When Axelrod asked how he reconciled this with Trump’s win in 2016, Obama chalked up much of it to persisting “issues in our society around race,” while cautioning that he was not saying all of his political opposition, or conservatives overall, were racist.
Obama pushed back, however, on the chatter that another candidate of color, or a woman, couldn’t be elected president.
“The idea that there’s some demographic or profile of a particular candidate that is the optimal one or the ideal one, that’s just not how I’ve seen politics work. People respond to candidates who speak to the moment in some fashion,” Obama said.
One point of agreement between the two presidents: Obama also thinks the Senate should scrap the filibuster, blaming the 60-vote threshold for the trouble he had passing legislation while in the White House, and marveling how “this extra-constitutional thing … that arose sort of as an accident” has become a given in American democracy.
Trump has also railed against the filibuster, urging the Senate to get rid of it entirely. The Senate so far has not, after Democratic moves in 2013 that began scaling it back by eliminating it around most presidential appointments and Republican moves in 2017 that scaled it back even further to eliminate it for Supreme Court nominees.
“You already have a range of counter-majoritarian structures embedded in the Constitution,” Obama said, saying the filibuster “has made it almost impossible for us to effectively govern at a time when you have at least one party that is not willing to compromise on issues.”
They also appeared to agree on Nancy Pelosi. Obama heaped praise on the minority leader’s bid to return as speaker, which Trump has also said he supports—though in Obama’s case, it was out of respect and admiration, and in Trump’s it appears to at least partly involve trolling.
In his interview with Axelrod, Obama expressed clear frustration looking back on some elements of his presidency, which he said he’s been reflecting on while writing his memoir back home in Washington, including the Republican Senate majority’s refusal to consider his nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
“We couldn’t focus enough attention on the fact that the basic norms of governance that took place for prior presidents suddenly didn’t hold for us,” Obama said.
He noted that his administration had explored the possibility of a Garland recess appointment, but concluded that existing case law would likely have had it struck down.
Obama declined to pick a favorite Democrat in the 2020 race, but he said he agreed with Axelrod that there’s a need for the kind of blunt speaking and reaching out that Beto O’Rourke did in his run for Senate in Texas, calling him “an impressive young man who ran a terrific race.”