NEW YORK, N.Y. — On a Friday morning in mid-November, Barack Obama sat in a classroom behind the soaring glass windows of Columbia University’s business school, almost knee-to-knee in a circle of chairs with three dozen young leaders from Africa. He was fielding questions on topics with no easy answers. Should developing countries prioritize democracy over economic development? Is there a democratic solution to the climate crisis? At that very moment, he was considering an inquiry from a young entrepreneur from Angola: Practically speaking, how could the group encourage democracy in their own countries?
“I don’t want to send you off from here thinking, immediately, you have to start speaking truth to power — and I’m suddenly getting a call that half of my Africa group is in jail,” Obama joked to soft chuckles and knowing nods.
His expression turned serious, and he leaned forward in his chair. “But what we can all do within the sphere of influence and the work that we do, is try to model those principles and those practices.” For the entrepreneurs in the room, that might be implementing egalitarian business practices. For the lawyers, seeking changes to the legal system that promoted equality. “That’s a radical act,” Obama added. “It’s quietly radical. It’s changing people’s attitudes and approaches in a really powerful way.”
The former president is on a mission to evangelize the good of lowercase d democracy, and conversations like this one, at the Obama Foundation’s Democracy Forum in New York, are key to his cause. The purpose of the event, the first ever, was to “start digging deeper” into what is “weakening the foundations of democracy,” as Obama put it in his keynote remarks. The first day was a series of liberal star-studded panels at Manhattan’s Javits Center that tackled heady subjects like pluralism and disinformation. The second was a series of roundtable conversations like this one, to which Rolling Stone was given exclusive access.
Obama was speaking to the room of young African leaders — civic-minded entrepreneurs, aspiring politicians, climate activists — as a former community organizer who’d once walked in their shoes. He was speaking to them as a seasoned politician with decades of experience to impart. But perhaps above all, he was speaking to them as a former president with a legacy to define and defend.
“Nobody knows better than those of us who worked in the Obama administration that your legacy isn’t settled on January 20, 2017,” says Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former Deputy National Security Adviser, who remains a trusted aide. “It’s connected to whether the things you tried to do are carried forward by other people.”
Obama has often described his presidency as a relay race — that his job was simply to run his leg as hard as he could before handing off the baton, knowing his work would be incomplete. He’d planned to pass that baton to Hillary Clinton. Instead, voters chose Donald Trump, a businessman who expressed white nationalist sympathies, to succeed the country’s first Black president.
Now, six years removed from office, Obama’s legacy is more complicated than he’d originally imagined. His first Democracy Forum was an opening salvo on what he hopes is a legacy-building project: to train the next generation to be stewards of the democratic values he sees faltering both in America and abroad. There’s merit in that, especially from someone with a platform like his who has cultivated a brand of “a certain kind of aspirational politics and organizing-based activism,” as Rhodes put it. “You don’t solve everything in a presidency. It’s gonna take people like this.”
But building that legacy forces Obama to confront some of the consequences of his time in office — consequences his critics on the left say resulted from decisions he made. They note his administration had embraced the social media platforms that now trouble Obama, as well as his inability to wrestle with systemic autocratic tendencies taking root in the United States. “As talented as he was as an orator and figure, his personalized politics couldn’t turn the tides of history or our anti-democratic institutions,” says Waleed Shahid, the communications director of the left-wing Justice Democrats. They question whether Obama’s prescriptions are reflective enough about the world he helped to build.
An hour before speaking to the young African leaders, Obama glided into a nearly identical classroom and offered a booming “hello, people!” as he crossed the threshold. A different group of young leaders — participants studying at the University of Chicago and Columbia University as part of the Obama Foundation’s Scholars program — sat up a little taller in their seats, greeting the former president with sustained applause.
Obama, in his signature post-White House uniform of a gray suit with no tie, perched himself on a stool at the front of the room and took questions. But before he did, he teed up their conversation with a frame not dissimilar to what he’d shared with the group from countries in Africa. “I’m not so arrogant to think that there’s a one-size-fits-all relationship between people’s well-being and democracy,” he said. He was there to discuss “democratic principles,” he added, “agency, representation, voice, resolution of conflict, human rights, human dignity” — the sorts of things that can be a practice outside of any particular form of government.
