President Obama Interview | Real Time with Bill Maher (2016)

In 2016 President Obama appeared on "Real Time With Bill Maher", sitting down for a lengthy interview that touched on the criminal justice system and marijuana reform as well as Obama‘s legacy.

This is one probably the best candid and true interview with President Obama we have ever seen. Every American should be forced to watch it.
What emerges from this conversation is an erudite, smart and well rounded individual who clearly understands the complexity of the issues the United States faced and are still facing. Simply, a great statesman.
It’s depressing to think that he shared the Country with so many people who he shared nothing with.
It’s also hard to understand how a simpleton narcissistic bigot like Trump gets now to seat on the same chair.
Can you imagine Donald Trump having a conversation like this?

* * *

“If I watched Fox News I wouldn’t vote for me either.”
—President Obama

Aired on November 4, 2016

Okay we’re here with the president. We’re very excited to be here.

I’m very excited too.

Very grateful, thank you very much. You must be a little wistful. You must feel a little like David Ortiz about a month ago, where, you know, you’re going on to great things in the next chapter of your life.

And I’m still hitting.

And you’re still hitting.

But my feet hurt.

But, you know, you’ll never quite have a job as exhilarating.

Well, you know, it is time. I tell people that this has been a great run I have loved this job. I’m not going to pretend that there haven’t been moments of great frustration but it is a singular privilege. I think I’m as good a president now as I’ve ever been because you learn stuff. Eight years you’ve sort of been around the track a bunch of times but I also see now the wisdom of the founders, that at a certain point you have to let go for the democracy to work that there has to be fresh legs there have to be new people and you have to have the humility to recognize that, you know, you’re a citizen and you go back to being a citizen after this offices is over. So we’re just trying to run through the tape and… the great thing is I’ve got an unbelievable team around me of people who have done extraordinary work. I’m sort of the frontman for it and…

That’s very modest.

Well, you know, the fact that the team won’t be there in the same way, I think is the only thing that where you have a little bit of regret.

So we’re a week out from the election yeah and I you’re a history buff i think if when we look back, if Mr. Trump is defeated, I’m hopeful that we will be the take away will be that socialism was not such a dirty word anymore because of our friend Bernie Sanders and I just wondering, as someone who was accused of being a socialist before, [President Obama laughs] what do you think about the idea that in America yes were capitalist but some things just should not be for the profit motive healthcare, prisons, the military, elections and, I would add newsgathering. People say get the money out of politics I think you got to get out of the news business first or we’re never going to learn anything.

Well, a couple things I say. First of all you know if you look at the United States Canada Europe all the advanced democracies then clearly you’ve got to have a market-based system because it’s really productive and it spurs on innovation and freedom and entrepreneurship. And you’re going to have a social welfare state and you know in some ways the label socialism doesn’t make that much sense in a context where there’s no economy that doesn’t have some socialist elements. Meaning that there’s some common goods that we all agree everybody should have that’s what social security is that’s what Medicare is to some extent that’s what public schools are. We all chip in to make sure that everybody no matter the circumstances your birth have these baseline Goods and as you know I felt pretty strongly that health care should be one of those one of those goods. I’ve also said in the past that if I were designing a system from scratch I would have probably looked at a single-payer system. But we do have legacy systems and that’s the only thing that sometimes when I’ve had conversations with Bernie, I’ve said to them we don’t start from scratch there there you’ve got a one trillion dollar health care industry for example and you got a lot of people who are working for it and a lot of special interests involved and so my goal in the Affordable Care Act was if I can get millions of more people insurance, then that’s my first goal. Because for them this is not an abstraction, it’s like I’m not going to lose my home or my kids going to get cut and that’s what we’ve done but I see it as a starter home and then the question is how do we make sure everybody ultimately gets it because there’s still gaps in coverage. I think the same is true, you know, when it comes to some other issues to me I think there is a pretty bright line around prisons I agree with you that the criminal justice system should not be infected by the profit motive. This is the awesome power of the state saying we can take somebody’s freedom away we can lock them up because they’ve breached some part of the social contract the notion that you want in you might incentivize people to lock more people in or keep them there longer or not provide the kind of rehabilitation services so that they can get out of there. I think that’s a problem and so I’m very proud of some of the work that we’ve been trying to do along these lines. We got more work to do. When it comes to the media at the you know that’s a tougher call because look state-run media that’s what they got in…

