Obama Troubled GOP Won't Acknowledge Biden's Win Over Trump : The NPR Politics Podcast The NPR Politics team talks through big moments from NPR's sit-down with former president Barack Obama.

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Obama Is Troubled More GOP Leaders Won't Acknowledge Biden's Win

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Obama Is Troubled More GOP Leaders Won't Acknowledge Biden's Win

Obama Is Troubled More GOP Leaders Won't Acknowledge Biden's Win

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  • Transcript

JOEL HENDERSON: It's Joel Henderson (ph) in Gatineau, Quebec. I'm just cooking supper as I always do whilst listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. Tonight will be ham and scalloped potatoes and braised carrots. This podcast was recorded at...


That sounds nice. It's 1:34 Eastern on Monday, November 16.

HENDERSON: Enjoy the show.


AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Scallops - did he say scallops? That does sound nice.

DETROW: Or was it scalloped potatoes, which are also nice? Either way...

RASCOE: Either way is nice. I might have misheard, but I like either of those.

DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I'm covering Joe Biden.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: And I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

DETROW: So we've got, at the moment, an outgoing president who refuses to acknowledge that fact. We have an incoming president with a full government to form. Today we're not going to talk about either of those. We're going to talk about a whole different president, a third president - former President Barack Obama. He has a new memoir out this week, which means he sat down with NPR's Michel Martin for a long interview about what's going on right now and also what he made about his time in the Oval Office. So shall we rewind the clock and talk about Barack Obama for a little bit?

KEITH: Yeah, though I'm pretty sure that Barack Obama is going to talk about President Trump and Joe Biden.


DETROW: Which leads us to the first clip of the interview that we will listen to and talk about. In fact, like the excellent interviewer she is, Michel started off the interview saying, hey, former President Barack Obama. What do you make of the fact that Donald Trump continues to refuse to concede? And she asked about it because such a big theme of Obama's memoir is Republican obstructionism.


MICHEL MARTIN: As we are speaking now, President Trump is refusing to concede, and he's refusing 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?

BARACK 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.

DETROW: Obama is talking about Republican leadership definitely not disputing what President Trump is saying, kind of saying, well, he has a right to say it. What's the latest there?

KEITH: So I think that it is fair to say that Republicans in Congress are largely doing what Republicans in Congress have been doing for much of the Trump presidency, which is - some are completely, wholeheartedly backing President Trump and whatever he says and tweets. And a lot of them are doing the ostrich routine and just keeping their heads down and hoping that somehow, eventually, this will end.

And what you have is President Trump - well, on Sunday, he almost seemed to admit that Joe Biden had won but then, like, an hour and a half later, tweeted, no, I am not conceding, not at all. That was not a concession. So he's really holding on to this idea that it was rigged, he's been robbed, and he's going to win somehow eventually, even as the votes will soon be certified in a number of states and already have been certified in some states.

DETROW: Well, Obama, talking to Michel, says that, you know, he worries about real-world effects. Ayesha, what are some of those effects that we've been seeing start to play out?

RASCOE: There's a big concern about when it comes to health care. And you saw Ron Klain, who will be, you know, President-elect Biden's chief of staff. And he said that this is an issue with the pandemic, this idea that they're not able to, you know, go into these agencies and talk to anyone at the agencies. They can't, you know, talk to people about vaccine distribution - all this stuff that you would want to do and really hit the ground running.

There's also concern about national security, that transitions can be a perilous time. And that's why, you know, you want to give the incoming president security briefings, have people working together so that you don't have any gaps in knowledge that people who want to do the U.S. harm could take advantage of.

DETROW: You know, one thing Obama has mentioned as he does this round of interviews is that for all of his disagreements - I mean, he ran his entire presidential campaign being the anti-George W. Bush. Iraq was such a huge issue in that presidential campaign. And yet they had a very smooth transition. A lot of people have, like, pointed to the pictures of George Bush's daughters showing Obama's daughters how to, like, slide down a ramp in the White House, you know? But I think one tension point in this memoir, from what we've seen so far and that he talks to us a lot about, is this idea that he would repeatedly try to reach out to the Republican Party, and they would have no interest in reciprocating. And Joe Biden seems to be taking the same stance right there. And Obama seems to be saying that was kind of a mistake, but it was kind of not a mistake.


OBAMA: 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 is 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.

DETROW: That feels like a subjective line, though. And I wonder - I mean, a large part of the Democratic primary was some portions of the Democratic Party saying often, Obama had the wrong instincts there.

RASCOE: And, you know, I mean, I think that there is a question of, are we past the time in this country where you're going to get these big bipartisan measures? You know, is that even a way that you can govern? You know, Obama did say later on in that interview that he thought that the public might punish Republicans for obstructionism, but they weren't. Like, that's - so they were able to keep doing it because they weren't. So when - so even when he says take it to public opinion, the public doesn't seem to much mind if politicians don't work together.

