At the start of Marc Maron’s hour-long interview with President Obama in his newest WTF podcast, the comedian, despite having recorded over 600 episodes of the show, was clearly nervous about the superlatively high-profile guest. He even seemed to be breathing heavily. But Maron soon calmed himself sufficiently to pose some thorny questions for the President.
Recorded just two days after the shooting in Charleston, the wide-ranging interview frequently touched on the topic of race, with Obama asserting that racism is still a part of America’s “DNA” and discussing how the diminishing public presence of the N-word as a slur is no measure for whether or not racism, too, has diminished. He relatedly touched on gun control, and his frustrations with polarization and apathy in politics. Below are some highlights.
Obama said that it wasn’t enough to feel bad (regarding the Charleston shootings), and that there are actions to take:
One of those actions would be to enhance some basic common sense gun laws. This is unique to our country, there is no other advanced nation on Earth that tolerates multiple shootings and considers it normal.
He bemoaned the fact that gun sales spike after each tragic event, saying that gun manufacturers “make out like bandits,” due to a fear that the government is coming to take people’s guns away. Despite his frustrations, he put plain the reality of the situation:
I don’t foresee any real action being taken until the American public feels a sufficient sense of urgency and say to themselves, “This is not normal”…If you don’t have that public pressure, it’s not going to change from the inside.
Throughout the interview Obama seemed at pains to stress that progress is not instantaneous, but rather happens in “fits and starts.” Directly confronting race relations, he said:
It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly in my lifetime. What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, that casts a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA. We’re not cured of it… Racism, we are not cured of it. It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say “nigger” in public.
Maron questioned Obama on how he keeps his political nous in public and never boils over. After jokingly attributing it to his Hawaiian “element of chill,” Obama did admit to being close to boiling point:
Right after Sandy Hook, when 26 people are gunned down and Congress literally does nothing…Yeah, that’s…that’s the closest I came to feeling disgusted.
Obama discussed his first campaign, specifically the often-criticized “Hope” and “Change” posters, saying:
These capture aspirations about where we should be going… The question then is, how do you operationalize those abstract concepts into something concrete, how do we get somebody a job, how do we improve a school, how do we make sure everybody gets decent healthcare? As soon as you start talking about specifics, then, the world’s complicated.
He expressed his belief, which has grown during his presidency, that the American people are a lot more alike than they seem. The cause of the superficial ideological polarization? Well, everyone knows that already, but it’s nice to get clarification that the president does too:
There’s this big gap between who we are as a people and how our politics expresses itself. Part of it has to do with gerrymandering and Super PACs and lobbyists and a media that is so splintered that we’re not in a common conversation. The fact that if you watch Fox News you inhabit a completely different world with different facts than if you read the New York Times… there’s a profit for politicians and for news outlets for simplifying and polarizing.
Towards the end, Maron asked Obama about fatherhood, and the effect his late, abusive father — who was absent during his life — has had on him:
A lot of his craziness, I didn’t end up internalizing. I tell Michelle, one of our biggest jobs as parents is, “Let’s see if we can not pass on some of our craziness to our kids.” Let’s see if we can break the cycle… It was very important to me to be a good dad.