Oprah Talks to Barack Obama
Note: This interview appeared in the November 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
The man whose name means "blessed" in Arabic is the son of a Kenyan father, Barack Obama Sr., and a white mother, Ann Dunham, from Kansas. The two met as college students in Hawaii in 1959 (Barack Sr. was the first African to enroll at the University of Hawaii), and two years later, when Ann was just 19, their child was born. At the time, miscegenation was still a crime in many states, and it was also unwelcome in Kenya. Under that pressure, Barack Sr. left the marriage when his son was just 2 years old and went to Harvard to pursue a PhD. Later, after he had returned to Kenya to work as an economist, Ann married an Indonesian man, and when Barack was 6, the family moved to a town outside Jakarta, where Maya, Barack's sister, was born. After four years, the family returned to Hawaii and Barack began corresponding with his father and trying to understand his African heritage. His father's death in a traffic accident in Nairobi in 1982 prompted Barack to travel to Kenya and meet the rest of his family for the first time.
Following his graduation from Columbia University, Barack attended Harvard Law School and became the first African-American president of its law review. In 1992 he married Michelle Robinson, also a Harvard-educated lawyer. The couple has two daughters: Malia, 6, and Sasha, 3.
Barack's autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, was published in 1995, when he was 33. The following year, he won a seat in the Illinois state senate, representing Chicago's poverty-stricken South Side. Still, Obama wasn't exactly a household name when he stepped into the race for the U.S. Senate last year. But then he won the primary with 53 percent of the vote and captured the attention of John Kerry, which landed him on the world stage for one of the most extraordinary speeches I've ever heard.
Oprah: There's a line in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman [a 1974 TV movie based on Ernest J. Gaines's novel] when Jane is holding a baby and asking, "Will you be the One?" While you were speaking, I was alone in my sitting room cheering and saying, "I think this is the One."
Barack: That's so nice. I think I'm one of the ones. I fight against the notion that blacks can have only one leader at a time. We're caught in that messiah mentality. As a consequence, a competition is set up. Who's the leader of the Korean-American community or the Irish-American community? The reason we don't know the answer is that they've got a collective leadership—people contributing in business, culture, politics. That's the model I want to encourage. I want to be part of many voices that help the entire country rise up.
Oprah: How do you define yourself as a leader?
Barack: Though I'm clearly a political leader now, I didn't start as one. I was skeptical of electoral politics. I thought it was corrupting, and that real change would happen in the grass roots. I came to Chicago [after college graduation] to work with churches organizing job-training programs. I thought the way to have an impact was through changing people's hearts and minds, not through some government program. So I did that for three and a half years, went to law school to become a civil rights attorney, then wrote a book.
Oprah: You were so young when you wrote Dreams from My Father. Why did you decide to write a memoir at 33?
Barack: I had the opportunity. When I was elected president of the Harvard Law Review, people were willing to give me money to write. That's a huge luxury. I thought I had something interesting to say about how our cultures collide as the world shrinks. My family's story captures some of the tensions and evolution and crosscurrents of race, both in this country and around the globe. One of the contributions I thought I could make was to show how I came to terms with these divergent cultures—and that would speak to how we all can live together, finding shared values and common stories. Writing the book was a great exercise for me because it solidified where I'd been and set the stage for where I was going.
Oprah: When did you first realize that you were a little black kid? Was it the incident you wrote about, in the seventh grade, when someone called you "coon"?
Barack: Because I grew up in Hawaii and then lived in Indonesia for a while, I understood my affiliation to Africa and black people from an early age, but only in positive terms. I became aware of the cesspool of stereotypes when I was 8 or 9. I saw a story in Life magazine about people who were using skin bleach to make themselves white. I was really disturbed by that. Why would somebody want to do that? My mother had always complimented me: "You have such pretty brown skin."
Oprah: In the book, you eloquently describe what it's like to be out playing basketball and talking about "white folks," then coming home to the white folks you lived with—the people who loved and cared for you. That must have been confusing.
Barack: It was. One of the things I fell prey to during my teen years was this need to separate myself from my parents and grandparents and take on this macho African-American image of a basketball player talking trash. The other day, somebody asked me, "Why do you think you ended up embracing all the stereotypes? You tried pot, coke." Back in the seventies, we had Shaft and Superfly or Flip Wilson and Geraldine. If you had to choose between those, it was pretty clear which direction you'd go. But you're right: As a teen, I had this divided identity—one inside the home, one for the outside world. It wasn't until I got to college that I started realizing that was fundamentally dishonest. I knew there had to be a different way for me to understand myself as a black man and yet not reject the love and values given to me by my mother and her parents. I had to reconcile that I could be proud of my African-American heritage and yet not be limited by it.
