WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama says the same innovations in technology that helped make his historic election possible have now evolved to exacerbate the nation’s political divides, keeping many Americans inside partisan "bubbles" of their own making.
In a rare extended interview, Obama tells David Letterman that social media and the increasing personalization of many Americans’ information streams has led to the reinforcing of biases.
"One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts," the 44th president told Letterman for his new Netflix series, "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction."
"What the Russians exploited but it was already here is we are operating in completely different information universes. If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR," Obama continued.
Barack Obama through the years
Barack Obama through the years
Barack Obama, candidate for a Senate seat in Illinois and one of the keynote speakers of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, addresses delegates during the second night of the event at the FleetCenter in Boston, July 27, 2004. More than 4,000 delegates to the convention will nominate John Kerry on Wednesday to challenge President George W. Bush in a November battle for the White House that is essentially a dead heat. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn US ELECTION HB/
Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Democrat Barack Obama (2nd R), wife Michelle and their daughters Malia (R), 3, and Sasha (L), 6, spend time in their Chicago hotel room, November 2, 2004. Obama faces Republican candidate Alan Keys in the first Senate race with two African American candidates. REUTERS/John Gress JG
Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) (L), Hillary Clinton (D-NY) (2nd L), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) (R) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) (2nd R) listen as Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) addresses a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington November 17, 2005. Obama said that Americans are looking for leadership and can do better than what they have gotten from Washington in 2004. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) (R) and Barack Obama (D-IL) hold a news conference on a vote raising the federal minimum wage on Capitol Hill in Washington February 1, 2007. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES)
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (L) smiles beside Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) at a rally at American University in Washington January 28, 2008. Kennedy, a Democratic icon and a leading liberal voice, endorsed Obama on Monday for the party's presidential nomination and called the young lawmaker an inspirational uniter. REUTERS/Mike Theiler (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), greets entertainer and talk show host Oprah Winfrey at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, December 8, 2007. Iowa holds the first-in-the-nation caucuses for the 2008 presidential election on January 3. REUTERS/Ramin Rahimian (UNITED STATES)
US Democratic presidential candidates Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and former Senator John Edwards (D-NC) talk during a Martin Luther King Day rally at the state capitol in Columbia, South Carolina January 21, 2008. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)
US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (C) reacts as he holds a baby at a rally in Columbia, South Carolina, January 20, 2008. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)
Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) (L) points to the crowd as Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) looks on after his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado August 28, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)
Democratic presidential nominee U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) embraces his wife Michelle after giving his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado August 28, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with well-wishers at Hradcanske Square in central Prague April 5, 2009. As long as a potential nuclear threat persists from Iran, the United States will continue pushing plans for missile defense, U.S. President Barak Obama said on Sunday. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger (CZECH REPUBLIC POLITICS)
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (C) meets U.S. Senators Richard G. Luger of Indiana (R) and Barrack Obama of Ilinois (L) for talks at the Prime Minister's official residence in Downing Street in London, September 1, 2005. REUTERS/ Alessandro Abbonizo/ Pool TM/JV
U.S. President Barack Obama signs the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 into law at the U.S. Department of Interior in Washington, December 22, 2010. From L-R are (standing): Vice President Joseph Biden, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen, former U.S. Navy Commander Zoe Dunning, former USMC StaffSgt. Eric Alva, Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa), Rep. Susan Davis (D-Ca), and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SOCIETY IMAGES OF THE DAY)
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) enjoys a beer with Dakota Meyer on the patio outside of the White House Oval Office, in this handout photograph taken on September 14, 2011 and released on September 15. The president on Thursday will present Meyer with the Medal of Honor for courageous actions taken while serving as a then U.S. Marine Corps Corporal, part of a Marine embedded training team in Afghanistan on September 8, 2009, the White House statement said. REUTERS/Pete Souza/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama dance while the band Earth, Wind and Fire performs at the Governors Ball in the State Dining Room of the White House, in this handout photograph taken on February 22, 2009 and later released by the White House. REUTERS/Pete Souza/The White House/Handout (UNITED STATES POLITICS) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
U.S. President Barack Obama, along with Cabinet Secretaries and Members of Congress, watch a shot during a basketball game on the White House court in this handout photo taken in Washington on October 8, 2009 and later released by the White House. REUTERS/Pete Souza/The White House/Handout
U.S. President Barack Obama eats a nectarine following a town hall meeting at Kroger's Supermarket in this handout photo taken in Bristol, Virginia. on July 29, 2009 and later released by the White House. REUTERS/Pete Souza/The White House/Handout
U.S. President Barack Obama listens during a briefing on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, while aboard Air Force One en route to New Orleans, Louisiana, in this White House handout photo taken on May 2, 2010 and released on June 7, 2010. Picture taken May 2, 2010. REUTERS/Pete Souza/The White House (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ENVIRONMENT ENERGY DISASTER) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
