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Barack Obama talks about his first day as president: 'It's a little bit like your wedding'

Obama touched upon a range of events between his first day in the Oval Office and the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.

Barack Obama talks about his first day as president: 'It's a little bit like your wedding'
Cover Image Source: Barack Obama speaks at a Drive-in Mobilization Rally to get out the vote for Georgia Senate candidates on November 2, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Former President Barack Obama was at his candid best last week as he sat down for an interview with CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King. The 59-year-old opened up about his successes and failures while in office and how the opposition’s hostility to his agenda made it difficult for him to achieve all the things that he wanted to get done. Speaking to King less than a week before the scheduled release of the first volume of his presidential memoir, A Promised Land, Obama touched upon a range of events between his first day in the Oval Office and the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.


"You know, Inauguration Day is a little bit about everybody else. It's a little bit like your wedding. You're so busy trying to make sure you're doing everything right and everybody's where they're supposed to be, that you can't catch your breath," he said of his first time in the Oval Office as the 44th president of the United States. "The first time I walked in as president by myself, though, and sat at the Resolute Desk, I think you feel a reverence for the office. I think it was President Lincoln who said, 'If you weren't religious before you got into office, you sure are on your knees praying once you're in office.'"



Despite inheriting a country teetering on the brink of financial calamity, Obama—the first Black president—was immediately met with a steep wall of resistance as he tried to work with Congress on the issue. Responding to King's question of how he dealt with the opposition's hostility, the father-of-two said: "Part of what I try to describe [in the memoir] is how early that obstructionist attitude starts. I mean, it started on Day One, 'cause we were trying to pass the Recovery Act, the stimulus package. People were losing their jobs, they were losing their homes, and the economy was collapsing. At the time, I thought, 'All right, well, obviously Republicans aren't gonna agree with me on everything. But on this, all the economists agree this is what we need. They'll give some cooperation on this.' And we didn't get any."



The opposition's malevolence to the president became more prominent as time passed. Recounting one such instance, King asked: "One of the big examples that many people saw of disrespect, you're laying out the Affordable Care Act in a joint session of Congress. And in the middle of your speech, Congressman Joe Wilson, South Carolina, yells in the middle of that, 'You lie!' I heard an audible gasp. And I looked at you. You know, we could see the veins on your head on the side. So I'm wondering, what did you think in that moment? And what did you want to do, and what did you do?"



"Well, I write about this," explained the former president. "I am shocked. And my initial instinct is, 'Let me walk down and smack this guy on the head. What is he thinking?' And instead, I just said, 'That's not true,' and I just move on. He called afterwards to apologize – although, as I point out in the book, he saw a huge spike in campaign contributions to him from Republicans across the country who thought he had done something heroic." Although Obama was, at times, criticized for seeming aloof during his time in the White House, he revealed that his administration had tried everything to extend an olive branch to the other side of the aisle.



"We had Super Bowl parties! We'd invite them to dinner. I'd go to their caucus meetings," he said. Obama touches upon his apathy towards the D.C. political game in his memoir, where he writes: "The fuss of being president, the pomp, the press, the physical constraints, all that I could have done without. The actual work, though? The work, I loved, even when it didn't love me back."



Speaking of his struggle to meet the high expectations the American public had of him as the first Black president, Obama said: "A lotta folks, in the same way that they expected 'Now we're in a post-racial America because we elected a Black president,' I think a lotta people expected, 'Well, we got this young, progressive president. And now suddenly we're gonna eliminate inequality and, you know, we're immediately gonna have universal health care. And we're gonna have climate change legislation, and immigration reform, and criminal justice reform,' and all the things that I wanted to get done."



"But what I understood very early on is, the federal government, headed by the president, is an ocean liner; it is not a speedboat. Ten years from now, 20 years from now, the work you've done may be appreciated as having been good and helpful. But at the time, it can feel like, 'Wow, this isn't happening fast enough,'" he added. Addressing President Trump's oft-repeated claim that he has done more for Black America and people of color than Abraham Lincoln, Obama said: "It's fair to say that there are many things he says that I do not take personally or seriously, although I think they can often be destructive and harmful."



As for the heavy blows he dealt Trump—quite out of character for the former president—while campaigning for the now President-elect Joe Biden, Obama said that he was merely stating facts. "I was not the person who at a White House briefing room, said, 'Is bleach the way to solve COVID?' I wasn't doing a routine. I was repeating words that I heard," he said. "It is not my preference to be out there. I think we were in a circumstance in this election in which certain norms, certain institutional values that are so extraordinarily important, had been breached – that it was important for me, as somebody who had served in that office, to simply let people know, 'This is not normal.'"



Although Biden emerged victorious in the 2020 presidential election, Obama is acutely aware of the seventy-two million people who voted for Donald Trump and what it means. "What it says is that we are still deeply divided. The power of that alternative worldview that's presented in the media that those voters consume, it carries a lot of weight," he said. "It's very hard for our democracy to function if we are operating on just completely different sets of facts."


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