Not state-run but just like it used to be where it was a lost leader for that for the networks. They didn’t have to make a profit because…

Partly because they had a monopoly though to some degree right right so they were fat and happy. In this kind of environment it’s hard to figure out how you would do that. but you know the I think the question I’d have when it comes to the media is how do we create a space where truth gets eyeballs at his entertaining and we can build a common conversation. What is true when I leave here, one of the things I’m most concerned about is the balkanization of the media, where you’ve got 800 stations you got all these websites, people have difficulty now just sorting out what’s true and what’s not and if you don’t have some common baseline of facts yeah you can have a disagreement about how to deal with climate change but if we have a big chunk of the country that share just discounts what 99% of scientists say completely it’s very hard to figure out how we move the democracy forward so I don’t have a good formula for that but I think that it’s something that I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about and seeing if maybe we can build some platforms where everybody says ok let’s uh let’s let’s agree on facts and then argue about means after that.

Okay let me ask you about a question that I know people who watch our show we’re interested in which is marijuana reform.

Is that something that you care about?

I do something I care about it’s now we both made jokes about it, but it’s not funny to the people who get arrested which is over half a million I think last year. You know you and I both could have had our lives ruined not really by smoking it but by being arrested for it and, you know, I feel like you had a checklist about let’s get rid of a lot of the stupid stuff like opening up Cuba you know you came out for gay marriage I was hoping ending the drug war would be on that list. It’s on the ballot now in nine states in a week including California, for recreational, and Arizona and medical in places like North Dakota. Isn’t it time the federal government caught up to progressive states like Arizona and North Dakota?

Well, I have always believed that to the extent that the society legitimately wants to guard against any kind of substance abuse, that you treated as a public health problem. Look I’m an ex-smoker, cigarette smoker,…


Ex, and…



Did you wink or did you get something in your eye there? I thought I’d got a wink too…

I’m chewing the heck out of nicorette.


Yeah but no when I passed health care reform that was I think right I’d had my last cigarette but but the reason is because there was this enormous public health effort to get kids not to pick up smoking and to make sure the parents felt guilty if if they were passing on that that habit to their kids. And so that’s where I think we need to go with pot alcohol and so so I don’t think that legalization is a panacea but I think that we’re going to have to have a more serious conversation about how we are treating marijuana and our drug laws generally. The good news is is that, after this referendum, to some degree it’s going to call the question because if in fact it passed in all these states you now have about a fifth of the country that’s operating under one set of laws and four-fifths in another. The Justice Department DEA FBI for them to try to straddle and figure out how they’re supposed to enforce laws in some places and not in others and they’re going to guard against transport transporting these drugs across state lines but, you know, you’ve got the entire Pacific corridor where this is this is legal. That is not going to be tenable now it’s not something that I think is going to happen overnight and I think there are some legitimate concerns that people have about how you draw lines on these issues, but it is indisputable that right now the biggest drug crisis we have is with opioids, many of which are legal and are ravaging entire communities all across the country, and for us to resort and not think of everything through the criminal justice lens but also through the public health lens, I think is something that’s going to need to happen.

Okay, switching topics, I don’t have anybody from my tribe of atheists ever thank you for giving us a shout out at your first inaugural but you didn’t mention non-believers asked you I think it was pardoned once.

More than once I am it’s not just in that speech I’ve done it often.

Well we appreciate it because we do feel like Untouchables to a degree I mean I don’t know if you saw the latest religion survey but almost a quarter of the country are nuns I don’t mean the ones who hit me on the knuckles with a ruler in Sunday school I mean they put none up for religion.

None of the above

Above right right they’re not no they’re atheists agnostics or they just don’t want to get up on Sunday right morning and we have no representation in Congress if if our numbers are represented to be over a hundred Congress people who felt that way. It just seems like we are not included in the basket of diversity in America, which is odd because we are the biggest minority that is a bigger minority than any other minority you can name oh don’t you think we should get a little more love?

You know, I guess my question would be whether there is active persecution of atheists. I think that there are certain well… I think for a candidate… I think you’re right that there are certain we might be occupations, probably most prominently politics, where there would be a bias against somebody who’s agnostic or atheist in running for office. I think that’s still true. outside of that arena though you seem to have done all right with your TV show I am at. I don’t I don’t get a sense but I’m the extent that they’re boycotting cutes because of your other wacky ideas rather than your particular view on religion.

What a bad or wacky idea?

The, you know…

I usually agree with you.