DETROW: And I think this whole conversation is kind of interesting to think about. I actually just did a story talking to, you know, several Obama alums - Rahm Emanuel and Denis McDonough, two of his most high-profile chiefs of staff, who made the argument that Joe Biden can and should really lean on executive orders and executive actions to get his agenda done, arguing that, sure, Obama did it, but Trump did it even more, especially when his party controlled Congress, and that Biden should just do what he's going to do in the executive branch. And if Congress doesn't want a deal, that's fine.

KEITH: Yeah. And I mean, like, when Obama did it at the end of his presidency, Republicans were outraged. When Trump did it immediately and throughout his presidency, Democrats were outraged. And yet, you know, if Biden's going to accomplish his ambitious agenda or even part of it - you're talking to people who are telling you he's going to have to do it, too. And, like, maybe the presidency has changed and the relationship between the presidency and Congress has changed even since Obama - the early part of the Obama administration, which is the part that's covered in this book.

DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, more from NPR's interview with former President Barack Obama.

We're back. And another big theme out of this interview is about what President Obama's time in the White House meant for race in this country and how what happened afterwards - President Trump moving into the same building - you know, changed Obama's view on that.


OBAMA: What did happen during my presidency was, yes, a backlash among some people who felt that somehow I symbolized the possibility that they or their group were losing status not because of anything I did, but just by virtue of the fact that I didn't look like all the other presidents previously. But you know what? You had a whole generation of kids who grew up not thinking it was weird or exceptional that the person who occupied the highest office in the land was Black.

KEITH: And for much of his presidency, President Obama, the first Black president, seemed to try to deemphasize race or not talk about it that much, though later in his presidency, toward the end, as the Black Lives Matter movement was growing, he certainly stepped out more. But he - you know, as a candidate and early in his presidency, he seemed to really resist having that race conversation.

DETROW: And one of the things that he said to Michel and writes about - and this is one of those things that, to me, just feels like such a different universe than the one we live in now. He talks about the fact that the moment his polls dropped the most was when he weighed in on - remember when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was wrongfully briefly arrested at his own house? He had a confrontation with a cop. Obama criticized...

KEITH: There was a beer summit.

DETROW: Yeah, Obama criticized him in that beer summit - was him and Joe Biden doing cleanup because he saw his numbers just drop with a lot of white Americans who were horrified at the idea of him weighing in on the matter of policing and race, even though he did it in a much more thoughtful way than President Trump has weighed in in a lot of current events, you know, to put it that way. But Obama says that that was a moment where he realized that it was a fraught issue for him to wade into.

RASCOE: Because of the issue of policing - and I think that was the moment where he said that the issue of policing in particular and the racial implications of it - that was something that I guess he realized. And I would see even later on, you know, when I covered him in that last year of his presidency, there were Black men who were killed by the police, and he was speaking out about it. And there was all of this turmoil. But he was always trying to walk this line between saying, yes, Black lives matter. I - you know, I understand that. Yes, police can - you know, there is police brutality, but I think most police officers are, you know, trying to do the best that they can. But regardless of what he said, you - his critics always said that he was stirring up a race war. And for those on the left who were critical of him, they always felt like he was being too cautious and too careful and that he wasn't doing enough.

DETROW: And let's end on that note because Michel really pressed Obama on this one point because Obama seems a little, like - I mean, as much as he benefited from it a lot, he seems a little uncomfortable with the idea of, like, a president as, like, a personality-defining lifestyle brand that people rally so much of their lives around, which we've seen in different ways. And she asked him how that deescalates, how you walk off that ramp that we've gone down.


MARTIN: You tried to not make yourself the center...

OBAMA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Of everything. And you are telling us that that didn't work.

OBAMA: Well, you know, I think part of it is investing more in getting folks to pay attention downstream. Look. There's a reason why a big emphasis of my foundation, the work that I really want to be doing for the next 20 years, is investing in the next generation of leadership. That's where a lot of the change is going to happen. One of the reasons is - and I've done a lot of work with some of the activists reminding them the vast majority of criminal law is state law.

KEITH: Of course, one of the great criticisms of him, which he seems to, at least on some level, acknowledge, is that he was not able to help Democrats win state legislatures or win down-ballot. And as a result of that, you know, redistricting and all of these other things continue to give Republicans more power than - in many states than Democrats, despite populations.

DETROW: Yeah. All right. Well, you can listen to the full interview on NPR.org. There's a transcript up as well. That is it for today. We'll be back in your feeds tomorrow with more on this transition and, you know, whatever else happens.

I'm Scott Detrow. I cover Joe Biden.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

KEITH: And I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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