Lincoln and King. On March 12, 2010, President Obama welcomed me into the Oval Office for an interview for this book. Dressed in an elegant dark blue business suit and tie with an American flag pin in his left lapel, he was serene and confident. Behind him was the portrait of George Washington that has hung in the Oval Office for many years. Flanking that portrait were two busts added by Obama, reflecting his own values and heroes—behind him on his right was a likeness of Martin Luther King Jr., and on his left was one of Abraham Lincoln.
Obama was in a reflective mood. He began the interview by saying he had been "fully briefed" on my topic and was ready for me to "dive in." He proceeded to methodically defend his effort to build a race-neutral administration. "Americans, since the victories of the civil rights movement, I think, have broadly come to accept the notion that everybody has to be treated equally; everybody has to be treated fairly," the president told me. "And I think that the whole debate about how do you make up for past history creates a complicated wrinkle in that principle of equality."
Calmly, candidly, and with typical intellectual precision, Obama gave one of his most extensive analyses of the country's racial situation and his goals for improving it. He made clear that he was president of all Americans, not just of African-Americans, and didn't want to be thought of only as a black president, even though he acknowledged that the country had been extremely proud in November 2008 when a majority of voters made history by electing him. He said he wasn't sure how many Americans still saw him "through the lens of race," although he acknowledged that, within the black community, "there is a great pride that's undeniable," and many African-American children "may feel a special affinity to me as a role model." He compared all this with Irish-Catholic Americans who felt enormous pride in John F. Kennedy's election as the first Irish-Catholic president in 1960.
I asked him if he was very conscious of his own race as he conducted the business of the presidency, and his answer was insightful. "You just don't think about it, you really don't," he replied. "You've got too many other things to worry about."
I asked him how much he felt an obligation or responsibility as the first African-American president to advance racial justice and make up for some of the past disparities between blacks and whites. He replied, "Well, I think that every president should feel an obligation to deal with not only issues of discrimination, but also the legacy of slavery and segregation that has been such a profound part of our history. You know, obviously it's hard for me to engage in a mind experiment and say, well, if I weren't African-American, would I feel less strongly about it or more strongly about it—and I know I feel strongly about it. I do come to this issue with personal experiences that are unlike any previous presidents'.
"But I also think that anybody in this office who cares deeply about the future of the country would be looking and saying to themselves, the population is changing; the future workforce is going to have a lot more African-American and Latino and Asian workers. And if those populations don't feel fully assimilated into the culture, aren't performing at high levels educationally, are caught in cycles of poverty—that that's not good for America's future. And that's certainly how I feel—and I would like to think that any president would feel that way."