.
David Axelrod
00:11:46
You know, you're so right that this has always been part of our history. And, you know, we had yellow journalism and people would choose their. But in all those cases, people chose their vehicles. Now the vehicles are choosing you.
President Barack Obama
00:12:02
Yeah.
David Axelrod
00:12:03
And that's what that that's what the algorithms and big data does. And it's an insidious thing. We were told when the Internet was invented by Al Gore, who, or whoeverm that that this was going to create greater community.
President Barack Obama
00:12:19
Yeah.
David Axelrod
00:12:20
And in some ways, it has. I mean, you can get on anywhere and see the same thing, but in a lot of ways, it has destroyed, it creates faux kind of communities of kinship around, you know.
President Barack Obama
00:12:33
Yeah, it did create some communities, right? The fact is, our first campaigns.
David Axelrod
00:12:40
Yes.
President Barack Obama
00:12:41
Drew together people who would likely not have met each other, and we could not have reached them had it not.
David Axelrod
00:12:49
Right. No, absolutely.
President Barack Obama
00:12:51
But I always it's it's interesting. And I'm really dating myself and by extension you, because you're older than me.
David Axelrod
00:12:57
Thanks for mentioning.
President Barack Obama
00:12:58
Our early social media was, I always described the difference between something like Meetup.
David Axelrod
00:13:04
Yes.
President Barack Obama
00:13:05
Even in the name. Right. We're using this technology.
David Axelrod
00:13:09
To get people together.
President Barack Obama
00:13:11
To meet.
David Axelrod
00:13:12
Yes.
President Barack Obama
00:13:12
But at some point you're actually in a bar or a church basement or, you know, someplace, union hall. And now you're sitting around a table. And it turns out like, even if people have the shared interests, we all like Obama, we want to get him elected, we're all a little different. You got the older, you know, retired white union guy. You got the young Black kid with with the pierce, you know, piercing in their nose. And you've got, you know, the mom who is trying to figure out how to, you know, juggle her kids and her job. And in the course of those conversations, you actually form a community and relationships because you realize not only do we have something in common, but we're also different.
David Axelrod
00:14:00
Right.
President Barack Obama
00:14:00
And the differences are interesting, and we want to focus on that. And people are more complicated than you expect. And then once they met up, now they'd have to go knock on doors.
David Axelrod
00:14:09
Yes. No, listen, I, that was a beautiful thing to see. And in some ways, it advanced your.
President Barack Obama
00:14:14
That's exactly right. So that premise was still there. But I think what has changed is that the ubiquity of this, the power of it, the way in which news got filtered. And then misinformation got introduced into the bloodstream of this. It is such a powerful delivery system, and it is designed to get people hooked.
David Axelrod
00:14:44
Right. And then the algorithms, of course.
President Barack Obama
00:14:45
And they're powerful. And so the question now for I think our democracy is, is there the capacity for us to get back to a common story? Right. I mean, you look at the controversies that have been swirling and in cable TV, not even in in social media, but but even on cable as people try to position. All right, you got Fox on the one side, you know, what is the alternatives to Fox? What, you know, do you mimic that approach or do you try to present objective truth? And what does journalism mean? I think those are really important questions at the heart of our democracy, because, yeah, the one thing you and I, I think shared was a belief and an understanding in the power of stories.
David Axelrod
00:15:36
Yes.
President Barack Obama
00:15:37
And how we understand our world is is is mediated through these stories. And right now, the story that everybody's telling each other is the other side is horrible. They're trying to get us. They're trying to destroy the country. And we've got to counteract them as opposed to a story that says, yeah, we've got our differences, but basically we're still one family and we can we can sort through this and, and, you know, find.
David Axelrod
00:16:06
And do you think we can get back there?
President Barack Obama
00:16:08
I think it is a, I think it is a long process. I think it still happens on the ground. I think in local communities, you still see the capacity for people to work together, because they get to know each other. I think in local communities you still see people getting together because they have to solve concrete problems as opposed to, you know, apply abstract ideological litmus tests. I think that's the reason why typically governors and mayors are a little more popular in general than the national politicians, because it's like, all right, how are we going to get the snow plowed? You know, how are we going to respond to this natural disaster? But what I'm what I'm concerned about is that if you start getting so much hostility that you start seeing basic norms broken, the kind of structure to, that both the founders and years of experience put in place to kind of keep the the debate within bounds. What we've seen is, we started seeing during the course of my presidency, and it's accelerated since then. You know, state legislatures saying, you know, we're just going to change the rules to make it really hard for the minority party to get anything done. We're going to make it harder for people who don't agree with us to vote. We're going to use a bunch of tools to just change the rules of the game. If we start seeing that happen, that's hard to recover from.
