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BARACK OBAMA: Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Former President Barack Obama says he's only watched this speech once all the way through.
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OBAMA: I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
CORNISH: It's the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Obama was this young state legislator from Illinois. He was about to become a political star. In his new memoir "Promised Land," he points out the flaws in his performance - the parts where he talks too fast or too slow, the slightly awkward gestures of an inexperienced politician. But he also recalls the moments of electricity.
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OBAMA: Now, even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us - the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America.
OBAMA: There is not a Black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There's the United States of America.
CORNISH: From that moment, Obama's ascent thrilled millions of people and sparked fierce political opposition. In his new book, Obama reflects on those forces and how they played out during his first years in the White House. It's the first of two books he has planned. The second will cover his second term. And while this book centers on Obama's time in office, he's also speaking out about President Trump's pandemic response, the 2020 election and what he thinks Joe Biden and Kamala Harris' victory says about America right now.
OBAMA: I believe that they will restore a bunch of norms - respect for science, respect for rule of law - that I think have been breached over the last four years. But some of the bigger challenges in bringing the country together - that's going to be a project that goes beyond just one election.
CORNISH: Coming up, Barack Obama speaks to NPR. I'm Audie Cornish. It's Monday, November 16th.
It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR, and what you're about to hear is one part of former President Obama's conversation with NPR. You can read the full interview at the link in our episode notes. Now, Obama spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about "Promised Land," his new memoir, which tells the story of his political ascent through his first two years in office. They also spoke about this moment, the country he sees today.
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OBAMA: I think there's no doubt that the country is deeply divided right now. And you know, when I think back even to my own first presidential election in 2008, the country didn't feel this divided - what some people have called the great sort in which you have a combination of a political, cultural, ideological, in some cases, religious and geographical divide that seems to be deeper than just differences in policy.
A lot of that, I think, has to do with changes in how people get information. If you watch Fox News, you perceive a different reality than if you read The New York Times. And that didn't used to be as stark. And I think that, you know, until we can start having a common baseline of facts from which to discuss the direction of the country, we're going to continue to have some of these issues.
I am thrilled that Joe and Kamala have won. I believe that they will restore a bunch of norms - respect for science, respect for rule of law - that I think have been breached over the last four years. But some of the bigger challenges in bringing the country together - that's going to be a project that goes beyond just one election.
MICHEL MARTIN: As we are speaking now, President Trump is refusing to concede, and he's refusing to - even to cooperate with the transition. How do you understand that? What do you think that is? Some people are calling it a tantrum. Other people take it a lot more seriously. How do you understand it?
OBAMA: Well, I take it seriously. I don't think he'll be successful in denying reality. And you're starting to see a few Republican elected officials go ahead and say, look; Joe Biden has been elected, and we need to move on in the transition. I'm distressed that you haven't seen more Republican leadership make this clear because the amount of time that's being lost in this transition process has real-world effects.
Look. We're in the middle of a pandemic. We are in the middle of an economic crisis. We have serious national security issues. And as I describe, when I was elected, for all the differences that I had with George W. Bush, he and his administration could not have been more gracious and effective in working with us to facilitate a smooth transition. And my ability to get fully briefed on what was happening in Afghanistan and Iraq - that meant we hit the ground running and allowed us to be more effective in our responses. And so it is yet one more example of how Donald Trump's breach of basic democratic norms is hurting the American people.
MARTIN: I was struck in reading the book by the parallels of this moment with when you took office. Your first months in office were spent, as you said, focusing on economic recovery, H1N1 - remember that - developing the Affordable Care Act. And President-elect Biden starts with a similar set of challenges - a global health crisis, an economic crisis that flows from sort of that health crisis. He also has a similar commitment to being bipartisan. And as with your presidency, it does seem that there's an effort to deny him legitimacy.
MARTIN: And I think that the lesson that some people are going to draw from your experience is, don't do it. This idea of being bipartisan is a fool's errand and that the only thing that really works is expanding your base, keeping it fired up and trying to take it all. I mean, how do you respond to that?
OBAMA: I think it's fair to conclude from my experience in '08, '09, 2010 that we should always reach out to try to get bipartisan cooperation because the Democrats are not going to have a supermajority in the Senate. And so if you want to get some stuff done, Joe Biden is going to have to work with some Republican colleagues in the Senate. If you start getting a sense that it is just a pure power play, then you don't want to be Lucy and Charlie Brown where you just keep on kicking the football and not learning from experience that it's going to be pulled out from under you. But I think that there is a way to reach out and not be a sap.
MARTIN: What is it?
OBAMA: There's a way of consistently offering the possibility of cooperation. But recognizing that if Mitch McConnell or others are refusing to cooperate, at some point, you've got to take it to the court of public opinion. The issue, the challenge that I discovered in 2009, 2010 is that an obstructionist strategy oftentimes is not punished by voters in the polls because what really hurt us was Mitch McConnell, John Boehner discovered that they could block everything, throw sand in the gears and then were rewarded in the midterms. And so their attitude was, well, we're just going to keep on doing this. And they did it throughout my presidency.
MARTIN: What role did you play in that? Do you feel that you played some role in that? Is there something you would've done differently?
OBAMA: You know...
MARTIN: In the success of that - not in their decision-making that...
OBAMA: Yeah. When I...
MARTIN: ...But in the success of that strategy...
OBAMA: Yeah, when I look...
MARTIN: ...Being the party of no, as was so commonly said.
OBAMA: When I look back, in my first couple years in office, I think I had a unwarranted faith that if we did the right thing and implemented good policies, then people would know. And we didn't sell it hard enough. Now, part of it I have to cut myself and my team a little bit of slack. We had so much stuff coming at us at one time, right? We had the worst financial crisis in history. We had the banks about to go under. We had the auto industry about to go under. We had two wars. We still had a very active al-Qaida.
And so, as we used to call it, you know, we're drinking from a fire hose. And so we didn't have time to do a bunch of victory laps or carefully stage PR campaigns around what we did. So I guess one piece of advice that I would give Joe is there is no such thing as building a better mousetrap and people will suddenly show up. You have to constantly market and explain what you are doing. And we figured that out but a little bit later than we probably should have.
MARTIN: So a second volume is coming.
MARTIN: This volume ends with the raid on the bin Laden compound, where you, after a long effort by the U.S. military and at your direction, found Osama bin Laden. And he was killed in that raid. Why did you end there?
OBAMA: With bin Laden, what you have is not only was it an example of government at its most effective, cooperating across agencies to carry out a very difficult and dangerous operation, but it was also occurring at the precise same moment that the dominant news was around Donald Trump's assertion that I was not born in this country and him seizing on the birther movement.
I thought that that was a good place to end the first volume because it describes a choice that I think we have as a country, and that is, can we take the incredible dedication, cooperation, patriotism, focus that we applied in the bin Laden raid - can we take that and apply that to climate change? Can we take that to make sure that our economy works for everybody and not just a few, or are we going to continue to be pulled into this kind of reality TV, phony controversies and seeing these big issues as just a matter of sport? And we've got one team and the other team, and they hate each other, and we're just going to go at it. I place faith in this upcoming generation to make the right choice, but it is a choice that we're going to have to make.
CORNISH: Former President Barack Obama - he spoke to NPR's Michel Martin about his book "Promised Land." That was an excerpt. And you can read the transcript of the full interview at the link in our episode notes.
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CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.
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