MS. NORRIS: Good morning, and welcome to a very special edition of Washington Post Live. I'm Michele Norris, opinion columnist for The Washington Post and founding director of The Race Card Project.

And for this very special conversation this morning, I am joined by my dear friend, Elizabeth Alexander: poet, scholar, and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Good morning, Elizabeth.

MS. ALEXANDER: Good morning, Michele. It's wonderful to be together.

MS. NORRIS: It is wonderful to be together. And together, we both welcome our guest for this conversation, the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. I assume you recognize that guy there in the middle.

Good morning, sir.

MR. OBAMA: Hey, guys. Washington Post brought out the big guns for this one.

MS. ALEXANDER: We are so excited to see you.

MS. NORRIS: We are, and really--

MR. OBAMA: Well, I'm very grateful that you guys took the time.

MS. NORRIS: We are so excited to talk to you about your book, but this is a news organization, so we do have to begin with a little bit of news. And overnight, we learned that AstraZeneca has joined two other drug companies in their success with a vaccine trial, 90 percent success rate.

Based on your experience, I'm wondering what you think about the challenges of distributing a vaccine, and if you're all--concerned about a drift toward a new world hierarchy, where some people have easy access to the vaccine and some people don't.

MR. OBAMA: Well, that's going to be the big challenge. I think we're all excited about the results. They're better even than I think a lot of scientists anticipated. And now, the challenge becomes how do we distribute it rapidly, and how do we make sure that people actually are willing to get vaccinated. And that is both a logistical and economic and public messaging challenge. And look, it's--has not been made easier by the fact that we've had an incoherent federal communications strategy, to say the least, when it comes to science and the whole science around COVID.

My understanding, and I'm not, obviously, a scientific expert here, is that part of the challenge, at least for the first two vaccines that were developed, is that they have to be stored at certain temperatures. That puts a little additional challenge on distributing it widely. I think one of the first tasks for the Biden administration coming in is going to be make sure we have clear protocols about who gets it first, you know, whether it's frontline workers, people who are most vulnerable, and then move forward from there.

And then, we have to, you know, consider the international issues, because there--historically what's happened is that when you have drugs developed like this, they're expensive and oftentimes very poor countries are the last to get it, if they get it at all. And international coordination around that process is going to be very important.

And then, finally, as I said, you know, we're going to have to make sure the public messaging counteracts whatever suspicions, conspiracy theories--you know, the antivax Internet is pretty powerful. And you know, we're going to want to make sure we roll that out in a way that elicits trust from the public as much as possible.

MS. NORRIS: We're starting to get a sense of what a Joe Biden administration will look like, and you've seen some names that are very familiar to you, including Antony Blinken now expected to be named very soon as the new Secretary of State. Will he be able to quickly convince European allies that the Trump-Pompeo period was an aberration and try to restore trust and a working relationship with some of the allies that, right now, have a rather closed-arm view of the United States?

MR. OBAMA: Yeah, I know Tony. He was my Deputy National Security Advisor. He was Joe's foreign policy advisor when Joe was vice president. He was part of our inner circle in all our key meetings throughout my presidency. He's outstanding: smart, gracious, a skilled diplomat, well-regarded around the world, and I know he's going to do a great job.

The reports are that Jake Sullivan will serve as National Security Advisor. Wicked smart, young, energetic, and I think is going to be outstanding. So, you're seeing a team develop that I have great confidence in.

I think it's going to be important to recognize that the confidence that our allies had and the world had in American leadership is not going to be restored overnight. They are 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 U.S. has played. But there is going to be a lingering sense that America is still divided. You know, some of the shenanigans that are going on right now around the election, that is making the world question how reliable and steady the U.S. may be.

The reversal of U.S. positions on things like the Iran deal and the Paris Accords are going to create some inhibitions in terms of entering into agreements, not always being certain whether or not they will be reversed by future administrations.

So, there has been some damage done that is going to take some time to dig ourselves out of, 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.

MS. NORRIS: One last question before we turn to the book about your role and public life going forward, we saw you very active in the presidential campaign for your former vice president.

Will you participate in the campaign or help in any way the Democratic candidates that are running for Senate in Georgia?

MR. OBAMA: Well, look, I think it's a huge, critically important election. If in fact the Democrats were able to win those two seats, then they would have a sliver of a majority in the Senate, with the vice president as a tiebreaker. So, I will do what I'm asked to do in terms of being helpful.

