A Conversation with President Obama on Political Courage

By Jack Schlossberg, grandson of President Kennedy and member of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Committee

Last week, President Obama received the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award for his many acts of political courage over the last eight years in office. The President embodies the definition of courage, offered by Hemingway and a favorite of President Kennedy’s: grace under pressure.

On healthcare, climate change, nuclear disarmament, gun control and countless other issues, President Obama consistently made difficult choices and put the national interest over his own political interest to do what was right. All the while, he resisted the politics of cynicism in a system that too often encourages it.

I had the chance to sit down with the former president and ask him a few questions about political courage, history, and the world today. After our conversation and his acceptance speech, I left feeling grateful to him for his example over the last eight years, and determined to live up to the standard of thoughtfulness, compassion and courage that he set for our country and my generation.

JACK SCHLOSSBERG: Well, first of all, thank you very much for being here.
BARACK OBAMA: It’s great to see you, Jack.
JACK SCHLOSSBERG: You’re receiving an award for your political courage, which you demonstrated in many different ways. I was wondering which issues you thought during your presidency demanded of you the most courage?
BARACK OBAMA: Well, the hardest issue that I dealt with was always sending our young men and women into harm’s way, our troops. And so the first time I decided that we needed more troops in Afghanistan, I made a presentation at West Point. And seeing people younger than you and knowing that many of them would be in a really dangerous situation, that was tough. But I actually think that the issue that required the most political courage was the decision not to bomb Syria after the chemical weapons use had been publicized and rather to negotiate them removing chemical weapons from Syria.
Now, we know subsequently that some remained, so it was an imperfect solution. But what we also know is that 99 percent of huge chemical weapons stockpiled were removed without us having to fire a shot.
The reason it was hard was because, as president, what you discover is that you generally get praised for taking military action, and you’re often criticized for not doing so.
And it wasn’t a slam dunk, but I thought that it made sense for a variety of reasons for us to see if we could actually try to eliminate the prospect of large-scale chemical weapons use rather than the political expedience of a one-time shot.
The Bin Laden decision was difficult as well, but that one was one where I felt enough confidence in our men and women in uniform and our Navy Seals that once I knew that I could get them back out, I felt like it was worth a shot.
JACK SCHLOSSBERG: Well, that’s interesting, your point about being praised for taking military action versus being criticized for not. How did you decide that it was a smarter tactic to resist cynicism and not play the game — political game — as it’s being played by some people and make your own example, and how you decided that that was a better strategy?
BARACK OBAMA: You know, I think that, as your grandfather said several times, the measure of courage is not that you don’t worry or aren’t afraid. It’s that you still make a decision to do what you think is right at any given moment. You’re not always going to get it right.
I think by the time I had gone through a big crisis in the world economy and had disabled the auto industry and had been subject to a lot of criticism and had lost the majority in Congress and been subject to more criticism, there’s something about experience that oftentimes helps you have some political courage because you realize that the sun will come up the next day, and you’re going to over the long term feel better about the work that you did if you focus on being true to yourself and your values and your principles.
And what I found was the longer I was in the presidency, the more certain I was, not about outcomes, but about what should drive the decisions that I make.
JACK SCHLOSSBERG: On a different note, my grandfather was a student of history. That’s how I became interested in it. And I was wondering, during your presidency, in difficult moments that required courage, how did you look to history for guidance and what did that look like? Did you call up an historian, or did you read a speech, or did you read a book, or did you just think about ways that things are similar?
BARACK OBAMA: That’s interesting. A lot of times you don’t have the spare time to go read a history book.
BARACK OBAMA: So you’re relying on or drawing on the baseline of knowledge that you have. And you search those databanks to see if there’s something comparable that might inform the decisions that you have to make right now.
Obviously, your grandfather’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a classic example of someone showing firmness, restraint, thinking through a problem, not bending to short-term passions, and ultimately arriving to a good outcome.
Lincoln, I think, and the struggles he went through during the Civil War, always gave me perspective because as tough as the problems I was dealing with were, I didn’t have troops a few miles away from where I was making those decisions and the country that I was supposed to be governing shooting at each other.
You know, it’s part of the reason why I do think that there is a value, even before you go into office, in having a certain baseline of history because, if you’ve thought about it ahead of time, then when you’re in the midst of making decisions, your mind is already in the habit of thinking about long-term horizons as opposed to the short-term.
JACK SCHLOSSBERG: I’m about to continue my education. I’m often wondering why. But I was wondering how did you draw on your education to make decisions, and in what way? And young people and what they’re doing now, how can they spend their time to help prepare themselves for what may come down the road?