Oprah: That's now my favorite Barack Obama quote! There's another line you delivered in your speech at the convention that still resonates with me: "Children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." I stood up and cheered when you said that.
Barack: That's something I went through personally. Bill Cosby got into trouble when he said some of these things, and he has a right to say things in ways that I'm not going to because he's an older man. But I completely agree with his underlying premise: We have to change attitudes. There's a strain of anti-intellectualism running in our community that we have to eliminate. I'm young enough to understand where that opposition culture, that rebellion against achievement, comes from.
Oprah: Where does it comes from?
Barack: Fear—at least for me and a lot of young African-Americans. There's a sense in which we feel that the only way to assert strength is to push away from a society that says we're not as good. It's like: Instead of trying to compete, I'm going to have my own thing, and my own thing may be the streets or rap music.
Oprah: Do you think we've lost the belief that we can succeed? I was talking with Skip Gates [Henry Louis Gates, scholar of African-American history and culture], and he was saying how ironic it is that our parents believed that their little nappy-headed boys and girls could grow up and be somebody if they worked twice as hard.
Barack: We no longer operate that way, but we should be working twice as hard, because we still have challenges and barriers other communities don't have.
Oprah: Let's go to the night of the 2004 Democratic convention. How were you chosen to deliver the keynote speech?
Barack: We won our primary in a way that shocked people. In a seven-person field, we got 53 percent of the vote. People's assumption had been that if I won, I'd get 90 percent of the black vote, then maybe a little of the liberal white vote. We did win the black vote by 90 percent, but we also won the white vote—both on Chicago's South Side and up north. That created a sense of hopefulness among Democrats. I debunked this notion that whites won't vote for blacks. Or suburbanites won't vote for city people. Or downstate Illinois won't vote for upstate Illinois. That was the bedrock of my campaign: People may look different, talk different, and live in different places, but they've got some core values that they all care about and they all believe in. If you can speak to those values, people will respond—even if you have a funny name.
Oprah: When I was working at a news station in Baltimore, the manager wanted me to change my name to Suzie. He said, "Nobody will ever remember Oprah."
Barack: I was told, "People will remember your name and won't like it." You can have one African name, but not two. You can be Barack Smith or Joe Obama—but not Barack Obama.
Oprah: I loved reading where you said, "People don't know whether it's Osama or Yo' Mama."
Barack: Alabama, Bahama, or Barama.
Oprah: I think the name is working for you now.
Barack: Absolutely. Yours turned out okay for you, too. So anyway, John Kerry came to town for an event a few weeks after the primary. He and Teresa and I were all sitting at the same table, and I gave a speech before he did—and I can talk pretty good! [He and Oprah laugh.]
Oprah: When did you know that about yourself? I've known since I was 3, when I was speaking in church.
Barack: I didn't grow up in a setting where I had a lot of formal training, but I always knew I could express myself. I knew I could win some arguments. I knew I could get my grandparents and mom frustrated! Anyway, because of the five-minute speech I gave at the Kerry event, he thought it would be good for me to speak at the convention, but I didn't know in what capacity. About two weeks before the convention, I was asked to give the keynote address.
Oprah: I remember the first time I got called to do The Tonight Show. I was like, "My God—Johnny Carson!" We were jumping on the tables. The convention was your Johnny Carson moment. Did you dance a little hula?
Barack: I said, "This will be big."
Oprah: Did you start thinking about what you'd say?
Barack: The best move I made was to begin writing the speech that night. After I'd scribbled some notes, I wrote it in about three nights and sent it to the Kerry staff.
Oprah: It was really smart to write it when it was flowing and hot.
Barack: Exactly. By the time the speech had been edited for length, I was no longer particularly nervous. I was just making sure I didn't get up on the podium, open my mouth, and have nothing come out.
Oprah: Did you rehearse?
Barack: It turned out that there was a mock podium backstage where I could practice. I'd never used a teleprompter before.
Oprah: No? Get out!
Barack: I usually speak extemporaneously.
Oprah: Well, the speech was perfection.
Barack: I appreciate that.
Oprah [to Barack's wife, Michelle]: Were you nervous for him?
