On election night, 2016, then-President Barack Obama called Donald Trump at about 3 a.m. to congratulate him,even though Mr. Trump had lost the popular vote and took the electoral college by less than 1% in three states. Today, President Trump declines to accept the verdict of the voters despite losing by greater margins to President-elect Joe Biden. Mr. Obama hasn’t spoken of the election stand-off until today. We spoke to the 44th president on the release of his new book, “A Promised Land,” a memoir of his early years and first term.
Scott Pelley: What is your advice in this moment for President Trump?
Barack Obama: Well, a president is a public servant. They are temporary occupants of the office, by design. And when your time is up then it is your job to put the country first and think beyond your own ego, and your own interests, and your own disappointments. My advice to President Trump is, if you want at this late stage in the game to be remembered as somebody who put country first, it’s time for you to do the same thing.
Scott Pelley: In your view, it is time for him to concede?
Barack Obama: Absolutely. Well, I mean, I think it was time for him to concede probably– the day after the election– or at the latest, two days after the election. When you look at the numbers objectively, Joe Biden will have won handily. There is no scenario in which any of those states would turn the other way, and certainly not enough to reverse the outcome of the election.
More than the courtesy of a concession, the Trump White House is declining to free up the usual funds and facilities for the incoming administration. President-elect Biden is not receiving secret national security briefings as Mr. Trump did when he was president-elect.
Scott Pelley: What in your estimation would our adversaries be thinking right now, Russia, China, about the fact that the transition is not moving forward?
Barack Obama: Well, I– look, I think our adversaries have seen us weakened, not just as a consequence of this election, but over the last several years. We have these cleavages in the body politic that they’re convinced they can exploit. There’s an old adage that partisan politics should stop at the water’s edge, right? That, when it comes to our foreign policy, that it is the United States of America, not the divided states of America.
We met the former president at a symbol of America’s past divisions. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery was a hospital in the Civil War. Clara Barton and Walt Whitman cared for patients in the building where the 16th president consoled his wounded. We joined Mr. Obama’s peers in the gallery of the presidents to talk about his book.
Scott Pelley: I’m curious about the title. I think a lot of people feel that we are farther from a promised land.
Barack Obama: Well, I titled it “The Promised Land” because even though we may not get there in our lifetimes, even if we experience hardships and disappointments along the way, that I at least still have faith we can create a more perfect union. Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.
Scott Pelley: You write in the book, “Our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of a crisis.” What do you mean?
Barack Obama: We have gone through a presidency that disregarded a whole host of basic institutional norms, expectations we had for a president that had been observed by Republicans and Democrats previously. And maybe most importantly, and most disconcertingly, what we’ve seen is what some people call truth decay, something that’s been accelerated by outgoing President Trump, the sense that not only do we not have to tell the truth, but the truth doesn’t even matter.
Scott Pelley: What are these false claims of widespread election fraud doing to our country right now?
Barack Obama: The president doesn’t like to lose and– never admits loss. I’m more troubled by the fact that other Republican officials who clearly know better are going along with this, are humoring him in this fashion. It is one more step in delegitimizing not just the incoming Biden administration, but democracy generally. And that’s a dangerous path. We would never accept that out of our own kids behaving that way if they lost, right? I mean, if my daughters, in any kinda competition, pouted and– and then accused the other side of cheating when they lost, when there was no evidence of it, we’d scold ’em. I think that there has been this sense over the last several years that literally anything goes and is justified in order to get power. And that’s not unique to the United States. There are strong men and dictators around the world who think that, “I can do anything to stay in power. I can kill people. I can throw them in jail. I can run phony elections. I can suppress journalists.” But that’s not who we’re supposed to be. And one of the signals I think that Joe Biden needs to send to the world is that, “No, those values that we preached, and we believed in, and subscribed in– we still believe.
