Trevor Noah Grills Barack Obama on His ‘Defund the Police’ Beef
The former president pushed back on the suggestion that he’s “just trying to make white people comfortable rather than speaking truth to power” in a new “Daily Show” interview.
It wasn’t the first late-night interview of his book tour, nor the most freewheeling, but on Tuesday night, former President Barack Obama sat down for a long, virtual interview with The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah that was among the most insightful and revealing he’s done to date—especially when it came to the issues of systemic racism and Black Lives Matter.
Obama, whose best-selling memoir A Promised Land chronicles his first presidential campaign and his first few years in office over more than 700 pages, began by letting Noah know that his wife Michelle has been listening to the book at 1.5x speed because he talks too slowly. “I was a little offended by that, but that’s OK,” he joked.
“Look, the goal of the book was to give people a sense of what it’s like to be in the White House as a normal person, finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances,” Obama said. When Noah described the book as “Barack Obama convincing Barack Obama to remain optimistic,” the former president said he was trying to show people how many “structural barriers” there are to making the country a better place.
“We’re learning right now a vivid example of the fact that our democracy is not the way we would imagine it to be,” he said. “There are all kinds of elements to it where the most votes don’t necessarily translate into the equivalent amount of power.” But that doesn’t mean that over time change won’t happen. “That is the kind of mentality I want young people to have,” Obama added. “A certain impatience, a certain frustration, a certain anger about the status quo.”
Later, when Obama brought up the challenges of “inheriting a legacy” like George W. Bush’s Iraq War, Noah asked, “Did you ever envy, though, how Trump came in and basically broke shit, though? Because he didn’t care.”
“No, I didn’t envy it, because I do care,” Obama replied. “And I do not think that is an option to simply pretend that the legacy of problems or issues that you inherit are somehow things you can just brush aside.”
But perhaps the most illuminating portion of the interview came when the host asked Obama to address the recent comments criticizing the framing of “defund the police” as a political slogan.
“Your presidency, as you know better than everyone, people thought, that is it, we’re now in a post-racial utopia,” Noah said. “And then people saw there was still a lot of work to be done.”
“I’m glad you actually brought this up,” Obama said. “Because what’s been fascinating while I’ve been on this book tour is people have asked me what’s my source of optimism? And uniformly what I have said is nothing made me more optimistic during a very difficult year than the activism that we saw in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter.”
As for “defund the police” specifically, he added, “The concern is that there may be potential allies out there that you lose and the issue always is, how do you get enough people to support your cause that you can actually institutionalize it and translate it into laws, structures and so forth?”
He pushed back on the notion that he was trying to “chastise” Black Lives Matter, saying, “What? Hold on a second, I just spent the whole summer complimenting them. What are you talking about?’”
“I think that people assumed that somehow I was making an argument that that’s why we didn’t get a bigger Democratic majority,” Obama said. “That actually was not the point I was making.” Instead, he explained that he was trying to make the argument that to people, including his mother-in-law, the idea of “defunding” the police just sounds too scary to support.
“The concern in these debates is often, ‘Oh, are we just trying to make white people comfortable rather than speaking truth to power,’ right?” he added. “The issue to me is not making them comfortable. It is, can we be precise with our language enough that people who might be persuaded around that particular issue to make a particular change that gets a particular result that we want, what’s the best way for us to describe that?”