David Axelrod
00:17:47
Well, one of the one of the things that I think is most troubling, and by the way, you wrote a, you you gave a great speech to your foundation Forum on Democracy a few months ago. And one of the lines in the speech was, we're going to have to figure out how to live together, or we will destroy each other. It's pretty stark. I mean, that's a long way from the aspirational young guy in Boston. But but here's what I want to say about, and I know that decorum is such that you don't want to comment on your predecessor and other politicians and so on. But there's a bigger thing here, which is the Trump political project and others, depends on this narrative. The world is The Hunger Games. Nothing's on the legit. There are no rules or laws or norms or institutions that you should follow. Only suckers follow those.
President Barack Obama
00:18:39
Right.
David Axelrod
00:18:39
The strong grab what they want, and the weak fall away.
President Barack Obama
00:18:44
Yes.
David Axelrod
00:18:44
And that's how he's lived his life, how he governed, how he's running his race now. And that is increasingly a philosophy, kind of a nihilistic philosophy, that is gaining currency. And that is sort of also where the algorithms drive people. We did a poll for the IOP after our disinformation conference that you spoke at, and 56% of the people agreed with the statement "government is corrupt and rigged against me."
President Barack Obama
00:19:14
And that is not. I think it's a little stronger on the Republican side.
David Axelrod
00:19:19
Yeah, it is. Yeah. But not limited to it.
President Barack Obama
00:19:23
It's not limited to the Republicans. There is a pervasive cynicism right now about institutions that is dangerous because if you, if people think everything's a scam and everything's rigged, then why bother? Just look out for myself. You know, I mentioned this. You talked about the misinformation speech I gave in Stanford. In that speech, I think I quoted Vladimir Putin's philosophy when it came to misinformation that, by the way, Steve Bannon, the advisor to Trump, was quoted as happily adopting. Right. Which was we don't have to convince people of whatever propaganda or misinformation that we're pumping in there. All we have to do is to get people to not believe anything.
David Axelrod
00:20:18
Right.
President Barack Obama
00:20:18
And we've succeeded.
David Axelrod
00:20:19
Yes.
President Barack Obama
00:20:20
And I think that that the danger right now is, is that people are skeptical across the board. They don't know what's true. They don't know what's false. They don't know who's on their side. They ascribe their cynical motives to most of political leaders, business leaders, media. So rebuilding that trust, I think, is going to be a major project. And that's not easy to do. It's something that has to be done sort of step by step. You got to show people, you know, that you're deserving of trust and that you're following through on your commitments and. But, you know, look, I don't want to overstate this. Despite polls like that, what is still true is that across the country, a lot of people get up every day, go to work, they come home, they look after their families. They're part of their churches or synagogues or mosques or temples. They're part of Little League and softball games. And, you know, there are still strong communities out there. And I think people do long for a sense of connection. I think they still want to believe in something. What I think current leaders, younger leaders, have to figure out is how do we rebuild a political culture, a media culture, a business culture that is worthy of trust and can win people over? And I've seen that happen. I've been having a a wonderful time at the foundation. And I know you at your Institute of Politics saw the same thing. Meeting with a bunch of young leaders who are building communities and getting stuff done, not just in the United States, but around the world. You know, folks who are starting, you know, clean energy projects and and winning over folks who were previous skeptics about climate change. Because you know what? Those projects actually are good for the economy and create jobs. And, you know, you're meeting people who are challenging the corruption of governments, but doing it in a way that empowers people and doesn't make them more cynical, kind of brings back power to ordinary citizens. And how we feed those successes and grow them and spotlight them, I think is going to be a big piece of business over the next decade.