U.S. President Barack Obama and his daughter Sasha swim at Alligator Point in Panama City Beach, Florida, August 14, 2010. Declaring Gulf Coast beaches "open for business," Obama visited Florida on Saturday and pledged to restore the economy and the environment of the region damaged by the BP Plc oil spill. Obama, on his fifth visit to the region since BP's deep-sea well in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured on April 20, held talks with local business owners to hear their concerns about the impact of the world's worst offshore oil spill. REUTERS/Pete Souza-The White House/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ENERGY ENVIRONMENT DISASTER IMAGES OF THE DAY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) and Vice President Joe Biden (L), along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Also pictured are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (2nd R) and Defense Secretary Robert Gates (R). In the decade since the Sept. 11 2001 attacks, U.S. Special Operations Command personnel numbers have doubled, its budget tripled and deployments quadrupled. The Bin Laden takedown is simply the tip of an iceberg of fast-growing, largely hidden action by the United States and its allies. Those with knowledge of such operations say this changing state of warfare could spark a range of unintended consequences, from jeopardizing diplomatic relationships to unwanted, wider wars. Please note: A classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured at source. Picture taken May 1, 2011. To match Analysis CONFLICT/COVERTOPS REUTERS/White House/Pete Souza/Handout/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
U.S. President Barack Obama shoots clay targets with a shotgun on the range at Camp David, Maryland, in this White House handout photo taken August 4, 2012. REUTERS/White House/Pete Souza/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (L to R) , U.S. President Barack Obama, and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel watch the overtime shootout of the Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich Champions League final in the Laurel Cabin conference room during the G8 Summit at Camp David, Maryland, May 19, 2012. REUTERS/White House/ Pete Souza/POOL (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SPORT SOCCER)
WASHINGTON - MARCH 23: U.S. President Barack Obama signs the Affordable Health Care for America Act during a ceremony with fellow Democrats in the East Room of the White House March 23, 2010 in Washington, DC. The historic bill was passed by the House of Representatives Sunday after a 14-month-long political battle that left the legislation without a single Republican vote. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama and his daughters Malia (L) and Sasha, watch on television as first lady Michelle Obama takes the stage to deliver her speech at the Democratic National Convention, in the Treaty Room of the White House in Washington September 4, 2012.
REUTERS/White House/Pete Souza/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
U.S. President Barack Obama walks onstage with daughter Sasha (2R), First lady Michelle Obama (2L) and daughter Malia (L) before giving his election night victory speech in Chicago, November 7, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS USA PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION)
U.S. President Barack Obama talks to the media as he signs into law S. 337: FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 and S. 2328: Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 30, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
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"That’s what’s happening with these Facebook pages where more and more people are getting their news from. At a certain point you just live in a bubble," he said. "And that’s part of why our politics is so polarized right now. I think it is a solvable problem but it’s one we have to spend a lot of time thinking about."
Obama said that his success in 2008 was made possible in part because of how his campaign used social media as an organizing and messaging tool just as the technology was emerging.
"We essentially built what ended up being the most effective political campaign in modern history. So I had a pretty optimistic feeling about it," he said. "I think that what we missed was the degree to which people who are in power, special interests, foreign governments, etcetera, can in fact manipulate that and propagandize."
The comments were the closest Obama came to addressing American politics during a nearly hour-long sitdown with Letterman, which occurred in the fall of 2017. Though Letterman made several allusions toward President Donald Trump, neither he nor Obama ever mentioned him by name as they discussed everything from Obama’s routines since leaving the White House and goals for his post-presidency to his family life, with candid reflections on his unusual upbringing and the emotion of seeing the first of his own daughters off to college.
Reflecting on his own presidency, Obama said that in retrospect he wished he hadn’t been so quick to let the constraints of the office change how he interacted with the public — an observation that might suggest he had a degree of envy that Trump has not followed suit.
"When you become president and you’re in the Oval Office you feel, ‘OK, now I have to act presidential.’ And we lost track of what had gotten us there, and that was our ability to tell stories and relate to people," Obama said. "In fairness part of it was, the world economy was collapsing and I had two wars that I had to deal with. So that’ll make you kind of serious."
Obama said his wife’s ability to maintain, if not grow her popularity, was in large part because of how she adapted to her role as First Lady.
"One of the things that Michelle figured out in some ways faster than I did was, part of your ability to lead the country doesn’t have to do with legislation, it doesn’t have to do with regulations, it has to do with shaping attitudes, shaping culture, increasing awareness," he said. "She’s doing all this cool stuff I’m standing behind a podium and I’m droning on and on about, ‘Well, the legislative strategy for such and such.’ And people are clicking the television trying to find something else."
Obama was Letterman’s first guest for his limited run Netflix series, which debuts Friday. The show opened with Obama as president sitting with Letterman on his long-running CBS show, musing about how he might want to reconnect with Letterman once he left office to play dominoes or go to Starbucks. Obama teased Letterman now about his "biblical" beard and idiosyncrasies.
Obama said he didn’t miss the trappings of the office.
"I think there was a sense I’d run the race, I’d completed it, I was proud of the work that we had done, and that I was ready for the next stage," he said. "The stereotype of former presidents is you’re sitting around your house waiting for someone to call, lonely."
"No, that’s me," Letterman quipped.
"But the truth is it felt exciting," Obama added.
In the episode Letterman also traveled to Selma, Alabama to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with civil rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis. Lewis reflected on how the "Bloody Sunday" march he led helped pave the way for Obama’s eventual election, but he called Trump’s presidency "a major setback to the hopes, the dreams and aspirations of a people."
"What is happening in America today is a threat not just to our own country but to the planet," Lewis said.
Obama pivoted the conversation on race to discuss barriers that still exist for voting in America.
"We’re the only advanced democracy that deliberately discourages people from voting," he said. "What ends up happening is we have some of the lowest voting rates of any democracy on earth. The truth is that people opt out themselves because they just don’t think anything can happen."