Barack Obama Tells 'Fresh Air': Democracy Is 'Strained' Not 'Broken' In his first interview with Terry Gross, Obama talks about what he misses most about being president and reflects on the turmoil of the Trump White House. Obama's new memoir is A Promised Land.
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Democracy Is 'Strained' But Not 'Broken,' Former President Obama Tells 'Fresh Air'

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Democracy Is 'Strained' But Not 'Broken,' Former President Obama Tells 'Fresh Air'

Democracy Is 'Strained' But Not 'Broken,' Former President Obama Tells 'Fresh Air'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is President Barack Obama, who has fulfilled another of his post-presidency goals - to write his memoir. Volume one, titled "A Promised Land," was just published.

In the introduction, he writes, (reading) I confess that there have been times during the course of writing this book, as I've reflected on my presidency and all that's happened since, when I've had to ask myself whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it, too cautious in either word or deed, convinced as I was that by appealing to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature, I stood a greater chance of leading us in the direction of the America we've been promised. I don't know. What I can say for certain is that I'm not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America - not just for the sake of future generations, but for all humankind.

He goes on to wonder if our experiment in democracy can work, to see if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed. He writes, the jury is still out. The book begins with his youth and ends with him fulfilling one of his goals as president - killing Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011, in the third year of his presidency. We recorded our interview Tuesday afternoon.

President Obama, it is an honor to have you on our show. Thank you so much for coming.

BARACK OBAMA: It's great to be on, Terry.

GROSS: So I want to start by asking you, do you ever wake up thinking, I wish I still had the weight of the world on my shoulders?

OBAMA: (Laughter) I really don't. I tell my friends sometimes who ask me, wouldn't you have liked a third term or a fourth term, that I actually think it is a healthy aspect of our democracy that you get eight years at most, and then it's time for some fresh legs. If somebody asked me what aspects of the job I miss, I'd say the camaraderie of an amazing team. The policy work is fascinating.

I joke that if I could sit in some sweatpants and a T-shirt in my home office and relay information to a frontman (laughter) or a frontwoman who was doing all the pomp and circumstance and ceremonial stuff then, you know, I might enjoy doing a little more policymaking. But I think eight years gives you a good stretch of time to be able to get some stuff done.

GROSS: So getting back to the concerns you write about in the introduction about American democracy, do you think that President Trump has broken democracy, not just because of all the norms he broke, like refusing to concede and to give president-elect - and not to give President-elect Biden access to the funding and classified information that presidents-elect are supposed to receive, but he's also opened the door for another president or elected leader to do the same thing. He set a precedent that you can do this. Maybe he won't get away with it for much longer, but he's gotten away with it so far. And most of the Republicans in Congress said nothing or supported him.

OBAMA: Well, I think the last point you made is the one I'm probably most concerned about. Donald Trump is who he is, and even prior to his election, it was clear that he was going to behave in a certain way. It didn't get tempered by the presidency. What I was surprised by over the last four years is the complicity of other Republican elected officials and their unwillingness to call him when he was breaking norms or straining some of our democratic institutions.

I don't believe democracy's broken. We just had record turnout. We had an election in which, despite what the president's saying, you're seeing state officials run an orderly process and even Republican officials who are responsible for counting votes, doing so in a way that reflects their integrity. But there is no doubt that it's been strained.

GROSS: Donald Trump has made so many false statements, made so many baseless accusations, amplified so many conspiracy theories. For you, personally, it starts with birtherism, that you were born in Kenya, that you were constitutionally ineligible to be president. And posting your birth certificate, posting the newspaper clipping announcing your birth in Hawaii, wasn't adequate evidence to convince him or his followers that you were an American citizen born in Hawaii. To me, personally, following this when it happened, it seemed kind of ridiculous and silly at first. And then I started realizing, people are taking this seriously. A lot of people believe this. This matters.

What was that process like for you? Did it seem ridiculous and silly at first? And then did you realize that you had to take it seriously?

