Oprah: What do you want to do with your politics?
Barack: Two things. I want to make real the American ideal that every child in this country has a shot at life. Right now that's not true in the aggregate. Of course, lightning can strike, and someone like you or me can do well. But so many kids have the odds stacked so high against them. The odds don't have to be that high. We can be sure that they start off with health insurance, that they have early childhood education, that they have a roof over their heads, and that they have good teachers. There are things we can afford to do that will make a difference. Part of my task is to persuade the majority in this country that those investments are worth it, and if we make better choices in our government, we can deliver on that promise.
For my second and companion goal, I'm well situated to help the country understand how we can both celebrate our diversity in all its complexity and still affirm our common bonds. That will be the biggest challenge, not just for this country but for the entire planet. How do we say we're different yet the same? Of course, there will be times when we'll argue about our differences, but we have to build a society on the belief that you are more like me than different from me. That you know your fears, your hopes, your love for your child are the same as what I feel. Maybe I can help with that because I've got so many different pieces in me.
Oprah: I think you're uniquely situated at this time. You know what? When I went to Africa with Christmas gifts, my prime goal was to show African children as happy and responsive and loving so that people could see, "Oh, these children are just like my children." When people see children with distended bellies and flies on their eyes, they block it out and don't relate. When I got an e-mail from a white South African lady saying, "For the first time, I realize these children have birthdays," I thought, "We won."
Barack: That's great. I often say we've got a budget deficit that's important, we've got a trade deficit that's critical, but what I worry about most is our empathy deficit. When I speak to students, I tell them that one of the most important things we can do is to look through somebody else's eyes. People like bin Laden are missing that sense of empathy. That's why they can think of the people in the World Trade Center as abstractions. They can just crash a plane into them and not even consider, "How would I feel if my child were in there?"
Oprah: We Americans also suffer from an empathy deficit, because we often feel that the woman in Bosnia or Afghanistan who loses her child is somehow different from us.
Barack: They become abstractions.
Oprah: Would you define what you're doing as a new kind of politics? I don't consider myself political, and I seldom interview politicians. So when I decided to talk with you, people around me were like, "What's happened to you?" I said, "I think this is beyond and above politics." It feels like something new.
Barack: I hope it's new. Many of the moments that become "history" happen when politics expresses our deepest hopes. Both of us grew up in a time when there were so many reasons to be cynical: Watergate, Vietnam…