President Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen on their new book Renegades. : Consider This from NPR Last summer, when former President Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen sat down to tape their podcast, the country was facing a pandemic, joblessness and a contentious election.

And their conversations, they say, were an effort to offer some perspective and an attempt to try and find a unifying story for the country. The two talked about their dads, race, and the future of the country.

Those conversations have now become a book, titled Renegades: Born in the U.S.A. — and they spoke to Audie Cornish about it's publication.

You can watch a video of this interview and see images from the book here.

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Barack Obama And Bruce Springsteen On Their Belief In A Unifying Story For America

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Presidents do different things when they leave office. Some paint. Some built houses. Former President Barack Obama is now a content creator with a multimillion-dollar Netflix production deal, and, of course, a podcast. Well, it's great to talk to a couple of podcasters from, you know...



CORNISH: ...Jersey and Hawaii. I think it's really...

OBAMA: That's good.


CORNISH: ...Great the way people are getting in the business.

OBAMA: We're hope we're hoping for a breakout.

CORNISH: And that podcast is called "Renegades: Born In The USA." It's a buddy project with Bruce Springsteen. Recorded last summer, the pair say they wanted to share conversations that might offer some perspective during a difficult period for the country.

OBAMA: Our general attitude was America was going through a reckoning. We had to figure out who we were. And part of the goal of the podcast was to maybe offer, with some humility, the sense that there is a common American story to be had under all the polarization and division and anger and resentment that had been fanned during that year.

CORNISH: In their conversations about fatherhood, race and music, they say they're searching for a unifying story for themselves and for the country. It was part of Obama's philosophy as a presidential candidate, and Springsteen told me it's at the core of what he does as a musician.

SPRINGSTEEN: Music searches for commonality, basically. I mean, that's the job that I'm in, you know. What the artist does is he tries to get his audience to experience those common values, that sense of shared narrative and to take that outside with them in the real world, let's say, you know. So as a musician, that's basically my job.


CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - despite a year of oversized challenges, Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama are sticking to a shared story of optimism.

OBAMA: I do still operate on the belief that hope beats no hope, plan beats no plan.


CORNISH: From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Wednesday, October 27.


Now, those conversations recorded between Bruce Springsteen and former President Barack Obama have become a book, and its publication gave me the chance to do a little pandemic-era Zoom time with The Boss and the former president.

OK, this is Audie.



CORNISH: Oh, you guys can hear me, so it's not just a mic check (laughter).




OBAMA: You sound great.

CORNISH: I asked them about the challenge of finding a shared American narrative when so often people can't agree on basic facts. For example, think about how Springsteen has wrangled with politicians over the years over the song "Born In The USA." The song has been misunderstood since it was released almost four decades ago. The refrain sounds like a celebration of a red-white-and-blue kind of American patriotism.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Born in the USA. The USA.

CORNISH: And it's been embraced by Republicans from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. In reality, Springsteen, who supported Democrats in the past several elections, wrote the song about a Vietnam veteran returning home to desperate circumstances and few options.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I go down to see the VA man. He says, son, don't you understand? Oh, the USA.

I think that the reason that song has sort of become a bit of a political football is one because it expresses great pride and identity as an American. That's attractive to any political side, all right? But at the same time, it's also a song that, at its core, is about a critical patriotism, a patriotism that basically accepts the weaknesses of the country and is looking forward to both - to that reckoning. I think that - I don't know if it's an issue as are those particularly people voting the way that I vote right now? I think plenty of them are, and some of them aren't, you know?

CORNISH: I just ask because when you describe your background in the podcast, where you both talk about your childhoods, you know, it did occur to me that the kind of place where you grew up is the kind of place that now is routinely talked about as being lost to Democrats. And I don't know if you, Mr. President, want to take a kind of crack at that question about - what is the disconnect there?

OBAMA: Yeah. See, I actually think...

CORNISH: Because it's not just about shared story.

OBAMA: Well, I - but I actually think that, you know, this is part of why we did the podcast - is to try to remind ourselves that a lot of the simple categories we're using right now are actually not a reflection of the complexity that is going on on the ground. Right? So the truth is - is that either we tell each other stories that allow us to see each other as fellow travelers and humans or we have conflict and clash, and whoever gets the most power wins. And I would argue that, at its best, America's been able - with a pretty major exception in the Civil War - to try to make progress and perfecting the union without resort solely to violence, solely to power, that conscience and morality and values and shared sentiment have played a role in, you know, the civil rights movement, women getting the right to vote and the LGBT movement most recently.

And so there's always a danger of thinking that it's naive to think we can reconstruct a common story. I prefer that, though, to the cynicism that says there is no chance for us ever to reconstruct a common story. And I think this is part of the reason why we want to resurface some of these older conversations - remind ourselves, all right, here's the path we traveled; here's where we came from - because maybe that allows us a chance to get back to a place that is an inclusive common story about America.

CORNISH: Certainly, when you bring up the civil rights movement, LGBTQ movement, these are also movements that suffered major backlash, right? That's also part of this country's heritage. And this brings me to the song, "My Hometown."


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) In '65, tension was running high at 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) 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 a 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 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, you know, 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 in Bruce's, I guarantee you, 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, 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 more or all people are created equal because that's the horizon through - 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...

OBAMA: (Laughter).

CORNISH: And North Star and hope, right?

OBAMA: Well...

CORNISH: But 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 did talk about in the book is, you know, you get to the 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 I - 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: Bruce Springsteen and former President Barack Obama. They're the authors of a new book, "Renegades: Born In The USA." And one more thing - the pair actually signed on to do a video of the interview as well, so you can check out the video of this conversation at the link in our episode notes.



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