Back in May of 2015, before David Letterman ended his three decade career in late night television, President Barack Obama appeared on the Late Show for the last time. The presidential campaign was just gearing up – both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would formally announce their candidacies a few weeks later – and, with his imminent departure in mind, Letterman asked Obama about his retirement plans. “I was thinking you and me, we could play some dominos together, you know, go to the local Starbucks.”
Two and half years, and one cataclysmic election later, the former late-night TV host took the ex-POTUS up on the offer, and the pair filmed an hour-long conversation for his new Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman. It was a rare appearance for Obama, who’s kept a low profile since leaving the White House, toiling away in private on a book about his time in office, his foundation and plans for a presidential library.
Sitting across from Letterman in front of a studio audience at the City University of New York, the former president was chatty but relentlessly on-message, sticking to non-controversial subjects like his family, his legacy and the importance of protecting and expanding voting rights, one of the top priorities of Obama’s post-presidency. He did, however, manage to sneak one small dig in at the current occupant of the Oval Office at the very end.
Here’s what we learned:
1. He’s taking it real easy.
Of his first day waking up not as president, Obama told Letterman plainly, “It was later. I slept in – which I was pretty happy about … I sort of enjoyed puttering around the house, finding out, ‘Does the coffee maker work?’ and fighting with Michelle for closet space.” (There’s a similar story about Bill Clinton trying, and failing, to figure out how to work the coffee machine in his home on first day as not-president.)
Letterman asked if he felt a sense of relief no longer having such huge responsibility on his shoulders, and Obama says no. “I don’t think relief is the right word. I think there was a sense that I’d run the race – I’d completed. I was proud of the work that we had done and I was ready for the next stage. The stereotype of former presidents is you’re kind of sitting around your house, waiting for someone to call, lonely, don’t know what to – but the truth is it felt exciting.”
2. The new pace of life took some getting used to.
Returning to civilian life, Obama says, “Everything felt like it was moving in slow motion.” Take his literary agent, for instance: “He calls and he says ‘Look, these publishers are chomping at the bit – we’ve got to meet with them right away. Right now. Things are really hot.’ And I said, ‘Well, okay, how about tomorrow?’ And he said, ‘No, no it’s gonna take two weeks to set it up.’ I had to explain to him, I said, ‘Where I’m coming from, “right away” means if we don’t do something in a half an hour somebody dies.'”
3. He’s concerned about the way his presidency will be remembered.
The former president made a point of calling attention to the fact that when he took office, the U.S. was engaged in two foreign wars and the global economy was cratering. “I think people forget how bad things were,” Obama said. “The economy was collapsing faster than it did during the great depression. The month I took office we lost 800,000 jobs – just in that month. And one of the things I’m proudest about is the fact that, within a year, we had the economy growing again and within about a year and half we were actually adding jobs again instead of losing them.”
4. He believes that the global economy could collapse again.
Asked by Letterman if we’re safe from repeating of the 2008 financial crisis, Obama was circumspect. “There are some long term trends that are still a problem – you still having growing inequality. The combination of technology and globalization means that there are entire industries and categories of jobs that are being eliminated … if all the money is going to a few people at the top, and they’re investing in all kinds of stuff because they want to maximize their returns, that’s how you get bubbles. That’s how you start getting an overheated financial system.”
5. He’s worried about social media.
For a man who owed his own election largely to the power of social media organizing, Obama is increasingly concerned about the impact similar technology is having on our politics and on our elections. “In our campaign, in 2007-2008, we were some of the earliest adapters of social media,” he said. “We were reliant on a bunch of 22 and 23 year olds and volunteers who we were sending out … they were communicating entirely through social media, and we essentially built what ended up being the most effective political campaign probably in modern political history. I had a very optimistic feeling about it, and I think what we missed is people in power, special interests, foreign governments etc., can in fact manipulate that and propagandize it.”
But, Obama adds, the Russian government couldn’t have manipulated the election if Americans weren’t already so divided. “What the Russians exploited – but it was already here – is: We are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR.”
He then tells the former late night host that “if you are getting all of your information off algorithms on a phone, it’s just reinforcing whatever biases you have …. That’s what is happening with these Facebook pages where more and more people are getting their news from. At a certain point, you just live in a bubble, and that’s part of why our politics is so polarized right now. I think it’s a solvable problem, but it’s one that we need to spend some valuable time thinking about.”
6. Spoiler alert: He’s ruled out a third term. (And, sorry, Michelle’s not running either.)
There was a running gag Letterman kept returning to throughout the episode: Obama was still president and after they spoke he’d be heading back to the White House. Obama eventually felt it necessary to lay that fantasy (or conspiracy theory) firmly to rest. “Let me just say this, if it were not for the Constitution… There’d be Michelle,” he joked, briefly appearing to float his wife as a future candidate. The studio audience loved the idea. “No, no, no, you guys are misunderstanding me – what I’m saying is, I’m prevented from running again by the Constitution but even if it were not for that amendment, Michelle would leave me.”
7. He was a complete mess sending Malia to college.
“It was like open heart surgery,” Obama said about moving Malia into her Harvard dorm room last fall. “One of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard [about having] children was ‘It’s like having your heart outside your body.’ And they’re not that smart and they’re wandering around and crossing streets, and getting on airplanes …”
But it was like heart surgery in that it was painful, and also in that it was technically difficult – so hard that he struggled with simple tasks. “I was basically useless. Everyone had seen me crying and misting up for the past three weeks,” Obama says, conjuring an image of himself – former leader of the free world – sniffling, struggling to put together an Ikea floor lamp. “It should have taken like five minutes, or three minutes … and I’m sitting there toiling away for a half an hour.”
8. Obama doesn’t think he’s like, really smart – he thinks he was lucky.
In what may or may not have been a dig at the current occupant of the Oval Office, Obama asked Letterman about luck toward the very end of their conversation. “Don’t you say to yourself, ‘Boy am I lucky?’ One of the things I’m always surprised by is when I see people who have been successful in business or entertainment or politics, and they’re absolutely convinced that it’s all because they were so smart. And I’m always saying, well, I worked hard, and I’ve got some talent, but there are a lot of hardworking, talented people out there. There was this element of chance to it – this element of serendipity. And I wonder whether you feel that sometimes?”
To which Letterman replied: “This is what I’m struggling with at this point in my life – I have been nothing but lucky.” The aging comedian turned reflective, thinking back on the March to Selma – the 50th anniversary of which Obama celebrated as president back in 2015. “When John Lewis and his friends, in March of ’65, were marching across that bridge … in April of ’65, me and my friends were driving to Florida to get on a cruise ship to go to the Bahamas because there was no age limit to purchase alcohol, and we spent the entire week – pardon my French – shit-faced. Why wasn’t I in Alabama? Why wasn’t I aware? I’ve been nothing but lucky and the luck continues here this evening.”