At the end of the day, that's going to be determined by the people of Georgia. You know, I'm always flattered when people say, "Oh, Barack, we need you in here. It's going to make all the difference." Ultimately, you know, I think what really makes a difference are people like Stacey Abrams, who had been working four years in the trenches, galvanizing and mobilizing people to recognize their own power. I'm a huge believer in grassroots, bottom-up work, and I think what started with Stacey and her gubernatorial campaign and that she perpetuated and that others got involved with, that's the reason that Georgia went for Joe Biden, and that's what I think it's going to take for us to be able to sustain this down the road. You know, if I'm doing some robocalls or, you know, some guest appearances, you know, it gets people excited, but ultimately, it's the people of Georgia recognizing their own power that makes all the difference.

MS. NORRIS: Thank you. Now, we want to get to a discussion about your book, and I'm going to turn it over to Elizabeth, who's going to start our questioning, there.

MS. ALEXANDER: Let us talk about--

MR. OBAMA: Okay, Elizabeth.

MS. ALEXANDER: Hello, there. Let us talk about the writing of this wonderful book. And I wanted to put out to you the idea that autobiography is a great American genre. I think because America believes in the self and the I in the we is what we get with the collective picture of ourselves in autobiography.

So, I wonder, as you were writing "A Promised Land," how you thought about genre, how you thought about writing autobiography and how the tone developed as you were writing.

MR. OBAMA: That's interesting. I mean, part of it is, you know, America believes in self and part of it is--one of the essential elements of being American, I think, is this idea of self-creation, right, that we are not bound by whatever station we were born into. Whether that's mythological, whether it is fully reflected in the reality of class barriers and obviously race barriers and others, it's part of us that we've internalized that, you know--of I am going to get out there and make something of myself.

And certainly, my first book, "Dreams from My Father" reflected that kind of story of me as a young person trying to figure out racial identity and how I fit into this new world, first in Hawaii, and then in places like New York and Chicago.

There's no doubt that I learned to write, also, in part from sort of the personal narrative. You know, if you ask me what's--what's a book that taught me to think about how I would like to write, what I would aspire to write, even though I can't write that good, it'd be probably "The Fire Next Time," by James Baldwin, an autobiographical essay that tells a story and is internal but also paints a complete portrait of New York and Harlem and race and, you know, preachers and pimps. And you know, there's an entire world from a few square blocks that suddenly gives you a picture of all of America, and a sweeping history.

You know, I read books like that and that was my creative writing class. So, there's no doubt that when I thought about writing this presidential memoire, those were my models as opposed to a traditional presidential memoir with, you know, and then I met with King Such-and-such or I met with Prime Minister Such-and-such.

And you know, how well I succeeded in tracking that kind of a more literary approach to it, you know, it'll be up to the readers, but that was certainly part of what I was trying to do. Of course, James Baldwin didn't have to stick in long explanations of the financial crisis or, you know, nuclear negotiations. So, that was the disadvantage. Every time--once in a while, you'd get in that poetic flow, and then you'd realize, "Oh, you know what? I've got to kind of do a little history, a little work here," and trying to find that balance was sometimes tough.

MS. ALEXANDER: Thank you. Michele is going to ask some more now.

MS. NORRIS: So, when you were writing this book during a period of tumult and transformation in America--and when you're writing a book, you're having a conversation with yourself, but there's also all this noise that's happening in the world. And you have to decide to what degree you're going to tune that out or let it in.

And this was a period when your policies were under interrogation and, in some cases, being fully erased by the current administration. How much did all of that influence you when you were writing this book? I imagine that it was almost like having a 5,000-pound elephant on your shoulder while you're working on your own work.

MR. OBAMA: Yeah, it's interesting, I don't think it actually affected it that much, partly because I--even though I ended up breaking this up into two volumes, I had a pretty clear sense of the arc of the story, and I know how the story ends, at least, you know, the end of my presidency, with Donald Trump coming into office. And I had already internalized and understood that--you know, what his presidency was going to do and what he stood for.

So, all this stuff that was happening while I was writing wasn't really shocking or surprising to me. I would say that, if anything, the--what probably influenced the book as I was writing may have been a growing sense of optimism based on, for example, what happened this summer in the wake of the George Floyd murder, and seeing young people mobilize and activate themselves the way they did. It actually strengthened my conviction that, in fact, despite the backwards movement that my successor represented on things like climate change or voting rights or, you know, economic equity, that there was still this underlying forward motion that was going to be carried on by future generations that had been affected by my presidency and that would help lead us going forward.

