6 Things We Learned from A Conversation with President Barack Obama

The former POTUS discussed everything from politics and climate change to his daughters stealing his closet space during the one-hour talk in downtown Vancouver.

March 6, 2019

By Lucy Lau / Photo: Greater Vancouver Board of Trade

Barack Obama was in Vancouver yesterday evening (March 5) to deliver a sold-out talk with Iain Black, president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, to more than 3,500 wide-eyed guests. And though this was his third stop in 48 hours on a whirlwind speaking tour—the former POTUS spoke in Calgary only hours earlier and in Winnipeg the day before—he certainly wasn’t short on charm.

In 60 minutes—and following a surprise performance by Vancouver-based musician Sarah McLachlan, who dedicated a rendition of “World on Fire” to Obama—the 44th President of the United States touched on everything from politics and climate change to staying grounded post-presidency and his daughters stealing his closet space. He even took the time to compliment the venue (“Sheesh!” he said of the Vancouver Convention Centre’s waterfront view) and slipped in a well-received joke about the weather (“I’m told that February in Vancouver is always sunny”). Clearly, the man did his homework.

Ahead, six things we learned during A Conversation with President Barack Obama—in the very likely chance that you’re a curious or admiring citizen but weren’t able to get your hands on a $200-plus ticket after GVBOT members cleaned them out. (Full disclosure: we couldn’t get tickets either, though we gratefully accepted a media invitation to ensure Vancouverites remain enlightened on all things Obama. Call it journalistic responsibility!)

He doesn’t believe his own hype

Obama may be known for his humble, down-to-earth demeanour, but he isn’t dense. The former POTUS acknowledges that he’s now “famous,” though he says that living a relatively “normal” life with his wife, Michelle, well into their 40s has helped him and his family stay grounded even during post-presidency.

“We didn’t believe our own hype,” he said. “And I think that’s… part of the reason why our daughters have turned out to be remarkable young women—as opposed to a little odd, which we were concerned about.”

He says that the transition out of office since 2016 has been surprisingly “seamless,” though he’s had to tackle new challenges, such as learning to use a coffee maker and fighting with his wife and daughters for room to store his many suits. “When I was president, I had ample closet space,” he said. “[My stuff is] now shoved in the corner somewhere and I have to reach back and get my shirts.”

He’s proud to have left office without a scandal

Obama’s presidency didn’t come without its obstacles—among them, addressing the 2008 financial crisis, which he described as “extraordinarily intense”—but he admits that he’s happy to have served an eight-year term without being embroiled in any major controversies.

“For all the mistakes we made, we didn’t make mistakes of integrity,” he said. “And I’m proud that we left without a scandal.”

He credits this success to the positive “campaign culture” he cultivated and the individuals he employed while in office, whom he describes as “people with integrity.” He added that he was able to “sleep well” due to the effective problem-solving process that he and his team established early on, one that prioritized a variety of voices and thorough, thoughtful analysis.

“We had a diverse set of viewpoints around the table,” he said, “and applied this old-fashioned, outdated notion of reason and logic.”

He believes that John McCain’s nomination of Sarah Palin as vice president during the 2008 election is an “important point” in modern American politics

Asked about what he believes will be a “modern defining moment” during his presidency, Obama pointed to late Arizona senator John McCain’s nomination of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin as vice president during the 2008 presidential election, when McCain ran against Obama as the Republican nominee.

The assignment of Palin, a divisive politician who appealed to common working-class folks and was often seen to attack Obama and the “mainstream media” during her campaign, was a move that brought a “populist energy to the fore” in the Republican party, said Obama. He asserts that this strengthened the group’s already deeply embedded nativism and suspicion of elites, paving the way for Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential election.

“That’s when the party really changed in fundamental ways,” Obama said, “when mainstream Republicans lost control of their party.”

He sees climate change as the biggest challenge facing Canada and the U.S.

Although Obama steered clear of any direct references to Trump, the 57-year-old did take a thinly veiled shot at the current POTUS when he proclaimed that climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today. “I’m an old-fashioned guy. I believe in facts,” he said. “And the facts are that the planet is getting warmer.”

Obama said that Canada and the U.S. are in a unique position because both countries are home to oil-and-gas industries that employ a large segment of citizens and contribute significantly to the economy. However, he asserts that the realities of climate change—a rapid increase in wildfires and rising sea levels, for example—cannot be ignored.

“If you think problems with migration or refugees are pandemic now,” he said, “imagine if the entire global community is placed under the strains of these crazy weather patterns.”

He stated that Canadians and Americans should be “working together” to lead the way in clean-energy initiatives, setting an example for other nations in the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions. “If two billion Indian and Chinese [citizens] are burning energy at our pace, the planet will literally be uninhabitable.”

He’s his wife’s biggest fan

In what will likely be unsurprising news to anyone who follows Obama on Twitter, the former POTUS is very fond of his partner, Michelle. “My wife is extraordinary,” he said. “She is sui generis.”

He described her best-selling memoir Becoming as a “classic, inspirational” story that will resonate with women who have faced adversity in their careers and have had to balance work and family. (Michelle will be in Vancouver on March 21 for Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama, as part of a book tour.) He also acknowledged the global work that still needs to be done in gender equality.

“Yes, we’ve made some progress in how women are treated and in their expectations and opportunities… but we’re not there yet,” he said.

When asked about a quote in Becoming where Michelle describes him as “nothing but hubris,” Obama admitted to being “a little cocky when I was younger” but that “she liked it,” eliciting laughs from the crowd. He also took the opportunity to do some promo on her behalf: “You’ll have to read the book to make your own judgments.”

He has hope in the next generation of leaders

Obama wrapped up his talk with some words of wisdom for today’s and the next generation of leaders. “The best leaders empower the people around them,” he said, later adding, “I love having people around me that are smarter than me, who know things I don’t.”

He emphasized that leadership requires organizing a team of knowledgeable individuals whom you trust, and finding opportunities for them to strive and succeed. Slightly jokingly, he also advised folks against “fussing” over U.S. events reported in the news (“We’re good,” he said) and urged young people to remain constructive and open-minded with one another in discussions concerning politics and social justice.

“If you are so woke that you aren’t able to talk to someone who is un-woke, you’re not going to be able to wake them up,” he said.

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