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When Harry Met Barry: The BBC Obama Interview

Posted December 27, 2017 1:34 p.m. EST
Updated December 27, 2017 1:36 p.m. EST

LONDON — It was a case of the famous interviewing the famous. The BBC aired an interview Wednesday that was unusual in at least a couple of respects: The man answering the questions was former President Barack Obama, and the man asking them was his friend Prince Harry.

The prince took the seat as a guest editor for BBC Radio 4’s flagship program, “Today,” and broadcast a long-awaited interview in which he questioned the former president about the day he left the White House, his work since leaving office and his plans for the future.

Neither party mentioned President Donald Trump by name, but Obama’s successor was never far from the conversation. The two men discussed the risks of using social media and the corrosion of civil discourse.

The interview was recorded in Toronto in September, when Harry and Obama met during the Invictus Games, a sporting competition for injured military members and veterans.

The highlights of the interview:

— Life After the White House

Since leaving office in January, Obama has more time on his hands. He gets to wake up later, spend more time with his family and take control of his day, something he says he couldn’t do as president. But the things that are important to him have not changed.

“I still care about making sure that the United States and the world is a place where kids get a decent education,” he said. “Where people who are willing to work hard are able to find a job that pays a living wage. That we’re conserving the amazing resources of our planet so that future generations can enjoy the beauty of this place. Like we did.”

Now that he no longer has the authority that came with being president, Obama said he relies on persuasion rather than legislation.

“A lot of the things that still motivate me and move me continue to this day,” he added.

— Addressing Trump, Obliquely

While neither man mentioned Trump directly, they discussed the role of social media in leadership, a conversation that brought to mind Trump’s blunt, unvarnished posts on Twitter.

Obama warned against the irresponsible use of social media by people in positions of power and expressed his concern about a future in which facts were discarded.

“One of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities,” he said. “They can be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases.

“The question has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanization of society and allows ways of finding common ground.”

Obama also mentioned that he had developed a thick skin during his presidency. Trump, in contrast, has been criticized since the 2016 campaign as thin-skinned and unable to rise above provocation.

— Passing the Baton

During the presidential inauguration Jan. 20, many people — including Harry — wondered what Obama was thinking as he sat in the crowd, showing little emotion.

“The first thing that went through my mind was sitting across from Michelle, how thankful I was that she had been my partner through that whole process,” he said in a reflective tone.

Looking back, he said he felt a sense of completion as he handed over power to Trump. There was a “satisfying feeling that was mixed with all the work that was still undone,” he said, adding that he had “concerns about how the country moved forward.”

“But overall, there was serenity there,” he said.

— Working With the Prince

Obama and Harry have a range of shared interests, and since meeting in London last year, they have been discussing ways in which they can work together to provide a platform to empower young people.

“How do we make it a reality?” the prince asked in the interview.

Obama used his 2008 presidential campaign as an example.

“You have this African-American, mixed race, born in Hawaii, named Barack Hussein Obama and somehow he becomes president,” he said.

“How did that happen? Well it happened primarily because you had a bunch of 20-year-olds and 23-year-olds and 25-year-olds who started going out into communities that oftentimes they’d never been in before and believed in the possibilities of a different kind of politics.”

The campaign was fueled by a grass-roots approach that was brought together by new technologies of the time, Obama added. — Prince Harry’s Wedding

Harry’s engagement to American actress Meghan Markle was announced in November, long after the interview was recorded, so it obviously did not come up during the conversation with Obama.

It did come up as part of the prince’s role as guest editor, however, and there was an Obama angle. British tabloids, citing unidentified sources, reported this week that senior government officials were putting pressure on Harry to leave the Obamas off the guest list, out of fear that a snub would enrage Trump.

Asked about the issue by a Radio 4 host Wednesday, Harry sidestepped the question, saying that he and Markle were yet to work out who would be invited to their wedding, which is set for May 19.