Being President of the United States has its challenges, but also its bright spots.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama is on the new cover of Vanity Fair, and in the issue he gets candid about his life, his time in office and his new memoir A Promised Land in a wide-ranging conversation with Salvage the Bones author Jesmyn Ward.
“I think that all of us use humour, to some degree or another, to help explain the world around us,” Obama says. “The human condition can be absurd, and if you learn to laugh about it, then that helps you get through pain and hardship and difficulty.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Obama also talks about the importance of empathy, and why he feels harnessing it is one of the big challenges of modern politics.
“There are so many forces designed to prevent us from seeing each other, and to label each other and distance and fear each other,” he explains. “If you can’t see somebody’s backstory, that’s how we end up reinforcing our prejudices, our biases, our fears, that’s how we then perpetrate cruelty on other people.”
During his administration, Obama dealt with many serious challenges, from economic crisis to ongoing wars, and he felt free to write about it all openly in his book.
“One of the great gifts of the presidency is that you lose your fear,” he says. “You look at it and you say: Well, I’m still here. I’ve made some good calls. I’ve made some mistakes. I’ve experienced losses as well as some victories. And lo and behold, although my hair is grayer, I’m still standing. So I felt free to describe what I truly thought about a whole range of issues.”
Obama also talks about what he sees ahead for the next generation of politicians and activists coming up in the age of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests.
“There was a generation of kids who grew up seeing an African American first family in the White House. It was not unusual to see, suddenly, a person of color in that leadership position. That has value too,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons I was inspired to run, because I thought it would have some impact. But it is not by itself sufficient to change the history of discrimination and the structural inequities that have built up over 400 years. For that you’ve got to look at budgets and you’ve got to look at laws. We have to be clear-eyed about how difficult it is to move this society forward and not be discouraged when it doesn’t happen overnight.”