David Axelrod
00:22:46
I totally agree with you. The thing that, I mean, you've said versions of this, I think you did in that speech, but I always say democracy's an ongoing battle between cynicism and hope. And these young people are skeptical, but they're not cynical, and they leave you hopeful. We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. I want to talk about another experience that we went through together when we arrived at the White House in 2009 in this disastrous economic crisis. And we struggled every day. And I remember waking up every day wondering, is this the day the whole damn thing collapses and we fall into a second Great Depression? That was what we were trying to prevent. But in trying to prevent it, it was hard to hold all the actors who had helped bring that crisis about accountable. And I know how frustrating you found it. How frustrating I found it. But I think there's there's a residual there, because there are a whole lot of people out there who felt like, gee, the big boys get bailouts, and the you know, if you're really poor, you get handouts, but I'm in the middle here, and I've lost my home, I've lost my job. And I'm wondering how big a factor is this? Because I know inclusive capitalism is one of the other elements that you've been working on. And it sounds like sort of a benign phrase, but it seems really essential, because if people don't feel like the system is working for them or that it is in fact corrupt and rigged, that's not just a problem for capitalism, that's a problem for democracy.
President Barack Obama
00:24:39
Yeah, you're absolutely right. There is no doubt that the financial crisis, 2007, 2008, and its aftermath was a rupture that shook people's faith, not just in the immediate economic conditions that they were facing, but in the fairness of the system overall. Now, a bunch of those trends had been building well before that, right? You had automation and globalization and union busting and offshoring. We saw it when we'd be traveling around the Midwest, entire communities decimated.
David Axelrod
00:25:10
You talked about it in that speech back in 2004.
President Barack Obama
00:25:12
You know, factories had left. Workers had less leverage. Wages are stagnant. Corporate profits are skyrocketing. There's all kinds of financial engineering going on on Wall Street. You know, greed is good. And tax cuts that compounded, you know, this concentration of wealth, a winner take all economy is accelerated by the Internet. All these things had been taking place. In some ways, they'd been papered over during the Bush years, primarily by a housing bubble. Right. So everybody felt like, well, at least my house is worth 100% more than when I bought it.
David Axelrod
00:25:48
Until it wasn't.
President Barack Obama
00:25:49
Until it wasn't. Yeah, and a lot of credit card debt. Right. So everybody was overleveraged, living a little bit better than the circumstances, underlying circumstances, you know, actually dictated. And then it all goes away. Poof. Right. And we're cleaning up the mess. You're absolutely right that at that point we had a tension that you and I used to have to grapple with every day in the White House, which was we could let all these banks fold, or some people wanted to nationalize them or whatnot. The problem was that if you did that, which would, Tim Geithner, our treasury secretary at the time, used to call this Old Testament justice.
David Axelrod
00:26:38
Yes.
President Barack Obama
00:26:38
Right. If you said, you know what, let these banks go under, let the shareholders lose all their money, etc. Well, what you were going to end up seeing was the financial system continuing to lock up, and you were going to get into a depression in which the 99%, it was all going to land on their heads.
David Axelrod
00:26:58
Right.
President Barack Obama
00:26:58
They were going to be punished. But what you're also right about is politically, psychologically, that probably would have been more satisfying in some ways. There was a little bit of sense of how is it that the banks are still okay.
David Axelrod
00:27:13
And people getting their bonuses.
President Barack Obama
00:27:15
And people were still and, you know, then you're getting into arguments about, well, we gotta, in order for these banks to stay intact and keep talent to run the banks, you can't breach contracts that they're already under. And you'd get into the weeds in the minutia and the average person's thinking, all I know is I'm getting hit.
David Axelrod
00:27:33
Yeah.
President Barack Obama
00:27:33
And they seem like.
David Axelrod
00:27:35
Heads they win, tails I lose.
President Barack Obama
00:27:37
Yeah. And and in some cases, by the way, we would have happily prosecuted some people. But it turned out that in a lot of these instances, people weren't breaking the law. It's just that the game itself was rigged. People weren't wrong about that. So and so. There weren't laws on the books that would allow for some perp walk for somebody who had helped caused this crisis. And, you know, I don't know, maybe this was one of our weaknesses, we tended to like to follow the law.
David Axelrod
00:28:06
Yeah, that was quaint. That's also sepia colored.
