Barack Obama was always a generationally gifted storyteller, as I was reminded earlier this month when I sat down to interview him in Chicago—one of the perks of emceeing this year’s Democracy Forum, the annual gathering of the Obama Foundation. The one-day event, timed to coincide with the 15th anniversary of Obama’s 2008 election, was nostalgic at times, recalling a political era of hope and change. But Obama himself was mostly focused on looking forward: to the rapid and destabilizing force of A.I. and the tenuous state of democracy around the world, as well as the exploding war between Israel and Hamas. There was a mix of urgency, humility, and, yes, still some hope in the air.
In our time together onstage, I asked the former president how he would apply the practice of democracy and citizenship to address the problems of climate, technology, the economy, and our media ecosystem. Not a simple prompt! But in classic Obama fashion, he spoke thoughtfully about the tension and multiple truths of the moment. Perhaps most poignantly, he reframed the question as a challenge: “How do we take the understanding that everybody’s stories matter,” he said, “and then still find the possibility of finding common ground?”
It’s an important question, and one that’s become increasingly difficult for anyone in politics to answer. Obama was supposed to be the Purple America president who helped us find that common ground. He tried, but he was met with conspiracy theories, increasing norm-busting partisanship by G.O.P. members of the House and Senate, and a historical drift toward more media fragmentation driven by digital platforms that isolated us from each other without the moderating effect of government oversight. Where we ended up after Obama, in a land riven by hyperpartisanship and disinformation, wasn’t inevitable, but the odds were against us finding common ground once Donald Trump assumed the presidency. He was purpose-built for these times, pouring fuel on a growing fire of grievance that raged by the end of his presidency. Insults, impeachable offenses, and “alternative facts” became a new normal.