What a New Oral History Reveals About Obama, and the Tradeoffs He Made


On a day of high drama at an international climate change conference early in his administration, President Barack Obama confronted a senior Chinese official who offered what the American delegation considered a weak commitment. Mr. Obama dismissed the offer. Not good enough.

The Chinese official erupted. “What do you mean that’s not good enough? Why isn’t that good enough?” he demanded. He referred to a past conversation with John Kerry, then a Democratic senator from Massachusetts. “I talked to Senator Kerry and Senator Kerry said that was good enough.”

Mr. Obama looked at him evenly. “Well,” he replied, “Senator Kerry is not president of the United States.”

That moment of sharp relief, a clash with an intransigent foreign apparatchik by a young American president feeling his own way, comes to life in a new oral history project on the Obama administration released on Wednesday. Six years after Mr. Obama left office, the project by Incite, a social science research institute at Columbia University, has assembled perhaps the most extensive collection of interviews from the era to date.

Researchers interviewed 470 Obama administration veterans, critics, activists and others who were in the thick of major events back then, including Mr. Obama and the first lady, Michelle Obama, amassing a total of 1,100 hours of recordings. Transcripts of the interviews are being released in batches over the next three years, starting with a first set of 17 made public on Wednesday focused on climate change, a central issue then that continues to shape the national debate today.

“There will be hundreds of new insights that come from this study, many of which will change our understanding of the Obama presidency and the period from 2008 to 2016 more generally,” said Peter Bearman, founding director of Incite and the principal investigator for the Obama oral history project.

What makes Mr. Obama’s presidency distinctive is the way it resonated around the world in the “Obama moment,” as Evan McCormick, who led the foreign policy part of the project, put it. “One thing that becomes clear in our interviews is that the moment of great hope and expectation ushered in by the election of the first Black president was a global one,” he said.

Oral histories of past presidencies have become valuable resources for historians and researchers in recent decades. The Miller Center at the University of Virginia has conducted such projects going back to Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The Columbia project was organized with the support of the Obama Foundation.

The first tranche of interviews does not include those of the former president, first lady or other major recognizable figures from the Obama era. Instead, it is tightly focused on one issue that the researchers deemed vital to his presidency, a wonk’s feast of policy discussion rather than a broader look at Mr. Obama himself or his overall eight years in power.

Still, some flavor of his management behind the scenes comes through even in these limited initial interviews. As he sucked down his favorite Fiji water, Mr. Obama would tease scientists and engineers. “I stayed away from you all in school,” he would say. “I’m a lawyer. I don’t like math. I don’t do math.” And when Steven Chu, his Nobel Prize-winning physicist-turned-energy secretary, showed up with 30 slides when five would have sufficed, an exasperated president would say, “Steve, we’ve got it. We’ve got it. We don’t need to look at any more of those.”

The focus on climate change in the first set of interviews also highlighted the larger trade-offs Mr. Obama made between competing priorities. The transcripts make clear, for instance, how he made health care his top legislative goal at the start of his tenure in 2009, perhaps dooming chances for the sweeping climate change measure he would eventually advocate.

At one point as he was expending all of his influence to pass the Affordable Care Act, he ruefully explained his calculations on timing to Mr. Chu. “Look, I know I said energy and health care, but next year,” he said. “Energy is next.”

By the time he turned his attention more fully to a clean energy plan in the form of a cap-and-trade system that would create market incentives to reduce greenhouse emissions, Mr. Obama’s political capital had been drained. The bill he pushed made it through the House but not the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“With Obama, I was just so absolutely hopeful,” recalled Carol M. Browner, his White House coordinator for energy and climate change policy. “I just felt like, we’re finally here on climate change. And we were. Then the Senate would never take up the bill.”

Mr. Chu, who considered Mr. Obama “an extraordinary president” for putting aside personal politics, nonetheless gave voice to the disappointment of many of his allies that he did not try harder to pressure Congress. In his oral history interview, Mr. Chu compared Mr. Obama with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was famous for strong-arming lawmakers into passing landmark civil rights laws and the Great Society anti-poverty program.

“He was less connected with Congress than I would have hoped,” Mr. Chu said. At one point in 2012, he recalled asking Mr. Obama if he had seen Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which recounted the moral compromises made to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. “Now I’m not asking President Obama to do immoral things,” Mr. Chu said. “But to shake down and use the power of the presidency to really garner votes was something I wish he had done more of. He was too much of a gentleman, too standoffish about that.”

After his re-election in 2012, Mr. Obama recommitted to saving the planet from ecological ruin. “Obama came into the second term clearly ready to rock and roll on climate change,” said Todd Stern, his special envoy for climate change at the State Department, who recounted for the Columbia interviewers the painstaking path to the Paris climate accord sealed in 2015, including the scene with the Chinese official. “Obama comes in like gangbusters.”

Mr. Obama’s successor, President Donald J. Trump, subsequently pulled the United States out of the Paris accord, but President Biden has rejoined the agreement.

The oral history organizers made a point of interviewing those dissatisfied with Mr. Obama as well, such as Bill McKibben, a longtime environmental activist and writer who helped found 350.org, a global grass-roots organization.

“My impatience with Mr. Obama and many others on this front is that I think they tended to group it,” meaning climate change, “with other problems that they faced and think about it in the same way that they thought about other things, as one item on a checklist,” he said.

“No matter how much I liked him,” Mr. McKibben added, “it was very clear he could care less about any of this stuff at some deep level and wasn’t willing to sacrifice — suffer any political pain in order to raise the issue.”

But his advisers insisted that Mr. Obama did care and said he regretted his early failures. Just before going out to the East Room of the White House in 2015 to announce his Clean Power Plan imposing caps on power plant carbon emissions, he told Gina McCarthy, his Environmental Protection Agency chief and later Mr. Biden’s climate adviser, that he was determined to take action for the sake of his two daughters.

“I promised to do something on climate,” he told her. “I didn’t get it delivered in my first term. And this is so meaningful.”

Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.



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