President Barack Obama
00:28:10
But but to back to your larger point, it is my view that the crisis in democracy that you're seeing, not just in the United States but around the world, is not solely an issue of economics, but it is partially that these huge economic disruptions, the speed with which, you know, wealth got concentrated, the speed with which people's lives were disrupted, made people worried and scared. And when people are worried and scared about not just their future, but their kids futures, then the appeal of right wing populism, the appeal of sort of a more cynical view of the social order, and it's dog-eat-dog, and and, you know, you got to kind of choose up your tribe and, and because it's a zero sum game. All that stuff accelerates and expresses itself in our politics. And so part of our job, and I think that the, you know, Joe Biden's administration is is helping to try to steer in this direction. And I think that there are ongoing projects around the world to see how do we rebuild a market-based system that also ensures that everybody who's working hard is making a decent living, that their basic benefits, social goods and social insurance that all looks out for us, pensions and health care. When when somebody has bad luck or falls on hard times or is ready to retire. How do we make sure all our kids are properly educated and that there are ladders of opportunity for them that they can access? You know, that project, getting that right is a necessary, not sufficient, but necessary ingredient for making our democracy stronger. And one of the the challenges, I think, in the United States, we got a two party system, is I would love to see inside the Republican Party. You know, for a while there was talk about sort of a working class version of the Republican Party, right, that wasn't country club, wasn't, you know, big business, but was sort of some bottom up. We developed, we, what we've seen is a Republican Party that has embraced a cultural populism, the kind of populism that we talked about earlier, resentment, anger, exploiting people's sense that things aren't rigged.
David Axelrod
00:30:48
Yes. And that they're being displaced.
President Barack Obama
00:30:50
But what you don't see is the Republican Party embracing. They still have very much an elitist economic agenda.
David Axelrod
00:30:58
They've got their old economic agenda, but.
President Barack Obama
00:31:00
With with a cultural overlay. Right. You know, for the Republican Party, I think there's an opening for a smart Republican out there to talk about economic issues and say, you know what, I I wouldn't mind the people who are doing really well paying a little bit higher in taxes. You know, I may not want to spend it the same way Democrats do. I may have different theories about what's going to give working folks more of a chance. But the problem right now is, is that we can't really revamp our tax system in a major way. We can't really reform a bunch of the aspects of our economy that skew badly towards the top 1 to 10%, because in our political system, you know, that requires working majorities to push stuff through. And it's very hard to do.
David Axelrod
00:31:59
It seems to me there's a mismatch between. One of the things that technology has done, and we should talk about AI as part of this, because I know you're concerned about it, but it's churn, it churns at an exponential rate. So it doesn't just grow linearly, it grows exponentially. And it's coming at us faster than we can get our arms around it. I think it raises people's anxiety about change.
President Barack Obama
00:32:23
Yes.
David Axelrod
00:32:24
But then we have in democracies governments that are designed to move slowly when we're divided. So you have this caustic mismatch.
President Barack Obama
00:32:31
And look and you mentioned AI. This is going to be the next iteration of trends we've seen over the last 20 years. It may end up moving even faster because the technology's more powerful, right? So AI is already out there. It's embedded in, these algorithms you're talking about our version of AI.
David Axelrod
00:32:54
Right.
President Barack Obama
00:32:54
Right. Half of our appliances have some, you know, AI elements into it. Most of the time when we are tapping in for customer service, we're not dealing with the human right. It's a bunch of AI responses.
David Axelrod
00:33:08
Which makes yelling at them very unsatisfying, by the way.
President Barack Obama
00:33:12
But yeah, what you're now getting are these very powerful tools that are in a position to really remake our economy. They pose obviously enormous potential national security implications if they're in the hands of the wrong people. But set aside the national security stuff for a moment and just talk about the economic implications. There is going to be some levels of displacement in the the so-called white collar world that matches the kinds of displacement we saw in the blue collar workforce. Except this might happen five times as fast. Right. There will also be opportunities. There'll be new industries and then these tools, you know, you can see somebody who is like a graphic designer or they may now be able to service 100 clients instead of five, and.
David Axelrod
00:34:06
Yeah, but it also, the profit motive is such that if your computers and your AI can perform these functions, they're a hell of a lot cheaper than people.
