Obama on WTF: Podcasts, Politics and Humanity

As a Podcast Evolves for Marc Maron, President Obama Gives an Interview Which Should Shine a Spotlight for Future Voters and Future Politicians

President Barack Obama was recently interviewed by comedian Marc Maron, on his well-known podcast What the Fuck? Podcasts are still a relatively new medium. Essentially on-demand commercial-free (or limited) radio shows, podcasts are changing the way many of us listen and often broadening our tastes of what we listen to.

Maron’s podcast was cathartic for me from the beginning. Always interested in comedy and personal stories (interviews, personal essays, autobiographies), I began listening in 2010. Maron was slowly emerging from a dark place in his life, having gone through a second divorce, and seeing his comedy career lose all momentum. The interviews were emotionally honest and often delved into the psychological waters few interviews swim through. If all human beings are “works in progress,” the best comedians are the subset of humans that are often working out there in the open, exposing the warts so many of us rarely show. Though they are prone to hyperbole, I call them truth-tellers. Louis C.K. Chris Rock. Marc Maron. Maria Bamford. Maron’s interviews are long-winded and tangential, but they take you on a ride that is usually satisfying. If you have any neurotic tendencies, you’ll relate to Maron’s self-involved flagellation more often.

The interviews exist in their long-form messiness (running 60–80 minutes), without commercials after Maron’s opening segment. When the podcast started, Maron’s extended adolescence seemed to stem from narcissistic, delusional, and neurotic parents which led to eating disorders, control and boundary issues, and eventually drinking and drug problems (almost expected in comedians who began before 2000. The sources of his malaise and frustrations were varied and complex, and exposed in an often enlightening and frightening way. His pursuit of fame was another source of endless jealousy and insecurity, but was also entirely relatable for most artists, and for the majority of millennials.

Over the last five years, Maron has earned that fame and respect gradually, by listening to his subjects in deeper ways, by working through his own sources of anger and trust, and by being truly present with his subjects in a way that isn’t possible in five-minute interviews with John Stewart or David Letterman, or even in 30 minutes with Terry Gross. Working out of his garage, Maron’s show has evolved into something lighter, more universal. His podcast has topped download charts and is now entrenched on the entertainment circuit. It was a brilliant move by President Obama’s people to connect the two, in order to help humanize Obama to a younger generation of the populace.

During the interview, Maron posits that the office of the Presidency has become a kind of “middle management,” in that the gridlock that surrounds the highest office keeps the power out of the President’s hands. The President has to appease those below him and rarely has the power to determine things on his/her own. President Obama explained how essential pragmatism is to American politics, (“Sometimes your job is just to make stuff work. Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south…”).

We can see from a recent New York Times interactive piece, that the gridlock weighs heavily in the bloated and unbalanced campaign fundraising that has flooded our elections as a result of the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United (more like Citizens Untied). The vast sums of money thrown into politics threaten the very core of democracy in ways so many have become apathetic to.

And yet, younger people are not apathetic to politics. Just the kind they see in Washington, D.C. The social movements that have grown out of responses to decades of homophobia, racism, and gender inequality are all very real and only gaining in momentum as all generations respond to the impact of social networking on our lives.

In recent months, Americans have made landmark progress on a number of political issues. The Supreme Court made Same-sex marriage legal in every state. Every state. We can celebrate the fact that the Confederate flag can no longer be “proudly” flown without consequences in South Carolina and other southern states. A rural Missouri county was about to lower the American flag to half-staff in protest of this progress. The Supreme Court upheld our new health care system, ensuring that all classes of people will have access to health care. This landmark deal with Iran is enormous.

And yet, we can’t rest if we believe in a commitment to social justice.

The fight for racial equality may never end, as Ta-Nehisi Coates explains to white America. The fight for the rights of undocumented immigrants goes on. Donald Trump continues to inadvertently unify the progressive Latino base, as America Ferrera explains. The fight for gender equality continues.

Back to President Obama on WTF. A President on a podcast. Those Americans of my parents’ generation (baby-boomers) may not grasp the impact. Those Americans who are teenagers may not grasp the impact (“Why wouldn’t Obama do a podcast?”). Those of us whose lives have been enriched by podcasts may appreciate the gesture. This isn’t life-changing, but it means something to me.

A friend told me how refreshing it was to hear President Obama in this kind of a conversation. After years of political figures sounding scripted and sound-bitten, this kind of humanity-spreading dialogue was meaningful. Imagine. A President being humanized, rather than mythologized or demonized. So many Americans grew up worshiping the office of President. Then later, feeling betrayed by the commander in chief. Assassinations. Vietnam. Nixon and Watergate. Sex scandals. Lies about war. So many reasons to lose optimism.

It’s time we celebrate not just the office, but we celebrate the humanity of a President. For all of the frustrations the left has expressed with the slow progress of progressive policies, the stifling gridlock caused by Congress, and other aspects of the last six years, we have to acknowledge the positives.

Not only is our country still fighting the good fight for equality, we’re starting to see long-lasting victories that will reverberate well into the future.

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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