OBAMA: Yes, it seemed silly at first, it seemed silly in the middle, and it seems silly at the end. But despite initially treating it as a bad joke, what I was forced to acknowledge was that it was consuming time and energy and bandwidth on my staff and that, ultimately, I ended up having to address it directly in the White House briefing room, just to get it to stop so that we could get on with the business of discussing budgets and the Afghan war and other important issues.

And in this case, by the way - and this, I think, is important to note - it wasn't just the Fox Newses of the world or the Rush Limbaughs of the world that were amplifying this baseless and, ultimately, racist claim. It was mainstream media. I mean, some of the same folks who were very critical now of Donald Trump and have been critical throughout his presidency regularly had him on their show because he boosted ratings. And they thought, well, you know, this is a spectacle that attracts eyeballs.

And that was frustrating to me. And it gave me a sense of the danger of - you know, in this mass media environment, if somebody is willing and able to just consistently repeat a falsehood, particularly one that taps into maybe preexisting anxieties that certain segments of the American people feel, then it can end up getting traction. And the Internet's made it even worse.

GROSS: You know, you list some of the ridiculous claims about you that were made, and here's one I hadn't heard - that you'd been a gay prostitute. Like, where...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Where did that come from?

OBAMA: Well, but this is my point. It doesn't come from anywhere. It - what you saw early on in our campaign - and this precedes Donald Trump. This is why I say Donald Trump is - he's been an accelerant, but he didn't cause all this.

The original birther argument actually came from - traces back to a perennial eccentric right-wing candidate in Illinois when I was running for the U.S. Senate, years before I was president. It resurfaced during my presidential run in 2008, along with notions that I had been educated in a madrassas (ph) and that I had been a drug dealer and, you know, the one that you just mentioned. I - we had - at times during the campaign, we'd joke around and we'd list some of the latest conspiracy theories that were floating around.

I think what's changed is that that kind of hothouse of conspiracy theorizing, that paranoid style of politics in America - that's always been there. It's just that it wouldn't pop. What's changed is just that the barriers for that breaking out into mainstream sort of circulation, that started to - whatever those barriers were, those started to break down.

The guardrails broke down during the course of my presidency, partly driven by technology, partly driven by the realization by certain politicians that, you know what? We don't get punished if we don't tell the truth, that there's no sanction against us, that if there's a lot of noise - I mean, I think Steve Bannon explicitly said, we're just going to fill up the information pipeline with excrement (laughter), and it'll get very cloudy. It doesn't really matter whether, ultimately, what we're saying is disproven. It creates confusion and uncertainty in the minds of voters, and that's enough for our purposes of getting power.

GROSS: Yeah, you don't know what's true and what's false.

OBAMA: That's exactly right.

GROSS: So you write in the book that at one point during your presidency, when there were so many stressful things happening in terms of, you know, like, policy and also you were getting so, you know, smeared by the right - they were worried about you. And you said, why are you so worried? I'm not so stressed out. Why do you think I'm so stressed out? And Robert Gibbs, your first press secretary, said if you watched cable news, you'd be worried about you, too (laughter). And then you realized that people thought of you as the person that Fox News and other right-wing outlets was portraying.

Had you not been watching Fox? And did you not want to know? And did that change at any point during your presidency? Did you want to see what was being said about you?

OBAMA: I will say that I - for my own mental health - and I advised to my family members to follow the same practice - I just didn't watch broadcast news of any sort or cable news of any sort. Very rarely did I watch it.

But you're right. The reason that conversation was illuminating was it wasn't just on Fox. What happens is - I think that's in the chapter I call In The Barrel (laughter). And, you know, that was a phrase we used to use when the media narrative turned south and you are tumbling over the falls, in the sense that all the news is bad - you can't get out of this cycle of people thinking that you're inept, that you're politically wounded, that your allies stopped defending you quite as much, your enemies, you know, sense blood in the water.

And what happens is that, visually, the pictures that accompany the stories that are told about you on television start changing. And that's something I hadn't really noticed or realized 'cause look - television is a visual medium more than anything else. So, suddenly, I noticed that, you know, all the pictures that are being used of me are - I look really older and somber, and I'm more alone, whereas when things were going good, then I'm smiling, and I'm hugging babies and...