President Barack Obama
00:34:18
Of course. Yeah. And but and this is going to, look, and I was a lawyer, you know, if you're a junior associate in a law firm writing a research brief and you're spending 40 hours doing it and suddenly ChatGPT can do more or less the equivalent in 10 minutes. What are the economics of how many junior associates you keep in these law firms? Right. So all this stuff.
David Axelrod
00:34:41
It's a good thing you found another jam.
President Barack Obama
00:34:42
I think all these things are going to have a big impact. I think the point you're making is really important, which is we used to have a generation or two to absorb these big changes in technology and all the disruptions that came about in the economy and the culture and how society was organized. Now it's happening in five years. Ten years. You talked about the smartphone. I constantly have to remind, you know, kids who were my kids' age, Malia, who's who's 24, she didn't get an iPhone until she was 13. The thing didn't, you know, it was released in 2007, but there wasn't wide adaptation until like 2010. It's only been around for a little over a decade. And now you go to the most obscure village in sub-Saharan Africa and everybody's got a cellphone.
David Axelrod
00:35:47
Well, this. You mentioned. Well, let me just put a pin in this by saying the other element, obviously, into the short term. This is disruptive for our economy. And it goes to the issues we were talking about before. In terms of misinformation, disinformation, deepfakes. I've seen, I've seen a few of you.
President Barack Obama
00:36:08
As I've told people, because I was the first digital president when I left office, I was probably the most recorded filmed photographed human in history, which is kind of a weird thing.
David Axelrod
00:36:20
Yes.
President Barack Obama
00:36:20
But just the odds are that I was. As a consequence, there's a lot of raw material there. So usually all the deep fakes start with like some version of Obama doing something, dancing, saying dirty limericks or whatever. Right. That technology's here now. So. So most immediately we're going to have. All the problems we had with misinformation before, this next election cycle will be worse. And the need for us, for the general public, I think to be more discriminating consumers of news and information, the need for us to over time develop technologies to create watermarks or digital fingerprints so we know what is true and what is not true. There's a whole bunch of work that's going to have to be done there, but in the short term, it's really going to be up to the American people to kind of say.
David Axelrod
00:37:21
Which is tough, given the environment we discussed earlier, where so much is being pushed at you, in your silo, and so you're predisposed to believe.
President Barack Obama
00:37:31
Whatever pops up.
David Axelrod
00:37:32
Whatever pops up.
President Barack Obama
00:37:33
Obviously, we saw that during the vaccination stuff. So I am concerned about it. And I think the best we're going to be able to do is to constantly remind people that this is out there. I think the good news is most people now are aware that not everything that pops up on your phone is true. But it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, the quote from Putin. From the perspective of those people who just want to discourage voting, to just say the hell with it. Right. They're all crooks. It's all rigged. It's all corrupt. And so I just won't vote. And then, you know, that can oftentimes advantage the powerful. And I am worried about that kind of cynicism developing even further during the course of this next election.
David Axelrod
00:38:22
We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. You mentioned that economics and the impact of technology on economic change and the unsettlement there, a lot of it falling on small towns and rural communities while central cities and suburbs prosper. But the other half is cultural and culture and race. One thing I wanted to ask you was how much of what we have seen since you, we got on that plane in 2004 and since you got elected president, how much was a reaction to you, I mean, to the election? You were a living, breathing symbol of change.
President Barack Obama
00:39:22
Yeah, well, and we did put it on our posters.
David Axelrod
00:39:25
Yes. Yes. I was trying to draw people to hope, but.
President Barack Obama
00:39:32
[laughter] We can't entirely blame people.
David Axelrod
00:39:33
No, it's true.
President Barack Obama
00:39:35
For thinking that.
David Axelrod
00:39:35
Yeah, they got it. They definitely got it.
President Barack Obama
00:39:37
He really wants to change things. Look, disentangling people's motives, fears. You know how much of it had to do with the fact that I was the first African-American president? How much of it has to do with the fact that, you know, despite some subsequent criticism from, you know, my allies on the left, I was the most progressive Democratic presidential nominee that we'd seen in a while. It's hard to say exactly. I think it is. I think it's fair to say that something like the Tea Party does not get the traction, does not generate the heat that it does, had it not been for the fact that I represented something that looked like something very foreign to people, to some people, and scary. I think if you tracked Fox News coverage all the way up through Tucker Carlson talking about, you know, white people are all being replaced and that Democrats are deliberately trying to bring in.