Michelle: We're pretty low-key, but I was on the edge of my seat. He's a terrific speaker; he delivers in so many high-pressure moments. My question was: Will he really knock it out of the park? When he walked out onstage, all those OBAMA signs went up, and we just felt the energy of people being with us. That's when I was like, "Yes, he's going to do this."
Oprah: You could feel it. Barack, during the speech, there was a moment when you locked in and got your rhythm. I said, "He's gone!"
Barack: And it's in that moment that you know it's not just about you. It's about the audience and their energy and their story being told through you. The news coverage was very flattering. But the best sign came when we were walking down the street in Boston and the hotel doormen and the cops and the bus drivers were saying, "Good speech."
Oprah: That's when you know you hit the ball out of the park and it's still flying.
Barack: It's when you know you've gone beyond the political insiders.
Michelle: And that obligatory "You did a good job."
Barack: When we came back, we went on a downstate RV tour—39 cities, five days.
Michelle: With the kids.
Oprah: Isn't politics fun?
Barack: Even in conservative Republican counties, 1,200 people would just show up at 9 on a Sunday morning.
Oprah: Did that response solidify your message?
Barack: It confirms the instincts that got me into politics. I believe the American people are decent people. They get confused sometimes because they get bad information or they're just busy and stressed and not paying attention. But when you sit down and talk with them, you're struck by how tolerant and loving they are.
Oprah: Most people honestly want to do as well as they can in their lives.
Barack: Exactly. They've got their struggles and heartaches, but they're basically good.
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...
Oprah: And the politicians themselves. That's why you didn't want to be one.
Barack: When I speak, the first thing I confront is people's cynicism. I understand it. It seems like politics is a business and not a mission. Some of our leaders have been long on rhetoric, short on substance—power is always trumping principle. That's why we withdraw into our private worlds and lives, and we think politics can't address the things that are most important to us. But the civil rights movement was a political movement. The movement to give women the vote was political. We are all connected as one people, and our mutual obligations have to express themselves not only in our families, not only in our churches, not only in our synagogues and mosques, but in our government, too.
Oprah: How do you actually get people to be more empathetic?
Barack: Your story about South Africa was terrific. Images, actions, and stories always speak the loudest. That's why I see my book as part of my politics. And I'll write more books. Policy has to be guided by facts, but to move people you have to tell stories.
Oprah: You think you'll have time to write more books?
Barack: I wrote the first one while I was getting married and running a voter registration project. I'll find time.
Oprah: There was a moment during the eighties, after I'd come to Chicago and my show had been national for a while, that I just felt like all the planets had lined up for me and it was my moment. Do you feel that for yourself?
Barack: There's been an interesting confluence of events over the last year that have Michelle and me looking at each other and talking.
Michelle: We're clear on the fact that we have to stay humble and prayerful. We have to dig down deep to our roots. When things come together, we know some of it is Barack, some of it is us—but a lot of it has nothing to do with either of us.
Oprah: When your opponents fall by the wayside based on scandal you didn't create...
Barack: It's an interesting moment. It makes me feel that much more determined and that much more responsible. It makes me think I've got to make sure that I don't...
Michelle: ...screw it up.
Oprah: When I had the same moment, I literally went to my knees. You're either humble or you're not. If you were a jerk before the fame, you just become a jerk with a bigger spotlight. Whoever you are really comes through.
Barack: This platform is an enormous privilege. And it's not for me. It's for the people I meet in these little towns who have lost their jobs, don't have healthcare, are trying to figure out how to pay for their child's college education, are struggling and occasionally slipping into bitterness. It's not easy solving these problems. There are big global issues—the shift in the economy, the decline in manufacturing, the threat of terrorism, and complicated healthcare concerns. There will be conflicts and difficulties, and I don't pretend that everybody is going to agree with me all the time.
Michelle: I would want Barack as my senator. I know this man. He is brilliant, he is decent, he is everything you'd want.
Oprah: How important a role does your family play?
Barack: They're everything.
Oprah: When I heard you deliver your primary speech, I actually believed you when you thanked your wife. You're right: She has held this family together.
Barack: I love this woman. We've had our rough patches...
Michelle: There were many...
Barack: The best quote so far in the campaign was in The New Yorker. The interviewer sat down with Michelle and said, "This must really be tough." She said, "This is crazy. He's never home, the schedule's terrible, and I'm raising two kids and working." Then Michelle pauses and says, "That's why he's such a grateful man."
Oprah: That's great.
