When Harry Met Barack: Obama Tells Prince About Life After White House

Dec 27, 2017
Originally published on December 27, 2017 6:25 pm

The U.K.'s Prince Harry took over editing duties for Wednesday at BBC Radio 4's Today program. And he managed to snag a rather high-profile guest: Barack Obama.

The full audio of the interview is available here for the next six days. The interview was taped in September during the Invictus Games in Toronto, an event created by Harry for wounded, injured or ill servicemen and veterans.

The conversation is billed as the first interview with the former president since leaving the White House, and it's not exactly hard-hitting.

But it does offer a window into Obama's life now: still driven by purpose, but with less adrenalin and more leisurely breakfasts.

"I didn't used to experience traffic," Obama says. "I used to cause traffic."

The transition of power

Leaving the White House after the inauguration, Obama says, his first thought was gratitude for his wife, Michelle.

"She is not someone who was naturally inclined to politics, so in some ways, despite the fact that she was as good of a first lady as there's ever been, she did this largely in support of my decision to run," Obama says.

"For us to be able to come out of that intact, that our marriage was strong, that we're still each other's best friends, our daughters turning into amazing young women ... that we had done the work in a way that preserved our integrity and left us whole" was a satisfying feeling, Obama says.

The former president doesn't mention Donald Trump by name but does acknowledge some worries as he left office.

"That [feeling of satisfaction] was mixed with all the work that was still undone, and concerns about how the country moves foward," he says. "But overall, there was a serenity there. More than I expected."

Adjusting to a different pace

Obama says it was "strange good fortune" that he and Michelle were in their 40s before being in the public eye. The result was that when his presidency came to an end, his entire identity wasn't wrapped up in the position.

"One of the interesting things about leaving the presidency is realizing that my life had been so accelerated," he says. "Everything felt like, and still feels to some degree, like it's moving in slow motion."

He describes the sense that important things need to be done immediately, because "where I'm from 'right away' means if we don't do something in half an hour somebody dies."

Getting used to a slower pace means "you don't have the same adrenaline rush, but it also means that you can be I think more reflective and deliberate about the kinds of things you want to get done."

"The fact that I can wake up and if I want to spend an extra 45 minutes talking to Michelle and take a long breakfast — I can do it," he says. "That feels great."

He says he is now "obsessed with training the next generation of leaders" and that he is transitioning into being a coach rather than a player.

The impact of social media

Prince Harry notes that trolling, extremism, fake news and cyberbullying have become major issues and asks Obama whether there are things he wishes he had done on those issues.

"[The] question I think really has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn't lead to a balkanization of our society, but rather continues to promote ways of finding common ground," Obama says. "I'm not sure government can legislate that, but what I do believe is that all of us in leadership have to find ways in which we can re-create common space on the Internet."

Back when there were just three TV stations, Obama says, "everybody had a common set of facts."

"There might be conservatives or liberals, but people generally could agree on a baseline of reality. One of the dangers of the Internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can just be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases."

He says one thing he discovered during his campaign in 2007 and 2008 was the importance of bringing online communities offline.

"Social media is a really powerful tool for people of common interest to convene," he says, "but then it's important for them to get offline, meet in a pub, meet at a place of worship, meet in a neighborhood, and get to know each other. Because the truth is, on the Internet, everything is simplified. And when you meet people face to face, it turns out they're complicated."

"It's also, by the way, hard to be as obnoxious and cruel in person as people can be anonymously on the Internet," Obama adds.

Obama as royal wedding guest

Obama and Harry were quite chummy during the interview, but one subject didn't come up: whether the former president will be invited to the prince's wedding, scheduled for May 19 at Windsor Castle.

Some in the U.K. press have speculated that inviting the Obamas could complicate the British government's relations with Trump.

The BBC posed the question of whether Obama will be invited to Harry himself, who demurred.

"We haven't put the invites or the guest list together yet, so who knows whether he's going to be invited or not," Harry replied. "Wouldn't want to ruin that surprise."

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