I I think I think the the average American, if they go to the workplace somebody’s next to them they’re not poking around trying to figure out what their religious beliefs are. So so so here’s what I would say that I think that we should foster a culture in which people’s private religious beliefs, including atheists and agnostics are respected. And that’s the kind of culture that I think allows all of us then to believe what we want that’s freedom of conscience that’s what our Constitution guarantees. And, you know, where we get into problems, typically, is when our personal religious faith or the community of faith that we participated and tips into a sort of fundamentalist extremism in which it’s not enough for us to believe what we believe but we start feeling obligated to, you know, hit you over the head because you don’t believe the same thing, or to treat you as as somebody who’s less than than I am.

But we have to be more pro-science in America if we were less religious don’t you think?

Well you know I think the issues we have with science these days are not restricted to what’s happening with respect to religion. There are a lot of very religious scientists around I think the problem is is that in our school systems and to some degree and this is where it is relevant with school boards around the country that are mandating curriculums and textbooks you start seeing this weird watering down of scientific fact so that our kids are growing up in an environment and this connects with a – what I was saying earlier about the media where everything’s contested that that nothing is true because if it’s on Facebook it all looks the same and if you’re reading something from a Nobel prize-winning physicist next to some guy in his underwear writing in his basement or his mom’s basement in on text it looks like it’s equally plausible and and part of what we have to do a better job of if our democracy is a function in a complicated diverse society like this is to teach our kids enough critical thinking to be able to sort out what is true and what is false, what is contestable and what is incontestable. We seem to have have trouble with that and our our political system doesn’t help.

Ok I want to ask you this question again it’s an issue I think we don’t get asked a lot about but it’s important to my audience I know people will roll their eyes and say it’s so California to ask this but food purity yeah something that means a lot to me somehow it got to be elitist or liberal I don’t get that to want food that isn’t full of pesticides or food that wasn’t created by torturing animals that in factory farms isn’t full of antibiotics which is a problem in itself. I feel like we’re upside down on food, we eat too much corn because we grow too much corn, because we subsidize too much corn and, you know, one of the problems with the Affordable Care Act is that people were found to sicker then expected and that’s partly birth of the food I think…

And obesity and all the work that Michelle’s been doing.

Yeah yeah what shouldn’t be a food be put more at the top of the agenda  when we come to addressing health care?

There’s no doubt about it that right now we got a disease care system we should have a health care system, and health care system would include nutrition exercise…

But also pushing back on corporate agriculture…

I think what is true is that for a long time agribusiness has a date obviously a prominent seat at the table in Congress it’s bipartisan. Some of the reforms that we’ve tried to initiate for example on the school lunch program have actually made some progress on this front and Michelle deserves a lot of credit for it as do a bunch of organizations that have worked on this. I think the strategy has to be one of persuasion and it has to be more demand driven, in the sense that… one of the things Michelle’s finding is is that when she worked with Walmart or craft or what have you and she said “look here’s the data, this is what parents want” the profit motive can actually work in favor of food purity as long as there’s good information out there and so part of our strategy has been how do we make sure that consumers are aware, they’ve got the information they need. Now I will tell you and this may be controversial in some your audience it is important to look at the science on this stuff so when it comes to antibiotics for example. The science is clear we pump our animals full of it and that’s not just a problem in terms of what we’re ingesting it’s also a problem that more and more bacteria is becoming resistant to antibiotics. But in some cases, like for example the GMO debate, there are areas where there are legitimate concerns, there are some areas where the science seems to indicate well this is okay.

We ended up back to the science it says it doesn’t increase the yield…

Well exactly.

…hadn’t they used just as many if not more pesticide.

Well that’s so so my point is what that what we have to be make sure we’re doing whether we’re on the left or the right is being driven by the science and if it turns out that some of these genetically modified foods aren’t healthier aren’t more productive and use more pesticides then we should follow the science if in some cases they’re not causing any harm then we should follow the science. There as well and that’s what I’ve tried to do in this administration is and then this goes beyond just you know nutrition policy. What I always say to my teams are figure out what is right as far as best we can tell figure out what the best policy is figure out what the science tells us. Figure out what the facts tell us what our best ideas out there and sort through them and then once you figure that out then we’ll worry about the politics after that. Don’t start with the politics and then try to get the facts to fit into the politics and I think that if you at minimum what that does is it keeps us tethered to reality. It makes us go to bed at night feeling pretty good about it you know what we’ve been trying to do because we’re not constantly trying to tack to whatever is fashionable or what public opinions are out there we just try to figure out as best we can what is the right answer and I think all of that.