Barack: The hardest thing about the work I do is the strain it puts on Michelle, and not being around enough for the kids. Then there are the financial worries after you've come out of Harvard Law School...
Michelle: It's Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia combined.
Barack: So there's a lot that my family has had to sacrifice.
Oprah: What's a day like for you? How often are you away from home?
Barack: I've had 10 days off in the last three years, and that includes weekends. My workdays are often 16 hours.
Michelle: And more people are making requests for his time.
Oprah: How do you decide what to do?
Barack: That has gotten harder. If you don't show up, people feel hurt. You get this beautiful letter from a school in South Carolina, and the teacher writes, "These kids would be so inspired if you came."
Oprah: My letters start out with, "Dear Oprah, we know you love children..."
Barack: Right now I still have an excuse: I haven't been elected yet. After the election, handling the requests will require discipline. That's how Michelle has been a rock for me. She supports me by being a corrective. My instinct is to do everything. I don't want to disappoint anyone. Michelle is a little more sensible.
Oprah: Somebody has to say "Enough!"
Michelle: The first people we don't want to disappoint are our kids. Barack is a great father. Even when he's away, he calls every night. People will suck you dry, and they don't think about the fact that you have two kids. He has to go to the kids' ballet events and their parent-teacher conferences. And he enjoys that.
Barack: One of the wrestling matches I'm always having with my staff is getting my kids' events onto the schedule. I have to make sure they understand that's a priority.
Michelle: Now, if people can't get Barack to speak, they're like, "Michelle can come. She seems nice and smart, too." But I can't be gone every night. And I can't do something every Saturday from now until election day—that's when we go to the park or on playdates. It's up to the staff to figure out which Saturday they want me to do something, because there will be just one. My desire is to make sure that my kids are sane, happy, and healthy—which they are.
Oprah: At this point in the campaign, are you excited?
Barack: I think we'll win as long as we stay focused and don't get complacent. We have to continue to work hard. But I want to do more than just win. I want to win in a way that sustains the hopefulness we've carried since the primary. Not engaging in negative attacks, not being dragged into the mud. Steady. That kind of politics is harder, not easier.
Oprah: When you had that guy [a tracker from Barack's opponent's campaign who was following Barack everywhere] in your face every day, how could you not punch him?
Barack: Michelle will tell you that I generally have an even temper.
Michelle: If I had been there, I would've punched him! [Michelle laughs.]
Barack: Initially, I tried to talk with him. I said, "Listen, I don't mind you following me, but please be 15 feet away. I'm on the phone with my wife." He would plant himself in front of our office...
Michelle: ...and then chase you into the bathroom.
Barack: Well, he wouldn't actually go into the bathroom. He'd stand outside and watch me come out.
Oprah: God don't like ugly.
Barack: Those slash-and-burn tactics have become the custom in Washington politics. But we will not play that game. People don't want to hear folks shouting at each other and trying to score political points. They want to solve problems. I'm determined to disagree with people without being disagreeable. That's part of the empathy. Empathy doesn't just extend to cute little kids. You have to have empathy when you're talking to some guy who doesn't like black people.
There's a level of viciousness in politics because power is at stake. Fortunately, most of my past mistakes are ones that people already know about. That's one of the nice things about writing a book.
Oprah: I'm surprised you were so candid about having used drugs.
Barack: I think the biggest mistake politicians make is being inauthentic. By writing about my mistakes, I was trying to show how I was vulnerable to the same pitfalls as American youth everywhere.
Oprah: Right. Is there anything about Washington that frightens you?
Barack: The things that concern me have to do with my family. I want to make sure we're spending enough time with one another and drawing a circle of common sense around what can be a very artificial environment. That's where I rely so much on Michelle.
Oprah: What do you know for sure?
Barack: I know that I love my family. I know that people are fundamentally good. I know that, in the words of Dr. King, "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." I know that there is great suffering and tragedy in the world, but ultimately, it's worth it to live.
Oprah: Do you think you'll be the first black president?
Barack: A bunch of people have started talking about that. Listen, if you're in politics, at a certain point you think about where to take your career. But at this stage, it's way too premature. Politics is a marathon. So many things can change. You can't plan 12 years ahead. But what I will say is this: We can win the race we're in now. I think I have the aptitude to be a terrific United States senator. And if, at the end of my first term, the people of Illinois say, "This guy's been serving us well," then I'll be in a strong position to have a lot of influence in this country for a long time to come—whether or not I'm president.