The former president talks to People en Español about his new book, his family life, and his dream for the future of America.

Por Lena Hansen
Diciembre 14, 2020
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Barack Obama talked to People en Español about his new book A Promised Land, which debuted last month and sold 1.7 million copies in the U.S. and Canada in its first week out. The former American president, 59, also spoke about his family life, how he talked to his daughters about police brutality, and how he thinks the nation can begin to heal with Joe Biden in the White House.

What part of the book was the most challenging to write for you? What part gave you the greatest joy to share?  

I began writing this book shortly after the end of my presidency — after Michelle and I had boarded Air Force One for the last time and traveled west for a long-deferred break. Both of us were drained, physically and emotionally, by the work of eight long years, and we spent some real time together for a month. By the end of that month, I had a clear outline of the book in my head.

Sitting down to actually write it was a different story. I wouldn't say any particular part of the book was challenging to write. What is challenging, and what I often find the most rewarding challenge of writing, is trying to weave what might seem like several disparate stories into one coherent narrative. But in this case, I found my mind resisting a simple, linear narrative.

At the same time, outside events intervened — the erosion of our democratic safeguards, nationwide protests over the death of unarmed black men and women at the hands of the police, a pandemic that as of this interview has left more than 240,000 dead in America alone.

All that said, I'm proud of what I've written, and I hope it gives an honest accounting of my time in office and the political, economic, and cultural cross-currents that shape our world, and that it might inspire young people considering a life of public service as a way to make a difference.

As for the joy, Michelle and I tried to protect our girls from the glare of the public spotlight as much as we could while we were in the White House, but I had a lot of fun writing about some of the simple delights of life with them during those years. Those are some of my favorite parts of the book.

Credit: Shaniqwa Jarvis

After this election, regardless of its outcome, we will come out as a divided nation. How can we heal, move forward? During your presidency, you embodied hope and change. Where do you see us going now as a nation?  

What made me most hopeful about this election was that, under circumstances never experienced, Americans voted in numbers never seen — and I know Joe and Kamala are ready to meet this moment. Joe has a unique ability to empathize with folks, to bring people together across their differences. If there's anyone better suited to healing divides, I'd like to meet them.

Now, more broadly, if I remain hopeful, it's because I've learned to place my faith in my fellow citizens, especially those of the next generation. Their conviction in the equal worth of all people comes as second nature. For Malia and Sasha and their friends, our differences are something to celebrate. It's obvious to them.

Same goes for their approach to many of our biggest challenges: the justice system should treat everybody fairly, the economy should give everybody an equal chance, the climate is something we should fiercely protect. Their generation thinks it's absurd we don't just do these things. And they're right!

More than anyone, this book is for those young people — an invitation to once again remake the world, and bring about, through hard work, determination, and a big dose of imagination, an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us.

The current political climate has left many Americans feeling pessimistic — including politicians who are leaving politics. Are you still in the optimist's column? What do you say to people who feel disenfranchised?   

I am. I've seen too much not to be. I mean, my name's Barack Hussein Obama, and I made it to the White House — so I guess it's no surprise I've always been able to maintain a good sense of optimism.

What I know is that Americans are fundamentally good and generous. I've met so many people over the years on the campaign trail. I've read thousands of personal letters from them. And I've found that as long as I can keep their stories in mind, I stay hopeful — and that's held even through these past four years.

As we've seen our worst impulses revealed, we've also seen what we can be at our best. We've seen folks of every age and background pack city centers and town squares so that families wouldn't be separated. We've seen the Parkland kids lead us so that another classroom wouldn't get shot up. We've seen healthcare workers risk their lives day in and day out to save somebody else’s loved ones. We’ve seen Americans of all races joining together to declare that Black Lives Matter — no more, but no less.

Those folks — who look out at everything we face as a country and do the work to make it right — they're the reason I still believe our better days are ahead. But I also understand why people feel disenfranchised.

Look, as I said in my speech during the Democratic National Convention, in many ways, our political system is struggling. Rules have been set up and abused in Congress make it easy for special interests to stop progress. Believe me, I get it. I understand why a new immigrant might look around this country and wonder whether there's still a place for him here; why a young person might look at politics right now, the circus of it all, the meanness and the lies and crazy conspiracy theories and think, What's the point?