So, if anything, I probably got more convinced about the story I was telling as a consequence of what I saw, particularly over the last year.

MS. NORRIS: Is there anything about yourself that you learned in particular when you went back to write the story and revisited your--the first four of your eight years in office?

MR. OBAMA: You know, I think I came to realize how much I loved the people I worked with. I knew that, but the more I wrote, the more I appreciated how gifted, hardworking, just remarkable the people who were part of my campaign and then part of my White House were.

You know, you guys have read the book, so you know that I devote an entire chapter to Iowa, for example. And my state director for Iowa is a guy named Paul Tewes, who remains a friend of mine, but as I was writing about it, as I was talking about this guy who comes from a small, you know, Midwestern town, conservative, who, you know, is not a flashy guy, kind of, you know, grumpy in his external behavior, but deep down, is this, you know, hugely idealistic guy and he leads this team of kids to, you know, win the state for me and essentially launch us on the path to the White House. You know, as I'm writing about him, and he'd probably be embarrassed if he heard me say this, because he's still kind of, you know, a grump sometimes, or sarcastic, sardonic.

You know, I just realized how much I appreciated him and how remarkable he was, and he was not a big, flashy figure. and I think time and again as I wrote, it just made me appreciate the degree to which any worthwhile endeavor is a collective effort. You know, particularly the president of the United States tends to be elevated as this singular individual hero or villain, depending on your take of any particular president. But really, he--and hopefully, at some point, she--is just the front man, the front person, to a much broader endeavor of a bunch of people who are making enormous sacrifices and bringing huge skills to bear in trying to just move this big, you know, behemoth of a federal government in a direction that can actually help more people than it's currently doing.

And I really--I loved writing about others, probably a little more than I loved writing about myself.

MS. ALEXANDER: [Audio distortion]--and there was great excitement for so many reasons, including that you were the first African-American president. But what you may not know is that there were many people who were excited that the first African-American writer had become president.

"Dreams from My Father"--it's the truth--"Dreams from My Father" was already being taught in African-American literature classes, taught alongside books like Frederick Douglass's "Narrative," "The Autobiography of Malcom X," books where reading and literacy as self-making and freedom were very important ideas that were completely carried through in "Dreams from My Father."

So, also, we saw you--there was a picture of you a few days after that first election, carrying a book of Derek Walcott's collected poems while going to your daughters' schools. So, there were people who said--the poets all cheered and said that there's something about holding complexity simultaneously that poetry does. And we thought, "Oh, he does that, too."

So, what I would love to know is what has your being a writer, a "writer" writer, how has that informed your governance and your leadership?

MR. OBAMA: Yeah, it's an interesting question and I think a timely one, because the essence to me of writing is being able to use your imagination to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes, to engage in this radical act of empathy and shapeshifting where you can say, "All right, I can imagine what it might be like to be, you know, a young girl who's enslaved in the antebellum South," or I can imagine myself as a, you know, Elizabethan duke or--whatever, right, both as a reader and as a writer.

And you know, my politics, I think, has always been premised on this notion that if, in fact, America is to work it's going to be because we are unique among great powers in being able to stitch together one people out of all these diverse strands of people who show up from everywhere, with different cultures and foods and music, and somehow it works. E pluribus unum, you know, "Out of many, one." And in that sense, that is, to me at least, consistent with a writer's sensibility.

You know, Walt Whitman is, to me, describing not just the American countryside; he's describing America's best politics. Abraham Lincoln, when he writes the second inaugural, that is a work of literature as he's imagining both sides to this great conflict and what it means, and ultimately ends with--you know, "with malice towards none and charity towards all," right?

So, that, I think, informed everything I did. Now, what's been interesting--and you saw this during my presidency and you see it in some of the responses to the book, to "A Promised Land," in our current political environment, we have a lot of impatience with that kind of being able to see the other side. And I think there have been a couple, you know, reviewers and commentators who say, "Ah, look at Obama. He's, like, one side--on the other hand, he's overthinking things." You know, and the implication, I think is that if you can see the other side then somehow you are paralyzed, that the writer's sensibility means that you can't make decisions, that you are stuck, because you don't know which way to turn.