Do you think we ask too little of the public politicians you know of course are always kissing up to the public and saying things like “if we only had a government as good as the people” but the people aren’t very well informed, they don’t exercise the right to vote and when they do they don’t know much about it… I just feel like we don’t we don’t ask the people very much we’re afraid to ask that people eat better you know that the phrase was “yes we can” I feel like they’re not pulling their weight on the we it’s a partnership with them you eat better, vote more, learn something.

You know, I actually think that part of the pitch I’ve made throughout my campaign and throughout my presidency is exactly that that change doesn’t come from on high that if you’re waiting for Congress then you’re going to be waiting a long time. Even a pretty capable well-meaning president is going to only be able to take the country so far without people, ordinary folks all across the country being engaged, being involved, being active. I constantly quote Louis Brandeis who said the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen it’s not president it’s not senator it’s not mayor and so I have tried consistently to say to the American people that this is only going to work if you’re engaged. Now, I will tell you having traveled every state met with people from every walk of life. People are basically good. I am a I’m a glass-half-full guy and an optimist about the human spirit. You are right though that people are busy, they’re stressed and they don’t have time to follow the intricacies of some debate around Medicaid or you know what’s going on in Syria. So when I say I want a government as good as the the American people, what I mean by that is that I think people’s instincts, their gut, what they what out of life and how they want to see people treated is actually pretty good, but the question then becomes how do we get enough information in front of them to be able to make good decisions. I’ve always believed that if I could sit in the living room with every person in America over, you know, that I’ve got the majority on my side and a healthy majority on my side, on every issue that we work on just by having a conversation. The problem is we got all these filters and… look, if I watched Fox News I wouldn’t vote for me either. Right because you know you’ve got this screen this funhouse mirror through which people are receiving information. How to break through that is a big challenge. This whole conversation that’s been had lately in the aftermath of the rise of Trump this notion that part of what’s happened is is that both Republican and Democratic elites have neglected the white working-class. Men truth of the matter is is that every policy I’ve put forward would make a huge difference with the white working-class and the black working class and the Latino working class whether it’s raising the minimum wage. Or the affordable care act given people health care who don’t have it and who are working hard and need help. Or making sure that unions are strong so that you could have a little more leverage at the workplace. Or making sure that something like the consumer finance Protection Bureau is protecting against some scam mortgage. But what is true is that, because it’s hard to get into the details of all these issues with folks who are running around dropping off their kids at school and trying to punch the clock and figuring out how to make ends meet, and just want to relax when they come home and not watch you know Meet the Press, then, in that environment, a lot of what people take in, is just symbols and signifiers and you get into identity politics and culture wars. What I’d like to figure out, and I think Democrats do have an affirmative obligation to do  this is to work harder to figure out in this new age what’s the equivalent of getting into people’s living rooms and being able to have a conversation. And being able to listen to people and … I’ve been able to do this successfully during my campaigns. I have not always been able to do it as successfully here in this White House, partly because this bubble that’s created around me.

Does American need to be an Empire? We have more troops in more places than any Empire in the history world. We spend over 600 billion on defense and that’s not including the nukes taking care of veterans homeland security when you add it all up it’s probably over a trillion to keep the monsters away. I’m wondering if we could be just as safe spending half as much. Eisenhower warned, when he was close to the end of his second term like you are now about the military-industrial complex, and it seems no president of either party ever makes any progress on that, pushing back on that. Will it ever happen? Did you want to do that?

Well, look, keep in mind Bill when I came into office we had 180,000 troops, just in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we have about 15,000. So that’s pretty…