Well, here's the point: The people who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism. They know they can't win you over with their policies. So they're hoping to convince you that your vote, and your voice, doesn't matter. That's how they win.

And that's why we need to keep marching, keep speaking up, keep voting. And if you think it's too hard to bring about change today, remember that those who came before us had it a whole lot harder. If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans. Our ancestors. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work.

Credit: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

With the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others, and the ensuing civil unrest, the protests calling for police and social justice reforms, how have you spoken about this in your family, with your daughters? Do you see either one of them following in your or Mrs. Obama's footsteps as far as law and politics are concerned?  

I've got a lot of confidence that Sasha and Malia are going to make enormous contributions, but if I had to guess, I'd say it won’t be through an elected office. Now, you know, Malia is 22 and Sasha is 19, and 30 years from now, who knows what they'll be thinking? But right now, I'm just incredibly proud of the kind of human beings both of them have become.

Of course, like all of us, they have been following the protests around our country all year — and we have had conversations about all of it. My advice to them is the same as it is to all young people, which is that protesting — raising public awareness, putting a spotlight on injustice, making the powers that be uncomfortable — that kind of civil disobedience couldn’t be more important. Throughout our history, that has often been the only way to get the political system to pay attention to marginalized communities.

But eventually, I tell them, movements have to be translated into laws and policies — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands. Basically, my advice is to reject the false choice between participating in protests and politics. Do both!

Credit: Pete Souza/The White House

In the book you write about the DREAMers you've met and how they're actually less cynical than their native-born peers. Given the uncertainty and the anxiety they've been through over the past four years, that lack of cynicism has to be hard to maintain. What is your message to them today?

To stay focused on their own dreams, their own aspirations. To not get discouraged because the country needs you. As I write about, those young DREAM Act kids — many of them aren't kids anymore — occasionally I'll meet some who say to me, "When you passed your executive action that allowed me to stay without fear of deportation and get a driver's license, and go to college, you know, that made a difference in my life. And now I'm studying to be a doctor or I'm studying to be a lawyer." Or, you know, "I've got this entry-level job in a business that's making my family really proud." They are Americans in every way except a piece of paper. And as I write about, they are patriotic and eager to contribute. This is the reason I preferred passing a law over an executive action — why I held out and pushed as hard as I could to see if we could get an immigration reform law passed — because that's harder to reverse than executive actions.

But, I think the time will come when, when in fact, we will reform our immigration system and they won't be operating as much under the shadow of uncertainty as they're doing. But, as obviously the election of Donald Trump, and the fact that he actually got more Latino votes this time — substantially more this time than he did last time — indicates we've got to do some education and work on the ground in order for us to get an immigration reform bill passed. And the DREAMers' voices will be an important part of helping to move the body politic in the direction of doing the right thing there.

Do you envision a time there will be a Latino president, and what does that community need to do to make that happen?

There's no doubt that there will be a Latino president, at some point. It may be soon. It may be a decade from now, who knows? Already you've got incredibly talented Latino elected officials across the country in governorships and congress. I think as the Hispanic community becomes more active in its voting rights, as it becomes a plurality in many states, around the country, more and more talent will shine.

I think one thing that we've learned from this election is that it's important not to lump every Hispanic voter into one ideological box. Cuban Americans think very differently about many issues than Mexican Americans, which is different than Puerto Ricans, Colombians, or Venezuelans. So one of the lessons — not just of this election, but I think every election — is to listen and focus on the realities of these various communities where they live, and not just look at abstract data and make assumptions about how people are thinking about issues.

Because people are complicated. We all have a bunch of different identities. I am not just a black male Democrat, I'm a father, I'm a husband, I'm a basketball fan, I'm somebody who likes hip-hop and I like Frank Sinatra, and the same is true of all of us. One of the dangers I think of our current political moment is everybody feeling as if you have to align yourselves on one side or another on everything. People are more complicated than that and our politics should be more complicated that that.

To read the complete interview, look for the new issue of People en Español, now on newsstands.