David Axelrod
00:40:38
Immigrants.
President Barack Obama
00:40:40
Illegal, you know, immigrants and then give them voting rights and welfare checks to buy them off and build the Democratic majority. I think that's a that argument probably gets less traction if it wasn't me who was president at the time. You know, suggestions that I might be trying to impose Sharia law, I don't know if that works if it's Joe Biden at the time.
David Axelrod
00:41:07
I don't remember that meeting, actually.
President Barack Obama
00:41:08
Exactly. Right. So. So I don't think that there's any doubt that. Race has always been the fault line in American politics, society and culture. It was the first and the most powerful, the most elemental. The idea that that would no longer be the case once I was president.
David Axelrod
00:41:31
Yeah.
President Barack Obama
00:41:32
Was foolish. Right. I mean, change takes time, and there was going to be some pushback and look, by the way, it reflected a real reality, right? You know, if you if you look at third graders in the United States, the demographic there is really different than folks our age.
David Axelrod
00:41:52
Yeah.
President Barack Obama
00:41:52
And so the country is becoming much more diverse, much browner. And, you know, that's going to be scary for for folks who feel as if that means something's being taken away from me.
David Axelrod
00:42:04
Yeah.
President Barack Obama
00:42:05
The same as.
David Axelrod
00:42:06
We saw that, by the way. I mean, my father was a Jewish immigrant. Jews, Poles, Italians.
President Barack Obama
00:42:11
It's happened throughout our history. Now, you add on top of that, right, gender and sexual politics. You know, I think we're.
David Axelrod
00:42:20
Can I just interrupt you before we leave race.
President Barack Obama
00:42:23
I wasn't going to leave it.
David Axelrod
00:42:24
Well, I know. I wanted to get there before you do. I I've mentioned to your team that I was going to ask you about this, because it really fascinates me. I listened to Tim Scott, who's running for president, and half of it sounds a lot like us. Half of it sounds a lot like what you were talking about in the speech in 2004 and in all of our speeches from that point on, which was, I am living proof that we are making progress as a country. I wouldn't be here but for that progress. It takes a different turn at the end when he when he says, and I'm wondering, have you heard what he said? And what do you say? Because the end of it is sort of like, yeah, it's cool, I'm here. And so, you know, that's part of the past, and we don't need to worry so much about it.
President Barack Obama
00:43:23
I haven't spent a lot of time studying Tim Scott speeches. I think there is a long history of African-American or other minority candidates within the Republican Party who will validate America and say, everything's great, and we can all make it. I mean, Nikki Haley, I think, has a similar approach.
David Axelrod
00:43:45
She does, yeah.
President Barack Obama
00:43:45
Right. Look at me. I'm a Asian Indian-American woman. And my family came here and we worked hard. Clarence Thomas has probably gave the same speech at some point, I guarantee in some commencement, as did Alan Keyes, the first guy that I ran against.
David Axelrod
00:44:00
Yeah.
President Barack Obama
00:44:00
I don't think it's a. And look, I'm not being cynical about Tim Scott individually. I am maybe suggesting that the rhetoric of can't we all get along? And those quotes you made about, you know, from my speech in 2004 about there's a United States of America, that has to be undergirded with an honest accounting of our past and our present. And so if a Republican, who may even be sincere in saying I want us all to live together, doesn't have a plan for how do we address crippling generational poverty that is a consequence of hundreds of years of racism in the society, and we need to do something about that. If that candidate is not willing to acknowledge that, you know, again and again, we've seen discrimination in everything from job practice, you know, getting a job to buying a house to how the criminal justice system operates and so that somebody who does the exact same offense, the kind of sentencing, the likelihood that they do jail time is going to be different based on their race. If somebody is not proposing both acknowledging and proposing elements that say, no, we can't just ignore all that and pretend as if everything's equal and fair, we actually have to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. If they're not doing that, then I think people are rightly skeptical. And, you know, maybe there will come a time in which, and this goes to the point I made earlier about within the Republican Party, people who are actually more conservative is in some fashion, but are serious about working class issues. There may come a time where there's somebody in the Republican Party that is more serious about actually addressing some of the deep inequality that still exists in our society that tracks race and is a consequence of our racial history. And if that happens, I think that would be fantastic. I haven't yet seen it.