Scott Pelley: President-elect Biden won in this election more votes than anyone in history. And yet, the 2020 vote wasn’t a repudiation of Donald Trump; it was more like an affirmation. He received 71 million votes, 8 million more than he did in 2016. What does that tell you about our country today?
Barack Obama: Well, A. it tells us that we’re very divided. And as I said, it’s not just the politicians now. The voters are divided. It has now become a contest where issues, facts, policies per se don’t matter as much as identity and wanting to beat the other guy. You know, that’s taken priority. I do think the current media environment adds to that greatly. This democracy doesn’t work if we don’t have an informed citizenry. This democracy doesn’t work if we don’t have responsible elected officials at other levels who are willing to call the president when he’s not doing something right, call him on it.
Scott Pelley: It seems, though, Mr. President, that Americans have gone from disagreeing with one another to hating one another, a problem that this man had. (Pointing to portrait of Abraham Lincoln)
Barack Obama: He’s a good example of somebody who I think understood deeply the need to be able to see another person’s point of view.
Scott Pelley: How do we overcome where we are today?
Barack Obama: There’s no American figure that I admire any more than Abraham Lincoln. But he did end up– with a civil war on his hands. I think we’d like to avoid that. I do think that a new president can set a new tone. That’s not gonna solve all the gridlock in Washington. I think we’re gonna have to work with the media and with the tech companies to find ways to inform the public better about the issues and to– bolster the standards that ensure we can separate truth from fiction. I think that we have to work at a local level. When you start getting to the local level, mayors– county commissioners, et cetera, they’ve actually gotta make real decisions. It’s not abstractions. It’s like, “We need to fix this road. We need to get this snow plowed. We need to make sure our kids have a safe playground to– to– to play in.” And at that level, I don’t think people have that kind of– visceral hatred. And that’s where we have to start in terms of rebuilding the social trust we need for democracy to work.
Mr. Obama is speaking after four years of virtual silence on Donald Trump. He followed a traditional commandment largely observed since adams succeeded washington –thou shall not criticize your successor. In “A Promised Land” he wonders if that was a mistake.
Scott Pelley: In your book, you ask, quote, “Whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth, too cautious in word or deed.” Many Americans, Mr. President, believe you were too cautious, too tempered.
Barack Obama: Yeah. And– and– and I think that’ a legitimate and understandable criticism. At the end of the day, I consistently tried to treat my political opposition in the ways I’d want to be treated, To not overreact when, for example, somebody yells, “You lie,” in the middle of me giving a joint congressional address.
Barack Obama: I understand why there were times where my supporters wanted me to be more pugilistic, to, you know, pop folks in the head and duke it out a little bit more.
Scott Pelley: Was it a mistake that you didn’t?
Barack Obama: Every president brings a certain temperament to office. I think part of the reason I got elected was because I sent a message that fundamentally I believe the American people are good and decent, and that politics doesn’t have to be some cage match in– in which everybody is– is going at each other’s throats and that we can agree without being disagreeable.
There have been worse presidential transitions than 2020. The southern states seceded while Lincoln was president-elect. Still, we couldn’t help but notice, outside the national portrait gallery, businesses are still boarded up against the fear of political violence.
Scott Pelley: What should President Trump do on this next inauguration day?
Barack Obama: Look there are a set of traditions that we have followed in the peaceful transfer of power. The outgoing president congratulates the incoming president, instructs the government and the agencies to cooperate with the new government coming in. You invite the president-elect to the Oval Office And then on inauguration day, the president invites the president-elect to the White House and there’s a small reception. And then you drive to the inauguration site, and the outgoing president sits there and is part of the audience as the new president is sworn in. And at that point, the outgoing president is a citizen like everybody else and owes the new president the chance to do their best on behalf of the American people. Whether Donald Trump will do the same thing we’ll have to see. So far, that’s not been his approach. But you know hope springs eternal. There’s a promised land out there somewhere.
Two hours after Mr. Obama said that, President Trump tweeted from the White House, “We will win” even though no state is reporting fraud or errors that could change the outcome.
During Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, unknown to the public, there was intelligence that a terrorist attack was planned. President Obama had, at the podium, instructions he would read to the crowd should there be an evacuation of nearly 2 million people from the National Mall. This is one of the insights in Mr. Obama’s new book, “A Promised Land,” a memoir of his early years, his historic election, and his first term. We spoke to the 44th president about battles past and present.
Scott Pelley: Did you watch the video of George Floyd’s strangulation?
Barack Obama: Of course. It was heartbreaking. Very rarely, though, did you see it so viscerally and over a stretch of time where the humanity of the victim is so apparent, the pain and the vulnerability of someone so clear. And it was, I think, a moment in which America for a brief moment came face to face with a reality that African Americans in this country I think had understood for quite some time. And I was heartened and inspired by the galvanizing effect that it had on the country as a whole. The fact that it wasn’t just Black people. It wasn’t just some, quote/unquote, “liberals” who were appalled by it, reacted to it, and eventually marched. But it was everybody. And it was a small first step in the kind of reckoning with our past and our present that so often we avoid.
Scott Pelley: But Mr. President, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, why is this injustice never overcome?
Barack Obama: Well, it, for a couple of reasons. One is that we have a criminal justice system in which we ask oftentimes very young, oftentimes not-very-well-trained officers to go into communities and just keep a lid on things. And, you know, we don’t try to get at some of the underlying causes for chronic poverty. So if we’re going to actually solve this problem, there are some specific things we can do to make sure that our contracts with police officers don’t completely insulate them when they do something wrong, putting money into budgets for training these police officers more effectively, teaching police officers not to escalate but to de-escalate. But it’s important for us not to let ourselves off the hook and think this is just a police problem, because those shootings, that devaluation of life is part and parcel with a legacy of discrimination, and Jim Crow, and segregation that we’re all responsible for. And if we’re gonna actually put an end to racial bias in the criminal justice system, then we’re gonna have to work on doing something about racial bias in corporate America and bias in where people can buy homes. And that is a larger project in which all of the good news is all of us can take some responsibility. We– we can all do better on this front than we’ve been doing.
We joined the president this past Wednesday behind masks and then kept our distance as the U.S. counted 143,000 known COVID infections that day, a new record. Mr. Obama had also faced an outbreak in his first term—a new flu, H1N1.
Barack Obama: I was terrified of it and very quickly mobilized a team to figure out, “How are we gonna take the best possible approach?” And from the start, I had some very clear criteria which it was, number one, we’re gonna follow the science. And the second thing was, “Let’s make sure we’re providing good information to the American people.”
But H1N1, was not as contagious nor as lethal as COVID. It ultimately killed 12,000 Americans. Other battles in his book include the financial crisis, passing the affordable care act, the decision to kill Osama bin Laden and leaving eight years of work in the hands of another.
Scott Pelley: You begin the book by writing about the day that you left Washington, quote, “to someone diametrically opposed to everything we stood for.”
Barack Obama: That may be the one thing that Donald Trump and I agree on, is that he doesn’t agree with me on anything. I don’t see him as the cause for our divisions and the problems with our government. I think he’s an accelerant, but they preceded him. and sadly are gonna likely outlast him.
Scott Pelley: You write in the book that Republicans had a battle plan to, quote, “Refuse to work with me, regardless of the circumstances, the issue, or the consequences for the country.” Now, the same might be said of Democrats in a Republican administration. I wonder if today you think that Democrats and Republicans are no longer capable of compromise.
Barack Obama: First of all, I don’t think this is just a plague on both their houses here. So, the Democrats opposed George Bush on a whole buncha stuff. But Ted Kennedy worked with George Bush to pass a prescription drug plan for seniors. Nancy Pelosi, who adamantly opposed the war in Iraq, time and again voted, even when her base was angry about it, to make sure that our troops were funded once the decision to send in troops to Iraq went in.