GROSS: You got dogs (laughter). Yeah.

OBAMA: ...Dogs running around. And, you know, life looks good. Birds are chirping over my head. Probably, there was a little bit of a disadvantage for me in not following as carefully what was going on on television. There would be moments during my presidency where there would be something I thought we were handling well, and yet my press secretaries or communications folks would have to come and say, listen - this is a problem. And I'd say, well, why? I don't understand. Actually, you know, we're doing everything we're supposed to do. And they were tracking how the media environment was telling the story.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is President Barack Obama. The first volume of his memoir has just been published. It's called "A Promised Land." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded Tuesday afternoon with our 44th president, Barack Obama. The first of his two-volume memoir has just been published. It's called "A Promised Land."

In the introduction to - in the preface to your memoir, which I read an excerpt of in our introduction, you talked about the questions you had about, you know, American democracy in this time, and you wondered if you were being, like, too cautious in word or deed when you were president. And I'm wondering if part of that was because if, as a Black man, you were - felt you had to be more cautious and not show anger to avoid sparking some Americans' fears of the stereotypes of an angry Black man - the kind of thing Key & Peele used to play on in their sketch about you.

OBAMA: Right (laughter). That was - which was one of the smarter sketches on comedy shows during my presidency. Look - I think there's some of that. You know, there's the famous story about why Jackie Robinson was chosen by Branch Rickey to be the first Black major league ballplayer, and it wasn't just because he was an outstanding baseball player; it was also because Rickey felt that Jackie Robinson had the temperament to keep his cool.

And there was probably some element in how I operated that just has to do with my temperament. I am not somebody who's quick to rise or gets too low. Some of that probably has to do with having been born in Hawaii. You know, you don't have a lot of reason to complain if it's 80 degrees and sunny and the beach is close by. And that's part of who I am. But part of it was, no doubt, a recognition that as a first - in this case, the first leader of the free world - that I had to get things right and that I had to make sure that when I spoke, I was reacting not out of emotion, but out of clear convictions and principles and that I was embodying the kind of responsible leadership that I had promised.

And that's probably why I write in the preface that there might have been times where I tamped down on what I was feeling in the moment in ways that, by the end of my presidency, I was less prone to do. I think this was partly a problem of the first couple of years, where I was much more embracing of a certain way of being president. And, you know, by the end of my presidency, I was like, look - I've been to this rodeo many times; I'm going to say, you know, whatever I think about certain things.

Now, I think that - going to the point of race, it wasn't as if there weren't reasons for me occasionally to bite my tongue. There was evidence, in fact, that when I did speak my mind, that there was always a price to pay.

GROSS: When you were a candidate in the primary, the presidential primary, you needed Secret Service protection. And, apparently, it's not typical to get Secret...

OBAMA: No, that was rare. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, that's a rare thing to get it that early. And I assume that was because of all the threats against you, many of which probably had something to do with the fact that you were a Black man - that you are a Black man.

Describe for us what it's like to suddenly be a target like that and to have - I mean, you describe that, you know, if you worked out - and this is when you're running for the - in the primary. If you worked out in a hotel gym, agents had to cover the windows with cloth to prevent a potential shooter from getting a sightline. There were bulletproof barriers inside your room when you slept there, including your bedroom at home in Chicago. I mean - and it wasn't just you. It meant - if this was at home, it meant, you know, your children had to be protected. You know, Michelle Obama had to be protected.

So tell us a little bit what it feels like to be a target like that and to know that your family is physically close to you while you are a target.

OBAMA: I think it's important to point out that any president is a target.

GROSS: But you weren't president (laughter). You...

OBAMA: Well, that's the difference, right? So once I'm president, then that's sort of par for the course. I think what was different was that I got Secret Service protection about two or three months into my candidacy, right? I was still a year and a half away from being president. And that does not normally happen, and it was because of the volume of threats directed against me coming - the amount incoming into our campaign was several factors higher than anybody else, than anything Secret Service had ever seen. It was on the back - it's in the back of your mind when you make the decision to run.