And part of--the irony is that, in fact, for me, it was the opposite, right? And I try to explain this in the book, maybe some folks are just impatient with it. 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, because I'd seen it from different angles. And 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, as opposed to solving problems and figuring out how, in fact, we come together.

And I--in part, I suspect, at least on the Democratic side, seeing Donald Trump eliminate all complexity and just do whatever he wants regardless of the consequences and demonizing the other side, prompts, I think, sometimes this sense of, like, yeah, we--that's what we should be doing, too. We don't need some fancy, overthinking, poetic sensibility. We just need to be, you know, "This is what we want and we're going to go get." I think that's a mistake, because I think the outcome in terms of policy ends up being really bad. You end up making poor decisions.

And I--look, I end the book with bin Laden, the raid into Abbottabad, hugely complex, informed by us looking at a whole bunch of different angles to the problem, a bunch of exhaustive discussions and meetings, but that didn't stop me from then ultimately saying, "All right, that's what we're going to do and it may not work." So, I actually think that the writer's sensibility is critical and useful, so long as you recognize that once you've seen the complexities of any problem, you still have to make a decision. And then, be willing to bear the burden that your decision is not going to be perfect, that there may be some tragic, you know, unintended consequences to a decision, and you have to be comfortable with that, as well. So...

MS. ALEXANDER: Well, you mentioned--that's so interesting, and you mentioned Whitman. So, I keep hearing also, "I am large; I contain multitudes," a line that I know you know well.

MR. OBAMA: I contradict myself. There's nothing wrong with that.

MS. ALEXANDER: There you go. There you go. I would love to hear--we talked about "The Fire Next Time," but you've given us so many wonderful descriptions of rummaging in your grandparents' garage, going to a sidewalk sale, woodshedding when you're in New York City and Columbia, reading, reading, reading.

Talks to us, please, about another book that has been transformative to you.

MR. OBAMA: Well, I mentioned Toni Morrison. The Song of Solomon was--that was another book I wanted to write. It's one of those things, if you were--if you ask me, what's the kind of talent that seems like it's just, you know, magic dust sprinkled on someone and suddenly they can write a book like that. It was the kind of book that, after reading, I said, "My goodness, how does somebody do that?"

I have to confess, Shakespeare--Shakespeare's tragedies, I wasn't somebody who was raised on that. I took--I decided to take a Shakespeare in college, and I--just reading those tragedies, it was that same kind of feeling, where I thought, "How is it that somebody can capture so much of what is essential about a human life, and yet still have a story and a plot and interesting things happen, so that you're carried forward?"

You know, I think when I think about the great works of American writers, whether it's Faulkner or Hemingway or Langston Hughes, I also see what I mentioned earlier, that part of myself that is constantly dissatisfied and restless and wanting to see what's next and leaving the past behind but always being drawn back to it. You know, so I think when I--when I think about my own work, I have been shaped, just as my character has been shaped, by that quintessential, you know, Jack Kerouac open road, you know, looking west, seeing what's next. And--or in the case of somebody like, you know, Frederick Douglass, looking north to see what's next. But in either way wanting to break the chains of whatever constraints, you know, we were--we were born into and bound to.

MS. ALEXANDER: Thank you.

MS. NORRIS: I'd like to ask you about the organizing structure or the frame for the book. The book begins with a section called "The Bet," and it ends with a section called "On the Highwire," which suggests that you're not sure if the bet has yielded dividends. And it's interesting, the notion of a bet being a way of looking at your presidency and your life, and perhaps a question of whether a nation that was built around a cultural default built around people who look a certain way could hold in its hand democracy, if that democracy was willing to elect someone who was from outsider, minority culture. How was--how did you use that as sort of the organizing principle for the book, and was that where, for you, this whole story began?

MR. OBAMA: You know, you guys were talking about my literary influences. But, you know, one of my profound political influences that I write about in the book is Mahatma Gandhi, and he famously titled one of his works "My Experiments in Truth," right? And so, if you--if you track Gandhi's career, he's basically starting in South Africa, where he is advocating on behalf of coloreds and develops some of his techniques that he then takes to India for their independence movement. You know, he keeps on just trying stuff and seeing if it's going to work and developing a set of principles around non-violence and, you know, non-violent resistance.

And I thought about that, you know, when I started getting into politics--not because I thought I could mimic his extraordinary life and success but because I thought it was a good way of thinking about a political career, that I had gotten a good education. I could--I knew I could support a family. If I failed, you know, there was only so far I would fall. I wasn't going to be on the streets. I could afford to take some risks.