David Axelrod
00:46:27
You came to the University of Chicago in 2018 and spoke to the students there at the Institute of Politics, and you had this really interesting exchange with a young person on the issue of tolerance. And it was it was before woke became expropriated as a war cry for the Republican Party. But, you know, I'm watching this. This is, as you point out, this cultural conservatism, this anti-woke ism, as one candidate likes to describe it, is is a big thing over there. But it also made me wonder whether liberal elites kind of played into it in some ways by being less tolerant, by not, by promoting ideas that were provocative.
President Barack Obama
00:47:17
Well, look, I do think this is something that the whole culture has to grapple with. Change is uncomfortable. We already talked about this. And so demographic, racial change, changes in terms of women and the LGBTQ+ community wanting a seat at the table, wanting their voice heard. All that has made people uncomfortable and make people feel threatened. And women wanting to be treated equally and acknowledged. That makes guys feel like, Man, you know, what's happening? I think it is very important for progressives, liberals, but also all Americans to say, there are certain principles that even if it's make some, making somebody else uncomfortable, we have to adhere to. So I am dismissive of people who try to trot out woke because women in the workplace don't want to be sexually harassed. All right. If a guy says, oh, you just can't take a joke, you're being woke. Well, no. Like, I don't want my sister, my mother having to deal with some drunken leering boss, right, making comments about her legs. That's not wokeness. That's like professionalism, common courtesy. That's, those are behaviors that genuinely needed to be changed. I think us sticking to our principles when it comes to making sure everybody is included, regardless of sexual orientation, that's not us attacking your views about how you want to live your life. We're just saying our government, employers, etc. should not treat somebody differently because of who they love. There's nothing woke about that. I think that's a principle we need to adhere to. Now, what is true is I think that we have tended at times on the progressive side to tip into kind of a scolding, social etiquette police and virtue signaling whereby somebody doesn't say something exactly the right way, even if, you know, we all know they kind of didn't mean it in an offensive way. And suddenly you've got, partly because of social media, everybody jumping on them and saying somehow, oh, you must be racist or sexist. I think there have been times where reporters are asking questions that don't fit the accepted narrative or are inconvenient for progressives around certain issues. And just by raising the question or pointing out facts that don't fit the neat narrative, we'll jump on them and say, you know, why are you, you know, aiding those who are attacking us? And I do think it is important for us to not fall into that trap in which our knee jerk assumption is if somebody doesn't say something the exact right way, that we not only think it's our job to correct them and and scold them, but we are making a judgment about their character and their intentions. And I think that does make people feel under assault. And I think it alienates us from our allies. You know, Michelle and I, we talk about how, you know, if your grandma hears a Spanish word, you know, she may not be able to pronounce it exactly right. She may use the wrong word sometimes. That doesn't mean she's not, she she means, has bad intentions. It just means this is a foreign language to her. She's got to adapt to a new world. And the question is, what's in her heart? You know, how does she feel about treating people fairly? And I think what's true for your grandparents or your uncle or somebody who you know and you love that you think are good people. I, I look, you remember in the speech I gave in the aftermath of Jeremiah Wright, I talked about my grandmother who loved me to death and did everything for me. And I heard her say some ignorant stuff. And I might have to say, Grandma, you know, that's not actually how we, you know, say stuff these days, but you do it with love, and you don't suddenly suggest somehow that, oh, she's a horrible person because of it. Well, if that's how we're treating our family members, then maybe we might want to extend at least a portion of those better assumptions towards our fellow citizens. And I think if we do a little bit of that, we can stick to our principles in terms of insisting on equity and calling out injustice. But we do it in a way that is trying to bring people in rather than automatically pushing them away. And that's how you build political power.
David Axelrod
00:52:05
Mr. President, thank you. Always good to see you.
President Barack Obama
00:52:09
Thank you.
Outro
00:52:12
Thank you for listening to the Axe Files brought to you by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio. The executive producer of the show is Miriam Finder Annenberg. The show is also produced by Jeff Fox and Hannah Grace McDonald. And special thanks to our partners at CNN. For more programing from the IOP, visit politics dot uchicago dot edu.