And, in fact, as I write, one of the recurring conversations we'd have in the African American community when I decided to run was people expressing fear, either to me or Michelle, about the potential danger to us. I mean, Black folks were - there were a lot of Black folks who were pretty sure that America is not going to have a Black person as president. And look - they had seen Martin Luther King shot. They had seen Malcolm X shot. There's - it's not as if there's not some history of violence directed at African American leaders. So I think there was a real sense of wanting to protect us.

Once you decide to run, though, you can't be carrying that around with you in your head at all times. And I was very grateful and continue to be for the incredible job that Secret Service did. Once Secret Service was around you, I had confidence that they knew what they were doing, and it wasn't something that I thought about on a day-to-day basis.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again here. If you're just joining us, my guest is President Barack Obama. The first volume of his memoir has just been published. It's called "A Promised Land." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded Tuesday afternoon with our 44th president, Barack Obama. The first of his two-volume memoir has just been published. It's called "A Promised Land."

When you became president, you were striving for bipartisanship. And then, of course, there's your famous 2004 keynote at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 in which you said, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is not a Black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America. There's the United States of America. Then you get elected president. And Mitch McConnell says, the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president. You write that he even told members of his caucus not to talk with you about - I think it was the stimulus bill, like, not to even talk with you. So much for bipartisanship.

OBAMA: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah. That didn't work out as well as I had hoped.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OBAMA: It was shocking to me that it happened so fast. And, you know, we're in a freefall economically when I come into office. Eight-hundred thousand jobs a month are being lost. The economy is actually contracting more quickly than it did during the Great Depression. And so the assumption was, well, let's act fast. And we go to Mitch McConnell and we go to John Boehner and others. And we ask them - look; we need to do this. We want your input. Tell us what provisions you want. Do you want tax cuts? Are there certain projects that you historically have supported that would help boost demand, like spending more on infrastructure, et cetera?

And I describe how on my way to meet with the Republican caucus before the vote, just as we're about to get in the car, David Axelrod, my communications director, and Robert Gibbs, my press secretary, come into the Oval Office and show this AP story where John Boehner, before I've even shown up to make the case to the caucus, says, Republicans are going to oppose all of Obama's proposals for stimulus. And what became clear at that point was this - as I say, I guess this thing is not on the level.

There wasn't even a pretense of let's negotiate, but rather a determination that it was going to be to their political advantage, knowing that the economy was going to probably keep on getting worse, not to be seen as being part of any solution. And what McConnell and Boehner figured out was that obstruction would work for them. And they could keep it up for as long as it took without a lot of shame about it.

GROSS: Well, speaking of obstruction - Merrick Garland. When you nominated Merrick Garland to be a Supreme Court justice, you had 10 months left in your presidency. And Mitch McConnell said, no. We have to let the American people decide. You know, the term is almost over. It's too late. And, of course, with Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed just days before the election, that was perfectly fine.

OBAMA: Yeah, I guess it's not on the level.

GROSS: Yeah. That is what...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That is what you said. What was it like for you to be watching that?

OBAMA: Well, look; here's the thing. You know, I came to realize, I'd say, six months into my presidency was that some of the old standards, some of the old norms, restraints, a sense of responsibility for governance, the idea of a loyal opposition that, you know, objects to certain policy proposals that the president may put forward but, nevertheless, feels some sense of shared duty to get things right for the American people, that most of that had broken down along party lines a while back. And Mitch McConnell was going to do whatever he could do legally even if it wasn't fair or consistent, even if it involved a complete 360 in policy.

GROSS: So we've talked a little bit about some of the things you wanted to get done but you couldn't because you were being obstructed. But so many things that you did get done were undone by President Trump - the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris peace accord, DACA, the DREAMers Act, ongoing - the ongoing attempts for years now to undo the Affordable Care Act. Its fate now rests with the Supreme Court. You know, the Republicans have pledged to end Obamacare for years. How have you dealt emotionally with watching some of your accomplishments as president get canceled and undone by the Trump presidency?