But we still spend as much, we still spend more…

You know, actually our spending I think has has been steady… here’s what I’d say: that humility and foreign policy is is a useful trait particularly in the Oval Office I think bad things happen around the world and our natural instinct is we should do something there are times where our intervention makes a difference. But there are a lot of times where unintended consequences can result in more problems when we intervene, and sorting out where those issues play out is I think one of the biggest challenges that any president has. My bias is that if it comes to defending the American people against Al Qaeda, ISIL, somebody who wants to blow up a train station in midtown Manhattan, than I’m going to go after them and I make no apologies about it and I want a vigorous military in place. And when it comes to maintaining a basic international order so that a guy like Kim Jong-un in North Korea doesn’t suddenly start holding all of Asia hostage because he is building a bunch of nuclear weapons and feels free to threaten everybody else it’s important for us to have alliances in place and to be able to work on the international scene. And us having the most powerful military on earth helps that happen. It helps check the impulses of some other bad folks. And I will tell you as somebody who has now served as commander in chief for the last eight years not only are the men and women in uniform that I work with extraordinary you know you meet 23 year olds who are in charge of life and death with missions and maintaining billion-dollar pieces of equipment and they just execute and do it unbelievably well but what you also discover is my top brass Joint Chiefs of Staff they’re not the chickenhawks who are going around trying to get us in every single war. The generals, the colonels, the commanders that I work with they know the wages of war and they’re actually pretty thoughtful about it and typically in the Situation Room they’re the ones who are like well before we go half-cocked on something let’s really think about this because this is what would be involved and they have seen what’s involved because most of them our people who were fighting in Iraq and fighting in Afghanistan and they know how hard these environments are and that no matter how good our intentions a lot of times it can go haywire but having said all that I think we should have restraint I think we should have humility I think we have to wherever possible work multilaterally and not just unilaterally because if we can’t organize coalition’s to do things that means that maybe we’re we haven’t thought everything through having said all that it turns out that as as flawed is sometimes our foreign policy can be or whatever blind spots we have we really are the indispensable nation I think if we if there is a you know typhoon that wipes out someplace in Southeast Asia our military is the only organization that has the infrastructure to help those folks quickly. When Ebola came out, we actually had to build the platform whereby everybody else could even think about bringing their doctors and nurses in if you have a rogue nation that decided it was going to you know take action that significantly threatened a lot of people I’d want to know that the US military was there and I can tell you setting aside our military power there’s not an international meeting I go to in which if we weren’t sitting at the table nothing get done, because for the most part other countries don’t have either the capacity or the inclination. When you’ve got a bunch of authoritarian governments out there and creeping authoritarian impulse around the world, we also are the ones who are pushing back most effectively, imperfectly but most effectively, against locking up journalists and killing human rights activists and making sure that poor people get food and dealing with public health crises. I think if you see the world from my seat…

I won’t.

…a sort of sort of that the one thing I think is important for progressives to guard against, is a tendency sometimes to not fully appreciate that America is…

Yeah… the bad guys.

…that America is not just a great nation in the sense that it’s powerful but that our values and I are and our ideals actually matter and we do a lot of good around the world, and there’s some things that we do that are either ineffective or imperfect, but there’s a lot to be proud of, and there’s a lot to build on and now what we’ve got to do is make sure that we get our own house in order so that we can key on doing.

Yeah, I know you’re off to Ohio right you’ve got an election to rig… and I want you to get out there because, boy, it’s it’s a very nervous time for a state people who are worried about Mr. Trump…

The stakes are high. I know we are…

We’re getting there

…we’re getting the gone, but I will say this: the choice in this election should be really clear and and and anybody who’s watching your show and was a supporter of mine, was a supporter of Bernie’s, you know, is a progressive generally… This idea that somehow both of them have problems and you know nothing will change either way… Listen, all the progress we’ve made on climate change, Paris agreement, HFC agreement, Aviation Agreement, the twenty million people who have health insurance that right now that didn’t have it before, all the progress that we’ve made on trying to check the excesses Wall Street and Dodd-Frank and the end of the seat Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, any chance of immigration reform, including the work that we did to make sure that these amazing dreamer kids all across the country who are now going to college or serving in our military are not suddenly deported or at risk of deportation… Every single issue that we’ve made progress on over the last eight years is gonna be on the ballot, in the form of this choice. I have worked with Hillary Clinton, I know her and she is somebody who cares about these issues, she does her homework, she cares deeply about ordinary folks, her policies are aligned with yours and mine and yes, she is somebody who believes in compromising—you don’t get a hundred percent of what you want—but you know what, that’s the way this democracy works. Anybody sitting on the sidelines right now or deciding to engage in a protest vote… that’s a vote for Trump and that would be badly damaging for this country and it would be damaging for the world. So, no complacency this time.

Get out there.

Get out there.

Thank you so much, you did a hell of a job in this office. I know I speak for myself and my own audience.

It means a lot.

It means a lot that you did this for us.

And even if I wasn’t on the show that often, I watched it all the time.


I did.

Well that’s nice to hear. Thank You Mr. President appreciate it. All right.


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