And the bet that I was making from the get go, even driving to Chicago to become a community organizer and then running for the state Senate and then running for the U.S. Senate and ultimately running for the presidency, was this belief that you--it was possible both to, you know, have a progressive politics that actually won elections and garnered a majority of people, that you could put together multiracial coalitions, that despite our racial divides it was both possible and necessary to bridge those divides in order to advance a progressive agenda, a bet that somebody with as weird a background as mine and a funny name could help lead such a coalition, and maybe the biggest bet of all, that I could participate in politics at the highest level without losing my soul, right? Because the--you know, I think the cultural stereotype is that--not just that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely but political power in particular is inherently a game of shady deals and insider maneuvering.

And so, all those were some gambles that I took. And I think that that first part of the book describes the nature of that bet. And it's a bet on America and America's place in the world. This volume ends not with that bet having been decided. You know, I end up making a particular bet about whether bin Laden's going to be in Abbottabad, because if I get that wrong, I may end up, you know, being a one-term president. But as I point out at the end of the book, there are--despite the success of that particular endeavor, the broader question of whether or not the kind of political world and public life and public trust that I'm hoping for is achievable, that is still open to question, because, you know, I deliberately end the first volume with the contrast between this incredible collective endeavor that was the bin Laden raid with the circus of birtherism that Donald Trump has concocted, and those things are happening exactly at the same time. And it's an indicator that, you know, it's not at all clear which is the more prevalent trend in American politics. Is it that kind of conspiracy-mongering, racially charged spectacle, or is it this deliberate, thoughtful, you know, professional, analytically robust process of solving problems and getting stuff done?


MR. OBAMA: And at the end of the book, we don't know yet.

MS. NORRIS: So just a quick question about that circus or that spectacle. When you first heard the early rumblings of that, the--you know, the carnival barker that you describe is Sarah Palin, who talks about the--you say, "Through Palin, it seemed as if the dark spirits that had long been lurking on the edges of the modern Republican Party--xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, an antipathy towards Black and brown folks--were finding their way to center stage."

When you first heard that--you know, you have a chance to revisit that moment in this book, and I'm wondering if you--if you feel like you should have pushed harder against those forces, if you should have heard something more loudly when that surfaced. And if you did push harder against that, what would that have--what would that have looked like? What did that conversation with, you know, that earlier version of yourself sound like when you were writing that portion of the book?

MR. OBAMA: Yeah, I don't know what that would mean to push harder against it, because she was the nominee on the other side of a contested presidential race, and I pushed pretty hard against her by beating her and John McCain, right? I mean, we won by sizeable margins contesting that worldview. And--

MS. NORRIS: But in terms of the opposition that faced repeatedly, you know, with a party that refused to work with you, in revisiting this, did you think about how you might have tempered optimism and the hope that they might--that you might appeal to their better angels with a different use of the levers of power?

MR. OBAMA: Yeah, look, a couple observations. First of all, I--you know, I probably should note--and I try to do so in the book, but maybe in interviews, because people remember Sarah Palin, but they're less likely to remember, for example, Pat Buchanan, who was, you know, peddling that same kind of politics, you know, back in 1992 and before that. You know, there's a long history of this.

The difference, I think, with Palin was that she became the nominee, whereas with Pat Buchanan, despite him doing well in the Republican Primary, George H.W. Bush really tried to sideline him as much as he could. And so, this was the first act of that kind of approach becoming central to Republican identity and really consuming and overwhelming the more what up to that point had been viewed as the more establishment, responsible brand of Republican conservatism.

Post-election, by the time I'm president, there's no doubt that as I'm writing about this, I'm wondering are there--are there steps I could have taken to counteract or challenge more directly these kinds of attitudes that were lurking in the Republican Party. And, look, I'm always wrestling with this. There is a school of thought that I think I describe in the book, there were critics within the Democratic Party who felt as if I tried for too hard for too long to reach out and to be bipartisan to accommodate Republicans, to assume the best, as opposed to just calling them out and being more pugilistic and aggressive in going after them.

And I understand that impulse. What those--what those critics never kind of describe for me was what exactly that was going to do in terms of me actually getting stuff done, as opposed to just feeling good. And I--you know, perhaps their argument is that I would have rallied my side and we would have seen higher turnout in midterm elections and so forth because people, you know, ultimately are motivated by that sense of there's a fight as opposed to, you know, we're trying to cut deals.