OBAMA: Twenty-three million people still have health care that didn't have it if we hadn't passed that law. And I actually believe - not because of any inside information but based on the arguments that were made before the Supreme Court - that this will be the last gasp of trying to undo it and that it will have been a permanent and beneficial expansion of health insurance to millions of Americans when all is said and done. One of the ways I came to think about the presidency was as a relay race. You get the baton. You run your race. Then you hand off the baton. And all you have control over is that portion of the race that you run.

And I could say unequivocally that the country was much better off by the time I finished my race than when I started. But you understand that in a democracy, some of the steps you take can be undone. Some of them end up having more of an impact than the laws alone would assume. That doesn't mean that you don't sometimes fume about, why are they doing this? You know, there have been repeated occasions - not just with Donald Trump but even during my presidency - where I would ask my Republican colleagues, all right, if this is not what you want, tell me what it is that you think we should be doing.

Give me your health care plan because, I promise you, if it's better, if it's cheaper (laughter) and it provides better coverage to people and it's more effective, I don't have pride of authorship, I will take your idea. And what became apparent over time was opposition to the idea or at least the author - in this case, me - rather than a particular policy outcome that they were looking for.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again here. If you're just joining us, my guest is President Barack Obama. The first volume of his memoir has just been published. It's called "A Promised Land." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SADE SONG, "CHERISH THE DAY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded Tuesday afternoon with our 44th president, Barack Obama. The first of his two-volume memoir has just been published. It's called "A Promised Land."

We're facing a really bad COVID winter. Some cities are shutting down virtually, including Philadelphia, where I live. You faced the H1N1 virus, which, you know, of course, wasn't as lethal or as contagious as COVID, but still a pretty potent virus. You dealt with Ebola. You worked on pandemic preparedness even when you were in the Senate. Were there safeguards and plans that your administration put into place to protect against the next pandemic that the Trump administration did not take advantage of?

OBAMA: Yes (laughter). No, I mean, I think it's pretty well known. We had set up a pandemic preparedness task force inside the White House, which involved various agencies. And they would do regular tabletop exercises to figure out how we're going to respond. We put together a pandemic playbook, which we actually gave to the incoming Trump administration, indicating, here are the steps that you need to take. And if, in fact, this ends up being an airborne virus that is highly contagious, then the steps that are going to need to be taken in advance of any development of a vaccine or any other kind of medical intervention is wearing masks, social distancing, so forth and so on.

We had, around the world, set up a global security program in cooperation with other countries so that when we saw a virus initially emerge, we'd have an early warning system. A number of the individuals that had - we had assigned and were in China had been pulled back. And the Trump administration had eliminated the task force that we had inside the White House and, apparently, never read the playbook. So look; as I've, I think, said publicly, any president would have had trouble with this pandemic. It is more virulent, more dangerous, more contagious than anything we've seen since the Spanish flu back in 1918.

Even countries that have managed it well have still seen significant outbreaks. But, you know, Canada's a pretty good example of what a administration or a government that is following the science and the recommendations of epidemiologists can accomplish. Canada's death rate per capita is about 39% of what ours is. And that is tens of thousands of people who would not be dead if we had been as effective as Canada was in dealing with this disease.

GROSS: With everything you've said and with your analogy to the relay race, still, it must be so - well...

OBAMA: Aggravating (laughter)?

GROSS: Yes. Thank you. Aggravating is a good word. Yes. How do you deal with all that aggravation?

OBAMA: Yes.

GROSS: Where do you channel it?

OBAMA: You work out a little harder (laughter) in the morning. You hit that treadmill a little tougher. One of the things that is a strength of mine - I think sometimes maybe people consider it a weakness because it frustrates them to see me not get more frustrated - is I tend to take the long view on things. And I try to remind myself that history does not just go forward. It goes sideways. It goes backwards sometimes. The path of progress is bumpy. And there are going to be setbacks. And, look; you know, the Civil War and the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments were followed by Jim Crow and the Klan and lynching. And that was horrific and heartbreaking.