In February 2016, Obama had crowed that Trump wouldn’t win the presidency. After Trump did, Obama began to wonder if his view of the global march of progress had been too optimistic, too linear. “He was working to strengthen our democracy throughout his career — he didn’t think he had to protect it,” says Valerie Jarrett, a longtime aide and confidante who serves as CEO of the Obama Foundation.
How has Obama’s thinking changed? Jarrett laid out a few reasons over an interview between sessions. Trump’s victory was just one piece of evidence. Another was social media, which he’d seen as a great unifier and useful tool during his presidential campaigns before it devolved into a toxic cesspool of disinformation — not to mention political distrust and disaffection. There was also the understanding that capitalism wasn’t working for everybody. “I would say the economic crisis reinforced the sense that, as millions of people were losing their homes and their jobs, where was the accountability?” Jarrett says. (The bank bailouts lacked accountability measures for the executives and bankers responsible for financial ruin, notes Dan Geldon, a former chief of staff to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was often at loggerheads with the Obama administration over such matters.)
All of it was adding up, as Obama saw it, to “the backsliding that’s taking place in what were well-established democracies,” as he put it in his keynote remarks. That wasn’t unique to America, but the fact that it was happening in America posed a particularly nefarious worldwide threat, Obama reasoned. “It makes it much more difficult for the United States to go out into the world and promote democracies if we’re not tending to our own,” Jarrett says. “We lost that moral high ground.”
Restoring that moral high ground would become Obama’s post-presidential preoccupation. There was the short-term work of American politics — specifically, ensuring Democratic candidates kept Big Lie conspiracists out of offices responsible for conducting fair and free elections. Obama focused his 2022 midterm efforts on races for governor and secretary of state, raising money, holding rallies, and recording advertisements for candidates who sought his help.
The work of the Obama Foundation, meanwhile, was about “the long game,” as Rhodes says. Around the time of the organization’s founding in 2017, Rhodes set up the outlines of the various mentorship programs the foundation housed, all of which were represented at the Democracy Forum: In addition to the scholars and African leaders, Obama visited with cohorts of a few dozen young world leaders from Asia and Europe, as well as a 100 college juniors in the foundation’s new Voyager program that will send them abroad on public service projects over the summer.
In his conversations during his day with those cohorts, Obama assumed the posture of the former law professor he is, brow furrowed and eyes focused as he listened to participant’s concerns. As he responded, a portrait of how he thinks about the world’s problems came into focus. He often traded in the lofty rhetoric of his presidential campaigns for more nitty-gritty strategies he favored as a community organizer. Orlando Mayorga, a former felon studying social work at the University of Chicago, asked Obama how to engage felons in the democratic process, even as many of them are denied the right to vote. “I think a general principle in interacting with any group that is disaffected, disadvantaged, marginalized is to start local, with a set of concrete achievable goals, rather than pie-in-the-sky,” he told Mayorga.
Obama also noted that participation in elections, while important, isn’t a short-term answer. “I’m not going to say to them, ‘Man, if you just vote for Joe Biden, everything’s going to be okay,’ or ‘if we just go meet with our city council person, your life is automatically going to be better,’” Obama added, “Because that’s not true.”
Many of the conversations kept returning to social media, a subject interconnected with many of Obama’s worries for the future. “I think we’ve misunderstood the power of social media,” he told one group. “It’s a powerful tool to connect people and identify potential overlaps of interest. I don’t think it replaces actual human interaction.” He raised concerns about the “inherent reductionism” of the platforms that keeps users “imprisoned in this little bubble.” He’s generally wary of anything that limits the free exchange of ideas; Obama praised the 2016 letter the University of Chicago president wrote to freshmen explaining there would be no “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces” for students to avoid offensive or uncomfortable conversations. (“’Exactly,’” Jarrett recalls him saying. “Where better to have a laboratory of ideas?”)
