When Baratunde Met Barack... Again
This newsletter will be a bit different. My newsletters have been a bit irregular of late because life has been a bit irregular of late. This month, I hosted the Obama Foundation’s Democracy Forum in Chicago. As part of that, I got to do a 15-minute one-on-one with former President Obama. It was a major, major deal.
I first started taking Obama seriously back in 2006 / 2007 very early in the Democratic primary. Here’s an image of the first (and only other) time I met him in August 2007 at the YearlyKos convention in Chicago at the McCormick Place convention center. I’d gotten a lottery to see Obama among the many Democratic candidates showing up at this “Netroots” gathering. I showed up with an agenda. I wanted to challenge him on his policy around renewable energy. I was the second person to ask a question and remembered my high school journalism training from the Washington Association of Black Journalists.
“I’m Baratunde Thurston from Jack and Jill Politics,” I said, introducing myself and my media outlet. The crowd cheered for me. They knew me because I had been part of the progressive “blogosphere” for years as well as a host, MC, comedian, and general high energy activist. Then-Senator Obama paused for a moment noticing the reaction of the crowd to me. Then I pushed him on his stance about renewable portfolio standards. Basically I didn’t think he was aggressive enough given the looming climate crisis. He answered saying he had the same goals but wanted to make sure we built in time to bring along fossil fuel workers into the renewable economy.
At the end of his Q&A, I approached the rope line, and someone grabbed a photo of us. It was in this moment he said to me, “Apparently, you’re somebody I need to know!”
We wouldn’t meet again until this month, but in the intervening 16 years, my life would be heavily bound up in his. I campaigned in both 2008 and 2012 cycles. I did narrative defense against the Clinton campaign and later, right wing campaigns to discredit him, to misinform voters, to undermine him and all of us because of his race.
I’d go on to do unpaid work as an advisor to his White House, working primarily with the Office of Public Engagement. I rooted for him. I criticized him. Mostly I was just grateful for his clarity and solid leadership style. I marveled at how he and Michelle Obama survived the gauntlet of the White House for eight years, seemingly intact.
There’s more media from the Democracy Forum event available here.
Meanwhile, here’s the transition to my Puck newsletter and column this week which builds on the Obama event but dives deeper into President Biden’s challenges and the risks and possibilities for us all heading in to 2024.
It’s National Native American Heritage Month and a good time to reflect on and learn about the first peoples in what’s now the United States. This exhibit at the National Gallery of Art is worth exploring IRL or virtually. (In the world of film, I highly recommend the new movie Radical, about a teacher in a Mexican border town trying a radical new method to reach his students.)
And in the world of tech, well… I’m as confused as anyone about the sudden ouster of Sam Altman from OpenAI on Friday evening. By the time you read this, he could be reinstalled or be CEO of Microsoft, or we could be living in the SkyNet dystopia. Regardless of the latest breaking news, I found this article by Alexander Gounares worthwhile. He focuses on the high-risk move OpenAI’s board—composed of four independent directors—took and what it means for corporate governance.
Now I want to get into the main event, which is about how we persist as one nation in these fractured times.
My Chat With Obama
Reflections on media fragmentation in the Obama era, how Trump accelerated its breakup, and what Biden can do to find a new way forward.
In our time together onstage, I asked the former president how he would apply the practice of democracy and citizenship to address the problems of climate, technology, the economy, and our media ecosystem. Not a simple prompt! But in classic Obama fashion, he spoke thoughtfully about the tension and multiple truths of the moment. Perhaps most poignantly, he reframed the question as a challenge: “How do we take the understanding that everybody’s stories matter,” he said, “and then still find the possibility of finding common ground?”
These split realities aren’t just between left and right but also within the Democratic coalition, where Israel’s response to the recent Hamas terrorist attacks—large scale displacement and bombing that has also killed Palestinian civilians—has revealed stark divides. A new NBC News poll found that 70 percent of voters aged 18 to 34 disapprove of Biden’s handling of the war, and in the key swing state of Michigan his support among Muslim voters has collapsed (from 85 percent in 2020 down to five percent). As we approach the 2024 election, I feel a sense of dread. Biden’s poll numbers are underwater, with his negatives at 57 percent and his approval down to 40, an all-time low. Vice President Kamala Harris’s numbers are worse. And yet Trump, facing 91 felony counts in four cases, is ahead in two recent polls. Many voters seem to treat Biden’s age as equivalent to Trump’s alleged criminality. The current president is not in a strong position to recapture any sense of shared narrative. We aren’t going back to normal. We are drifting toward further fracture.
Spending a day inside Obamaworld had me reflecting on whether this could have turned out differently, and more importantly, if it still can. Is it possible for anyone to weave together a common story, establish a sense of shared reality, when reality itself is splintering?
Read my full thoughts and analysis in Puck. And subscribe! You get me and many other dope writers.