Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen envision a more unified America In an NPR interview, the former president and the iconic musician speak about spreading hope amid widespread division and about the "critical patriotism" of Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."

In a new book, Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen envision a more unified America

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About a week ago, I had the chance to sit down with two people trying to break into the podcasting game.

Well, it's great to talk to a couple of podcasters from...


CORNISH: ...You know, Jersey and Hawaii.

OBAMA: That's us.


OBAMA: We're hoping for a breakout.

CORNISH: That's former President Barack Obama, who hosts the podcast "Renegades: Born In The U.S.A.," along with another familiar voice, Bruce Springsteen.


SPRINGSTEEN: We're good.

OBAMA: We're getting a thumbs up.

CORNISH: Now, what comes through in the podcast and a new book based on their conversations is a shared belief in the power of narrative. We spoke about the stories they both tell in politics and song, and I asked them about the song that they pull apart a little in one of their conversations, the Springsteen classic "My Hometown."


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) In '65, tension was running high in my high school. There was a lot of fights between the Black and white. There was nothing you could do.

CORNISH: Which is a song that I had heard many times, but I had not really delved into the lyrics. And I was, you know, really fascinated by the story that you were telling about it. At one point towards the end of the song, there's a message from a father to a son who's sort of...


CORNISH: ...Looking around at this town that has been rocked by kind of racial strife and economic, you know, disappointment.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I said, son, take a good look around. This is your hometown.

CORNISH: You said that he's telling a story that, as an active player in this moment in time, you have some power to acknowledge some things - this is the message he's giving to his son - and perhaps to do something about them in a small way. And it really struck me because this is a moment where right now you've got schools, for instance, trying to do this exact thing - right? - talk about racial history in a way that involves accountability and acknowledgment. And it is being rejected - right? - as critical race theory. It's being rejected by a lot of white parents. And it made me wonder, is the dad in your song a fiction, that dad who says, look around; you're part of this, too?

SPRINGSTEEN: I don't think so. You know, I think that we are extensions of history and that as - that part of being an American is seeking to right and address where the country has gone wrong in the past or our previous sins or trespasses. I think there's a lot of people who view the country like that and who are interested in making it a better place. I think what we're dealing with right now that is unique in our history is that an entire political party has proven itself willing to lie about that history and what's taking place for their own political gain and has preyed on the weaknesses of a large part of our voters and our citizenry and fears of a changing country, a changing America. And people have feared their loss of status. But I think what you need at this moment is a kind of fighting optimism.

OBAMA: Maybe one thing...


OBAMA: ...That Bruce and I share - his music, my politics - is the belief that people aren't static. And I think America is proof that things are not static. So you're absolutely right that we go through moments of backlash. And there are going to be times, because of that backlash, we get a sense of despair, a sense that we're stuck, that there's no way to move forward and escape this tragic loop that we have been in.

And yet, as Bruce just described - and I like that phrase, sort of a fighting optimism. There are a whole bunch of parents who are also getting up and saying, no, this is something we need to learn about. This is something that is important. It wouldn't be a controversy 20 years ago or 30 years ago because nobody would have thought of including a story about slavery or Jim Crow or the Black Codes in textbooks. I know because they weren't in my textbooks, and they weren't Bruce's, I guarantee, in Freehold.

Now, are we going to be able to push all the way through? Are we going to be able to do it in a consistent way in every community all at the same time? Probably not. It's going to happen in fits and starts. And there will be communities that say, we want to keep our narrative in a way that is comfortable for us and excludes a whole bunch of other people. And, you know, you're going to lose some fights there, but there are also going to be some places where people go, huh (ph). You know, I didn't think of that. Maybe we should rethink how we tell this story about who we are and what we're about. And part of, I think, what our podcast and this book has been about is reminding people that it's always been bumpy. It's always been contradictory. And yet there have been moments of real awakening and progress.

CORNISH: President Obama repeated this idea that whether it's police reform or the Democrats' push for voting rights legislation, progress is made over time - decades, often - and that part of what he clearly values in his conversations with his co-host and co-author Bruce Springsteen is a shared project of creating a North Star.

OBAMA: Bruce and I concluded that even when we fall short of the ideal, we have to acknowledge how far we've fallen short of the ideal. But you know what? It's useful to have a North Star, the belief that we can still deliver on an ideal like all men are created equal or all people are created equal, because that's the horizon to which we are marching. And if we don't have that, then I think we lose it.

CORNISH: I need to jump in because there is a younger generation that may look at this process which - you quite often have talked about compromise. And they say, look. We're not getting anywhere. We're not getting anywhere compromising. We're not getting anywhere having this conversation the way people have had it before because - I'm not offering a choice saying, cynicism; everything's bad; nothing works and North Star in hope, right? But...


CORNISH: I'm trying to say, hey; look. What are the limits of optimism?

SPRINGSTEEN: That's why I use the term fighting optimism - you know, because I don't see any other choice. You know, I think you've got to adhere to the truth. You've got to adhere to the basic values in our institutions. And that - I don't know what the alternative to that is.

OBAMA: One of the things that Bruce and I just talk about in the book is, you know, you get to a certain age, and you are always - you want to be supplanted. We see it in our own kids.


OBAMA: I want the next generation to do it better, smarter, be bolder, have better answers and ideas. But what that requires, though, ultimately is some faith that it can be done, some - and that, I think, does require a belief that people are not fixed and mutable. And I think the country has shown itself able and capable of changing and growth.

CORNISH: Mr. President Barack Obama, thank you for speaking with us.

OBAMA: I enjoyed it. Thank you.

CORNISH: And Bruce Springsteen, it was a real honor. Thank you for speaking with us as well.

SPRINGSTEEN: My pleasure. Thanks a lot.

CORNISH: That's former President Barack Obama and musician Bruce Springsteen talking about their podcast and new book "Renegades: Born In The U.S.A."


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