Davis Oundo Makori, a member of the Obama Scholars cohort from Kenya, asked Obama about how to balance the influence of Big Tech in developing countries, especially in light of the fact that governments have used social media to depress democracy. His answer suggested an active role for the government, but also an optimism about Silicon Valley. “What I think is promising is the fact that there’s far greater awareness of this issue, and I think the big tech companies are mindful of the reputational hit they’ll take,” Obama said. “They should feel that social pressure and recognize there will be enormous consequences.” As far as inherent evil, Obama disagrees. “It’s not as if Mark Zuckerberg wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Hey, you know, let’s do a platform for ethnic cleansing,’” he said. “The problem that we’ve seen with tech is that they’re not willing to think about the outcomes that are resulting from a business model.”
“I appreciated his honesty, because one of the first things he did was point out the sobering reality that it essentially comes down to governance,” Oundo Makori said later. “Maybe my follow-up would have been, ‘What do we need to do from the source?’ What needs to be done from here to ensure that, by the time they interface with our governments, they’ve been pre-screened — so that they don’t just export business models that will do harm in developing countries?”
The Democracy Forum is not a day that revisited the decisions Obama made during his eight years in the White House. His critics nevertheless raise concerns about how the former president talks about the problems the country and the world is facing — problems they think he could have done more to solve. “It’s been clear for a long time that these [social media] companies are a threat to competitive markets, mental health, and democracy, but the Obama administration generally looked away and convinced themselves that Zuckerberg and others were good actors just trying to make the world better,” Geldon says. “I don’t get the sense that they’re all that introspective about it.”
Rhodes concedes that “the Obama Administration could have done more is at the nexus of disinformation and threats to democracy,” and that “a great focus on the issue — publicly, and with the tech companies — might have made a difference in curbing social media’s excesses which have proven so destructive.” But to Rhodes, Obama’s presidency wouldn’t have solved that problem. “President Obama has focused a lot personally on disinformation in recent years, in his own speeches and engagements,” he says in a statement. “And the Foundation itself has many young leaders who are working in politics, civil society or the private sector to both combat disinformation and hate online, while also modeling alternative approaches that realize technology’s promise while combating its darker side.”
“I’m not sure anyone, including Obama, quite knows how to get out of the stalemate we’re in with increasing GOP minority rule and extremism, but I’d sure like to see someone try beyond just getting out the vote every year,” said Justice Democrats’ Shahid. But, he added, Obama does seem to grasp the concerns at hand, seeing a through-line between a recently unearthed manuscript that offers a fiery critique of American American democracy and how he’s talking about global threats to democracy now. “The central questions that Obama wrestled with in the graduate school paper and what he himself has said about our anti-democratic institutions in recent years are still with us and will get worse over the coming decades.”
Whatever Obama did or didn’t achieve during his presidency aren’t material to the young leaders who attended the forum. Obama represents “validation that you can have principled leadership,” Oundo Makori explains. “He enabled us to hold up our leaders in contrast.” Ineza Umuhoza Grace, a climate activist from Rwanda, says that she admires “the value he left behind — which is a kind of value that I really wish I can uphold, and that gives me a kind of low-key confidence.” Landisang Kotaro, an organizer from Palau, put it simply: “He’s the ‘hope and change’ guy.”
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As he closed his session with the African leaders, Obama recalled a story about Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who was imprisoned for nearly 30 years in South Africa, and who refused offers of chicken from the prison guards because there wasn’t enough to share with the rest of his fellow inmates. Obama cited the refusal as a sort of proverb: “He’s sending a message that everybody counts, so that when 27 years later, he walks out of that jail and talks about democracy, he has earned and built that credibility,” Obama explained. “I’m not saying you all have to be Mandela, but I’m using Mandela as an example of how you do it.”
He took a long pause. “Sometimes we get overwhelmed, the system looks so big and so difficult that I should not even try.” But he encouraged them to nevertheless try. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t already have some influence — if you didn’t already have some followers. People will listen to you. Use it.”