But part of my goal in writing this book was to clarify for people the degree to which the country really is divided. It's--there are--this is a big, complicated country. And in order to get anything done, certainly legislatively, you have to figure out how to pick off and accommodate folks who are significantly more conservative than, you know, my base in Chicago or Manhattan or San Francisco. And me denouncing or decrying attitudes that, you know, were not sufficiently woke was not going to get me more votes to pass healthcare or to, you know, deal with climate change, or what have you.

And certainly, at least in my first two years when I still had a majority but was hampered by a filibuster rule in the Senate, which is one of the villains of my book, this non-constitutional rule that arose out of a bad decision by Aaron Burr that ends up creating a supermajority requirement in the Senate, given that that was a reality at the time, the only way I could get stuff done, I needed Ben Nelson's vote. Ben Nelson was a conservative Democrat from Nebraska. He had to be conservative to get elected. I had to get the vote of Robert Byrd in my first two years. You know, venerated in the Senate but also a former Klan leader. And you know whose--the state's economy was based on coal. And you know, and Joe Lieberman, who was part of our caucus and had endorsed John McCain in the race against me. But he was part of our caucus.

And so, part of what I want people to come out reading this book understanding is that there is a prophetic voice--because we're talking about James Baldwin earlier--there is a prophetic voice that a writer can--or a civil rights leader or an activist or a movement leader can use to motivate and mobilize and change society. And that prophetic voice oftentimes is the thing that will open up possibilities for politics, because it's changing people's hearts and changing people's minds. But the language of politics itself is very rarely moved or shaped by that kind of prophecy. You know, because ultimately you need votes, and that is a much more--you know, in Mario Cuomo's terms, it's prose and not poetry.

And so, part of my challenge as president was campaigning in some high poetry, using a writer's sensibility to describe who we are, what we might be. But once you get to governing and then I'm dealing with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and Ben Nelson and Robert Byrd, and sometimes progressives in particular overestimate the degree to which high rhetoric is going to actually move votes. Because the country's--

MS. ALEXANDER: And what I wanted to add to that and where I wanted to go from there is young people, you said you were writing this book explicitly to younger people.

MR. OBAMA: Right.

MS. ALEXANDER: So, what is your diagnostic for the unfinished business that they have to take up as they move alongside us and as they come to lead us?

MR. OBAMA: Well, I am so excited to see this generation coming up if us old folks will just get out of the way. And that's true culturally. It's true in terms of our politics. I think their instincts are really good. They--it is second nature for them to believe that all people have intrinsic worth and dignity. It is second nature for them to not discriminate against people because their differences in race or gender identity or, you know, who they pray to. And they're sophisticated. They're smart. They're taking in, you know, culture from not just all across the country but all around the world. And they're highly idealistic. The question for them is going to be how do we build institutions that work in this modern era and that reflect those good impulses. And I think that the big work of this next generation is to channel their natural idealism, as well as skepticism about existing institutions, into a rebuild of those institutions to work for them and that can meet the current challenges.

So, you know, let's just take the criminal just system. I think young people understand the need to remake that in a pretty significant way. And their challenge, then, is going to be, okay, how do we get granular about reimagining what policing would look like so that for example, you know, we're not sending police officers with live ammunition to deal with the homeless person who might need a mental health services and an intervention and there's a way to deescalate. But how do you practically do that? And, you know, how do we create--you know, on the climate change front, how do we actually create an economy that can still provide jobs for young people and keep the engine of the economy going but, you know, actually is going to preserve the planet for our kids and our grandkids. And how do we make a politics that is responsive? Because I think they recognize that whether it's around, you know, minimum wage laws or gun laws or immigration reform, that there are a whole bunch of things that the majority of Americans believe in, and yet you can't get Congress to do anything about it. Why is that? There are all kinds of institutional reboots that have to be done. And that's going to require--it's going to require not just imagining better outcomes, but it's actually going to be some reengineering, some tinkering to make these institutions work better.

And that's hard to do. The best example of that is the fact that we're not going to be able to get good voting reform so that everybody's vote is counted, so that it's easier for everybody to vote, so that everybody's, you know, votes actually then count in terms of being able to influence Congress--we're not going to be able to get that done until you get over the hump of having a majority in Congress to pass a new voting rights law. And each of these cases, you've got these barriers that you have--you have to get over the hump in order, then, to create the institutional change that's necessary to keep things going in a better direction.