That didn't negate the importance of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. It just meant that some bad stuff happens, but you keep on trying. And I think that's how I ended up feeling about what I got done during the presidency. I felt that we had advanced the causes that I care deeply about and that mattered to the American people. Not all of them were going to stick exactly the way I wanted. That didn't negate the importance of pushing to try to get that stuff done even in those areas where Donald Trump completely reversed course.

Now, look; do I occasionally curse when I'm reading the headlines over the last four years? Yes, I do. (Laughter) Have I had some venting or ranting on occasion with Michelle over the dinner table? Absolutely (laughter). I don't want to pretend like there haven't been moments where - and the same is true in the presidency. I mean, I try to show in this book that whatever may have looked like no-drama Obama didn't mean that there - I wouldn't be going back after the press conference or the public statement and figuratively kicking the chair over.

GROSS: So I want to ask you about the Black Lives Matter movement and the huge protests after the death of George Floyd in the hands of police. I think a lot of people are wondering, if you were president, how would you have handled it?

OBAMA: Well, this will appear more in Volume 2. But we had Ferguson and the tragedy of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and a series of deaths of Black men at the hands of police during my presidency - Tamir Rice, not a man but a child. You know, the challenge that I had when I was president is one that I think every president, no matter how much he cares deeply or she cares - hopefully, at some point, a she - cares deeply about this issue is going to confront, which is that our criminal justice system is primarily local. It's not primarily federal. And so you don't have all the levers that you'd want to change the system as rapidly as you'd hope. What we were able to do was - No. 1, and I think most importantly - set a tone, which is that, you know, we value good policing, but we recognize that there are times where this system is infected with racial bias, like every other part of our society. It's not a condemnation of all police, but it's a understanding of the truth of America and that it's important for all of us to do something about that. And that's the tone I tried to set.

GROSS: What went through your mind when you saw police attack protesters in Washington?

OBAMA: I was outraged. And it was an example of a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes America great and special and important and exceptional, and that is our ability to uphold ideals like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, not just as empty words but in practice, and that the president of the United States is sworn to uphold the Constitution and the various officers in government that are sworn to uphold the Constitution, that they abide by those ideals and values, even when it's not politically convenient for you to do so, even when you think it's wrongheaded.

And I think one of the most worrying things I saw during the course of this presidency were efforts - ultimately, I think, unsuccessful - to politicize our military, to politicize our criminal justice system. And, you know, the effort, I think, in this administration to rupture that core tradition that is vital to any democracy, I think, was one of the more troubling things that I saw.

The same to some degree applies to the Justice Department, right? You don't use the levers of our prosecutorial system to go after your political enemies. And that's obviously a lesson that we learned in spades during Watergate and a lot of these traditions of the White House staying away from prosecutorial decisions. You know, I was scrupulous, not sending signals to Eric Holder as my attorney general - later Loretta Lynch - about who they should prosecute, how they should prosecute, what cases they should take on, precisely because that's something, like our military, that should stand apart from the day-to-day political scrum that's politics in Washington.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again here. If you're just joining us, my guest is President Barack Obama. The first volume of his memoir has just been published. It's called "A Promised Land." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded Tuesday afternoon with our 44th president, Barack Obama. The first of his two-volume memoir has just been published. It's called "A Promised Land."

President Trump has tweeted that his attorney general, William Barr, should indict you for spying on the Trump campaign in 2016. Were you ever concerned that you actually would be indicted? And even if it was, like, the equivalent of a frivolous lawsuit, it would still be time-consuming and aggravating.

OBAMA: (Laughter) I was not worried about it, personally. On the other hand, various subpoenas that had been sent out by Republican House and Senate members in their various committees for ludicrous and unfounded fishing expeditions has caused some of my staff to spend time preparing for testimony that made no sense. It creates a climate of intimidation and lawlessness that was saddening. It wasn't because I was worried about my circumstance. Obviously, the notion that I was somehow like Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible" sort of...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: ...Rappelling down the face of Trump Tower to plant microphones was always pretty far-fetched. But it sets a tone, and that happened early on. But I want to emphasize that, again, the main difference between Donald Trump and some of the other Republicans that I portray in the book, it's more a matter of degree than of kind. Donald Trump is uninhibited and willing to say anything, even if it doesn't even sound plausible.

