Barack Obama admits the “birther” conspiracy irritated him.
While speaking with Oprah Winfrey on The Oprah Conversation, the former president addressed the long-running false claims — perpetuated by his successor, Donald Trump — that he wasn’t born in the United States and therefore shouldn’t have been allowed to be president, which started during his 2008 campaign for presidency and continue to this day, despite being debunked many times over.
Obama talked about how as he was getting elected president, there was a shift in the way information had long been disseminated. Once vetted and curated by a few buttoned up news organizations — The New York Times, the Washington Post and network news programs with trusted figures like Walter Cronkite — the media “scatters into a million different pieces.” And, on top of that, social media emerged. As a result, “people are just absorbing whatever stories they’re telling in a way that’s unchallenged.” That “division” led to “two separate realities, or in some cases 10 separate realities, in which they are conspiracy theorizing and [concocting] rumors Obama is a muslim or he wasn’t born in this county or Michelle hates white people.”
He continued, “All that stuff can fester and be disseminated with millions of people believing it. And we started seeing that fairly early on in my presidency.”
The first Black president spoke about having to formally address the topic in a April 2011 press conference when he released his long-form birth certificate in hopes of ending the birther controversy.
“I’m dealing with birtherism at the precise moment where I’m trying to make a decision about whether to launch a raid to get Osama Bin Laden — and putting the lives of extraordinary American heroes at risk — and to think this kind of nonsense is dominating the airwaves. To find out it is the only thing the White House press corps is interested in when we are still in the middle of wars, we still got terrorist attacks, we got huge budget issues that we’re trying to resolve, we’re still in an economic crisis and this is what you want to talk about?!”
He admitted, “Yeah, that did irritate me. It angered me. And it wasn’t personal ... I’m two years into my presidency, I have a very thick skin at this point. So my natural impulse is to ignore it. I’m angered because it’s taking up the time of my staff and it is the obsession that is being pumped out on the airwaves at a time when we have very serious issues we should be dealing with.”
The current president is one of the people who continued to perpetuate the untruth about Obama’s birthplace. It was that issue that helped propelled him into national politics. In 2016, Trump finally acknowledged that Obama really was born in the U.S., but didn’t apologize for previously spreading the untruth.
Obama also spoke to Winfrey about his former vice-president Joe Biden defeating Trump in the 2020 presidential election. He said he knows Biden and Kamala Harris have their work cut out for them in helping to unite a divided nation and in enacting change with a Republican Senate, if that turns out to be the case.
While Obama said “democracy is always going to be contentious,” because people disagree on major issues like abortion, taxes, “I distinguish between that and the demonization of opponents, the flouting of institutional norms and rules that govern how our democracy is supposed to function. The kinds of things that I saw over the last four years that endanger democracy operating the way it should,” under the Trump administration.
He said Biden and Harris will be able to do is to “level set” and “reestablish” that “we don’t use the Justice Department, for example, to go after political enemies. That we don’t mingle personal business interests with the business of government. That there is an expectation that the president doesn’t routinely lie or reshape the truth to his own convenience. He doesn’t call journalists enemies of the state. Those kinds of things, which in some ways we became numb to over the last several years, that’s the stuff that can be fixed — and Joe and Kamala will set a different tone.”
Winfrey said that, amid the Trump presidency, she’s often said, “Can you imagine if Obama did that?” and she wondered if he feels he was held to a different standard than Trump has been in the office.
“I think every president has been held to a different standard relative to this president,” Obama replied. “Donald Trump breached so many norms — so many basic assumptions of what a president should or should not do — that you can’t come up with a comparable set of behaviors in the past. Michelle and I joke about the fact that one of the bigger scandals of my presidency was me wearing a tan suit during a press conference. Go back and take a look at the clips at the way some pundits were talking about this tan suit.”
He continued, “It gives you some sense — folks were paying attention to our family in ways that were unusual but in some ways that were not unexpected. Truthfully, Michelle and I felt we should have higher standards in terms of how we behave and ethics and fidelity to the truth. Part of that was because of a reverence for the office and the space we were occupying — the people’s house, the White House — the enormous responsibilities that we had, [and] part of it because we were the first and felt very much the need to exceed expectations instead of just meet them.”
While Michelle wasn’t part of the interview, she did use Instagram on Monday to express her disappointment over Trump’s handling of his election loss — and not helping with the transition of administrations. She talked about putting her personal opinions aside to receive Trump and Melania at the White House after the 2016 election, despite Trump’s attacks on her husband.
“Donald Trump had spread racist lies about my husband that had put my family in danger,” she wrote. “That wasn’t something I was ready to forgive. But I knew that, for the sake of our country, I had to find the strength and maturity to put my anger aside. So I welcomed Melania Trump into the White House and talked with her about my experience, answering every question she had — from the heightened scrutiny that comes with being First Lady to what it’s like to raise kids in the White House.”
She noted, “I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do — because our democracy is so much bigger than anybody’s ego.” And she noted that “the presidency doesn’t belong to any one individual or any one party. To pretend that it does, to play along with these groundless conspiracy theories — whether for personal or political gain — is to put our country’s health and security in danger. “ And she urging “all Americans, especially our nation’s leaders,” to come together to ease the transition of power, “just as sitting presidents have done throughout our history.”
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