Mr. Obama blames gridlock on something old and something new, the Senate’s filibuster tradition which allows whatever party is in the minority to block legislation and nontraditional media.
Barack Obama: The media landscape has changed. And as a consequence, voters’ perceptions have changed. So that I think Democratic and Republican voters have become much more partisan. I would often hear this from Republicans during my presidency, some of these folks have been colleagues of mine. I served in the Senate. Some of them were friends of mine. And they would confess to me and said, “Look, Mr. President, I know you’re right. But if I vote with you on this, I’m gonna get killed. I’ll lose my seat.” Because what had happened is their voter base had soaked in so much information that was demonizing me, demonizing the Affordable Care Act, that it becomes very difficult, even for folks who want to cooperate, to cooperate. And that’s why I am somebody who does not blame the current partisanship solely on Donald Trump or solely on social media. You already saw some of these trends taking place early in my presidency. But I do think they’ve kept on getting worse.
The former president also writes about his unlikely rise—including the obstacles at home.
Scott Pelley: You’re surprisingly honest in the book about your wife’s opposition to you running for president in 2008. You quote her as saying, “The answer is no. I do not want you running for president. God, Barack, when is it going to be enough?” Did I get the tone right?
Barack Obama: It was a little sharper than that, but it was pretty good, Scott.
Scott Pelley: And then she walks out of the room. Why did that not stop you?
Barack Obama: Look, it’s a legitimate question. Keep in mind the context here. We had– just two years earlier, I’d run for the U.S. Senate in an unlikely race. Two years before that, I had run for Congress.
Scott Pelley: In a race you lost.
Barack Obama: In a race I lost. A couple years before that, I had run for the state senate. We’d got two young kids. Michelle’s still working. And I ask myself in the book, you know, “How much of this is just megalomania? How much of this is vanity? How much of this is me trying to– prove something to myself?” And over time she made a conclusion that, “I shouldn’t stand in the way of this.” She then–
Scott Pelley: That she should not stand in the way of your ambitions–
Barack Obama: Yeah.
Scott Pelley: –to be president?
Barack Obama: Yeah. And– and– and she did so grudgingly. And the fact that I ended up winning didn’t necessarily alleviate her frustration because the toll it takes on families is real.
Scott Pelley: I think it’s only after you emerge from an all-consuming job that you realize that everything you hold dear is thanks to the one you love.
Barack Obama: I think I actually realized that even while I was in the job. The fact that she put up with it and forgave me is—was an act of grace that I am grateful for and I’m not sure I deserved it
Today, at the age of 59, Mr. Obama is working on his presidential center.
Barack Obama: So this is gonna be on the South Side of Chicago in historic Jackson Park. And it’s the place where Michelle and I met, where I first started in public life.
His team brought this model to show us. Mr. Obama’s foundation has raised, from private donations, a little over half the estimated 500 million dollar cost. It will take about four years once they start.
Barack Obama: It’s gonna be a place where, you know, we have the standard model Oval Office, and Michelle’s dresses, which will be very popular no doubt. But also, you know, a whole host of facilities that allow us to provide classroom training to young people who are interested in public service, and to beautify a park that can serve a whole bunch of young people who’ve been underserved in the past.
In his last moments in the Oval Office Mr. Obama left a note in the president’s desk for his successor. It read, in part, “We are just temporary occupants of this office… It’s up to us to leave the… instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.”
Barack Obama: On that last day– the emotions really focus on the team that you’ve been working on. And it’s very rare outside of maybe wartime where you get a collection of people working together in a sustained way under that kind of pressure and stress. And so there’s a melancholy to it. There was also though, and I write about this, a satisfaction in knowing that I had finished the job, I had run my stretch of the race. And I could say unequivocally, despite regrets and disappointments about some things not getting done– the country was better off when I left than when I got there.
Produced by Maria Gavrilovic. Associate producer, Alex Ortiz. Broadcast associate, Ian Flickinger. Edited by Sean Kelly and Warren Lustig.