Last week, the US President Barack Obama sat down for a wide ranging interview with journalist Jon Sopel, who is currently the BBC’s North America Editor and formerly a Politics Student at Southampton University. Obama was candid during the interview and revealed a number of personal thoughts and interpretations offering an insight into his view of the presidency.
As a former president of the Student’s Union, Sopel is no stranger to politics and all the squabbles that come with it. The interview discussed a variety of topics, including defence and Obama’s perception of the UK and the EU, but also discussed more personal topics including the reason he had made the decision to become the first US president to make a state visit to Kenya.
Although many of the reasons motivating the historic visit were political, including strengthening the ‘strong’ diplomatic ties and co-operation between the two countries on matters such as business and anti-terrorism, the visit also had personal significance for Obama. Some Kenyans saw the visit as a form of homecoming for the president, whose ancestors were of Kenyan origin.
That’s not to say that there weren’t awkward moments, even if the country did intend to make him feel welcome. In his interview with Sopel, Obama highlighted the issue of gay rights as something he wanted to see progress in Africa, especially after the momentous decision of the US Supreme Court to legalise same sex marriage across America:
As somebody who has family in Kenya and knows the history of how the country so often is held back because women and girls are not treated fairly, I think those same values apply when it comes to different sexual orientations.
Predictably enough, the issue led to a somewhat icy exchange with Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta when it was brought up at state dinner hosted for Obama. Kenyatta rejected the idea that gay rights were a problem in the country and described the problem as a ‘non-issue’.
The president also discussed domestic politics, including a remarkably candid appraisal of the issues he regretted he had failed to deal with. One such issue was gun policy in America, especially in the wake of recent crimes such as the Charleston shooting. Although Obama said he would continue to work on the issue, he described it as
the one area where I feel that I’ve been most frustrated and most stymied…the United States of America is the one advanced nation on earth in which we do not have sufficient common-sense, gun-safety laws. Even in the face of repeated mass killings.
Race relations were also an area where Obama believed he had failed to make progress, stating his belief that it is impossible for any president to completely resolve the issue of race relations when it is a ‘fault line in American life and American politics‘. The president stated that there would always be tensions, but believed that as a result of America’s increasing diversity, increasing tolerance and acceptance would come as a consequence.
America’s relationship with the UK also came up in the interview. In a rather frank admission, Obama warned about what he believed were the risks of the UK leaving the EU, stating:
Having the United Kingdom in the European Union gives us much greater confidence about the strength of the transatlantic union and is part of the cornerstone of institutions built after World War II that has made the world safer and more prosperous….
We want to make sure that United Kingdom continues to have that influence.
Such comments are unlikely to impress the Prime Minister, who has pledged an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU by 2017, as they show a clear interest in what is considered by some to be a UK only debate.
Other topics of discussion included the difficulties of encouraging Middle East powers to accept the nuclear deal with Iran and the UK’s involvement in airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State. Perhaps, however, the most striking admission during this interview is Obama’s interpretation of his own legacy. When asked what he thought his legacy would be, Obama said he would like to think that he had turned his campaign slogan ‘yes we can’ into ‘yes we did’.
You can watch the full interview here.