BARACK OBAMA: Well, you’re about to go to my alma mater and study law at Harvard. The law is really a great intersection of a lot of different disciplines. It basically asks the question: How do we live together in a democracy when we’re different?
This is a big, messy, vibrant, dynamic, and contentious country. And the good thing about the law is that it gives you a sense of how our founders determined a process where we could argue and do so in a way that held together and resulted, maybe not in the perfect answer every time, but kept us moving forward.
Before I got to law school, though, when I think about my education, the parts that have been most valuable have been training your mind to think critically about problems, teaching yourself that if I don’t know about a subject, how do I get reliable information? How do I value facts? How do I recognize when an argument is slick but not necessarily true? How do you distinguish between points of view that are superficially appealing but may not actually meet the test of time? And so you get in those habits.
And the other thing that I’ve found valuable for my education was being able to put myself in other people’s shoes and seeing other perspectives. And in that sense, even if you’re a math major or pre-med, taking the time to pick up some novels and being able to imagine yourself as a poor immigrant or imagine yourself as a wealthy banker or imagine yourself as somebody who doesn’t live in this country and has a whole different perspective on faith and society and custom, all of those things hopefully will make you a better citizen.
And I think it’s one of the keys of your family’s legacy and something that I tried to embody during my public career, and hopefully now post-presidency, is that what’s needed as much as anything is good citizenship.
JACK SCHLOSSBERG: Following up on this theme of the law and recognizing good arguments, I was wondering, during the course of your presidency, facts seemed to become perhaps less relevant in terms of political arguments. And how can I, anyone, guard against that when so much of the media is filtered? I’ve heard you say that many times we listen in echo chambers. What are things I can do to guard against that?
BARACK OBAMA: In some ways I should be interviewing you because you’re a person, like Malia and Sasha, who are going to have to navigate this brave new world of information and social media. I think we haven’t caught up to all these new tools. They’re extraordinarily powerful because at our fingertips we can look up anything and find out anything.
The challenge is that the curation, the sorting, the filters that might have helped us distinguish between what’s true and what’s false, have all broken down, and it puts a greater responsibility on each of us I think to be able to be good consumers of information.
For me, the most important thing is to be able to test what we read. And that means not just assuming because something is — looks nicely typed, because it’s on a screen, that we take it as gospel. And that process of asking questions I think is critical.
And part of that goal has to be, or achieving that has to be, having wide sources — a wide array of information that you’re looking at, including information from sources that typically you’re not going to agree with.
But every once in a while, when I read, for example, conservative press, they will ask questions that demand that I rethink my assumptions. I may ultimately arrive at the same conclusions that I started with, but there’s nothing wrong with being inquisitive and having a little bit of doubt.
I think good decisions generally arise out of not being so certain and self-satisfied that you shut yourself off from new information.
JACK SCHLOSSBERG: So for my final question, I feel like I was — I honestly love politics because of you. You inspired me to learn about my own family and connect with that. I think having you in office made me lazy because I was — I had the courageous leader who could embody political courage for me, and I could listen to you. But leadership has changed. Where do young people — where can they look to for courage in the absence of a courageous leader, and how can young people be courageous in their own life?
BARACK OBAMA: You know, I’m going to talk about this a little bit this evening.
It strikes me that courage most of the time is not that dramatic. It’s a small gesture, step, decision, that you’re making day-to-day in your life. When a young person sees somebody being bullied and steps in and says that’s not right, even though he or she may be interceding with a friend who’s doing something wrong, that’s courageous.
When you make a decision to volunteer in a low-income community knowing that it may be hard, and the people that you’re working with may not immediately appreciate it because they may think that you’re some privileged kid coming in trying to show them up, that takes some courage.
When you’re from that low-income neighborhood and you decide to stretch and apply yourself to school or reach for a college that is outside your neighborhood, that can take courage.
When a mom or dad are working two jobs so that that kid can go to college, that’s courageous.
So I think that my hope for young people would be that they recognize that courage comes in many forms. And really the best definition for me is that you’re true to your best self every day.
And if you get in those habits both as a person and as a citizen, then whatever your field, whatever your career, it will reflect itself, and it will reflect itself in your family as well.
You’re passing on those values of honesty and fairness and looking out for somebody who’s vulnerable and taking responsibility, not just for yourself, but also for the world around you.
Ultimately, those are the things that end up making as much of a difference, if not more, than any decision that a politician is going to make.
BARACK OBAMA: You should also vote.
JACK SCHLOSSBERG: Of course. Thank you. Great to talk to you.
(End of interview)

Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.

The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award was created in 1989 by members of President Kennedy’s family to honor President John F. Kennedy and to recognize and celebrate the quality of political courage that he admired most. Nominations for the 2018 award will be accepted on a rolling basis through February 1, 2018.