But you look at something like Benghazi, which I'll write about in the second volume, where a genuine tragedy in which our White House does everything to prevent, are heartbroken by - these are people that we worked with - that this becomes some weird conspiracy theory that continues throughout my second term and is subject to countless hours of hearings and investigations and testimony, and all of which at the end, the Republican investigators conclude was baseless - you know, that does damage to our ability to work together and does damage to our ability to make serious assessments about very real threats that are out there and that are preventable if we are cooperating and working together and doing our best to base our policy on facts and real intelligence and not just making stuff up.

GROSS: So just a couple of more questions. What I think is maybe the funniest moment in your book is your description that, during the Deepwater Horizon massive oil spill crisis, that Trump called David Axelrod to suggest that you put Trump in charge of plugging the well to stop the leak from continuing. And when Trump was told that the well was almost sealed, then he offered to build a beautiful ballroom on White House grounds, an offer you say that was politely declined. What did that tell you about him?

OBAMA: As I write about - and I think it's worth mentioning that Donald Trump doesn't appear in this book until the last chapter, effectively. He's not on my radar screen. I wasn't somebody who was regularly watching "Celebrity Apprentice."

GROSS: Although you were being regularly accused of being from Kenya.

OBAMA: Yeah, by that time. But, again, that's something that happens towards the end of this book. And when he makes this offer to take over (laughter) dealing with Deepwater Horizon, him taking on the whole birther thing hasn't happened yet. You know, it indicated a degree to which he had, I guess, an estimation of himself and a desire for attention that maybe was not entirely justified. How's that? (Laughter) I think that's a fair assessment. I've wondered sometimes, if we had let him build that ballroom, whether history might have gone differently.

GROSS: (Laughter) Which way? Which direction?

OBAMA: Yeah, who knows? The - I know that at the time, we weren't even redecorating the Oval Office, which traditionally you did. But since we're in the middle of the most severe recession since the 1930s, we decided I shouldn't be looking at furniture swatches when folks were trying to figure out how to hang on to their homes or their jobs.

GROSS: You confess in your book that as president you started smoking more, that you went from - what? - six to seven, eight, nine or 10 cigarettes a day. Now that you're not president and you don't have that as an excuse anymore (laughter), are you still smoking?

OBAMA: No, no, no. I - as I mentioned, I quit the day that health care passes.

GROSS: Oh, I missed that part. Really? You quit?

OBAMA: Yes. So the - so that was...

GROSS: Oh. Oh, good for you. It's so hard to quit.

OBAMA: Yeah. No, that was 10 years ago.

GROSS: Whoa. Good.

OBAMA: Yeah.

GROSS: Congratulations.

OBAMA: Now, I'm chewing the heck out of this Nicorette gum. And I leave these little packets lying around somewhere, and Michelle frowns when she sees them. But no, you know, I had made a commitment to stop. I had stopped on and off. The first tensions of the presidency, the first year, you see a little uptick. But then Malia was old enough. She started noticing - hey, daddy is - you know, am I smelling smoke on your breath? And then you're confronted with the choice, either you're lying to your daughter or you're setting a bad example, both of which were not acceptable.

So I made a pact with myself that as soon as we got health care passed, I would stop, which had some, you know, symbolic resonance. And, in fact, I did - stopped cold turkey. Haven't had a cigarette in 10 years.

GROSS: Congratulations. I really, really mean that.

OBAMA: Thank you.

GROSS: Mr. President, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been an honor to talk with you. I hope that you find the time to come back to our show when you publish your second memoir, the second volume (laughter).

OBAMA: I will make the same promise I made before the first one. You know, we'll get there.

GROSS: Oh, great. Thank you (laughter).

OBAMA: All right? I enjoyed it.

GROSS: All right.

OBAMA: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Be well. Thank you so much.

Barack Obama's new memoir is called "A Promised Land." We recorded our interview Tuesday afternoon.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like our interview with New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Lemann about the future of the Republican Party after Trump leaves the White House or with Gillian Anderson, who plays Margaret Thatcher in the new season of "The Crown" - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

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