MS. NORRIS: So, we only have a little bit of time left, and I know Elizabeth has a question about an observation that she had in the book. I think we both, you know, as early readers had a chance to really dive into this, and there are things that we both really particularly appreciated: you use of character, your use of language, the way that you explain really difficult topics and make them accessible.

One of the things I appreciate is your willingness to talk about flaws and missteps that you've made. And since you want young people to read this--I know we don't have a lot of time--but if you could just quickly address whether that was done to leave breadcrumbs for the next generation to know that, you know, most people don't come out into leadership fully formed. And as it's harder and harder to work in public life, there's a reason you did that. It's unusual because you're one of the more confident people I know, in sports or in boardgames or in almost anything you do. But in this case, you sort of let back--let people understand some of the missteps that you've made.

MR. OBAMA: Yeah. Well, look, you know, we all have kids who are roughly the same age, and they are remarkable. They are far superior than I was at their age. But they're also bombarded with this message, partly because of their phones, and they're seeing people's living their best lives on Instagram and they're hearing about how, you know, Mark Zuckerberg was a billionaire by 27. And you know, they are comparing themselves, their baselines against which they assess themselves are so out of whack to what most of us are actually experiencing in our 20s and 30s that I worry about them sometimes.

And I want young people to see that somebody who ended up having a fairly successful political career didn't know what the heck he was doing at 23, 24, 25, that even well into his 30s was still experiencing doubts and confusion and making mistakes, that even when I was running and was, you know, on the cover of Time magazine and attracting these huge crowds, I'd make, you know, gaffes and I'd botch a debate. And that's okay. You know, I probably can't transmit this through a book. I think it has to be lived. But I try to describe to Malia and Sasha one of the great gifts of getting to be my age now is I'm just not afraid of much, because I've kind of--I've been knocked down a bunch of times. I've embarrassed myself. I've, you know, publicly failed and people have written entire articles about my failings, and I've been criticized and ostracized and demonized. And you know, but I'm still here. You know, I'm okay. And that's a hard thing to internalize in your 20s or your 30s. But to the extent that the book can help a young person say, okay, you know what, it's worth me taking a chance, it's worth me trying hard things, it's okay when I screw this up because, you know, that's part of the process, yeah, then I think it's worth it for me to be able to share that to them.

MS. NORRIS: Elizabeth has one left, final quick question.

MS. ALEXANDER: Yes, the most beautiful moment in the book to me is when you're in Oslo, you've won the Nobel Peace Prize, you look out the window and a sea of people holding candles aloft. And you say--and if I may, I'll read your words--"Whatever you do won't be enough, I heard their voices say. Try anyway." What do those words mean to you now?

MR. OBAMA: I think that's what we tell ourselves hopefully every morning when we get up, right? It's--that's not unique to politics. Life will throw stuff at you. There will be disappointments. There will be pain, and there will be loss. And we know at the end of the day, we die. That's the one certainty that we have, that this is temporary. And yet, there's this massive possibility of joy along the way, as long as we try, as long as we're open to it, as long as we experience it. And more than anything, as long as we reach out and are sharing this time on earth with others that we love and we care about and that hopefully we're continually expanding the circumference of that love and concern to reach more and more people, because that fills us up. You know, that's not just a--that's not just a political point of view. That's a writerly point of view, and ultimately, a spiritual point of view, right? That's how--that's how--that's how we get through the tough times and enjoy the good ones.

MR. NORRIS: And unfortunately, we're out of time here. We could go on. But the clock tells us that we'll have to say goodbye. Elizabeth, it has been so fun to conduct this conversation with you. Thank you so much.

MS. ALEXANDER: What a joy. Thank you, Michele.

MS. NORRIS: And, President Obama, thank you so much for joining us and for helping us understand your writing process and for writing this book. Thank you for joining us.

MR. OBAMA: I appreciate you guys. Two great writers in their own rights.

MS. ALEXANDER: Thank you so much.

MS. NORRIS: Thank you. It was indeed a great discussion. When you write that second half of this book, the second version, the book that will look at the second half of your administration, please come back and join us again.

If you’d like to watch highlights from this interview, please go to, and you’ll also find a podcast version of the conversation there. Please be sure to join us right here, back here at 1:00 where my colleague Robert Costa will be interviewing Dr. Anthony Fauci. You won’t want to miss that. I’m Michele Norris for Washington Post Live. Thanks for joining us.

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