President Barack Obama, in a long-in-coming appearance on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, warned of both Donald Trump and the “Balkanization” of an American media that leaves the public with “difficulty sorting out what’s true and what’s not.”
“Look,” Obama told an unusually serious Maher on tonight’s episode, “if I watched Fox News I wouldn’t vote for me either.”
In an interview taped in the Roosevelt Room of the White House earlier this week and aired tonight (watch it above), Obama reflected on his upcoming exit (“It is time,” he said, before adding, “I think I’m as good a president now as I’ve ever been”), health care (“If I was designing a system from scratch, I would probably have looked at a single-payer system”) and even GMOs (“We need to follow the science”).
But the topic naturally and predictably turned to the election battle between Trump and Hillary Clinton, and on a night when Maher all but ditched comedy in favor of anger and even outright fear, Obama ended the interview with a direct plea: “The stakes are high. The choice in this election should be really clear,” the president said before running through a list of the issues his administration has addressed, from climate change, health insurance, Wall Street excess and immigration reform. “Every single issue we’ve made progress on in the last eight years is going to be on the ballot.”
“Anyone who sits on the sidelines or makes a protest vote is a vote for Trump,” Obama said, “and that would be badly damaging to this country, and damaging for the world.”
The interview came after Maher’s near-yearlong on-air campaign to get Obama on the show, efforts that included a national petition at whitehouse.gov.
“We – and I do mean we – have been trying to get President Obama on this show a long time,” Maher said at the end of an urgent and often serious monologue preceding the taped interview. “I know this is a comedy show,” Maher said at one point, his voice rising, “and we’ll try to keep it on that level – but it’s not f*cking funny. There is a slow moving right-wing coup moving in on us. Media do your f*cking job!”
Maher started the conversation with Obama by repeating his oft-noted opposition to the profit motive in health care, prisons, the military, elections, “and, I would add, news gathering.”
Obama drew the line at the latter, raising the spectre of “state run media.” After Maher suggested a return to the days when news divisions of media companies were “loss leaders” not driven by profits, Obama said the days of “fat and happy” media monopolies would be unlikely today. “The question I have when it comes to the media is how do we create a space where truth gets eyeballs and is entertaining and we can build a common conversation.”
“When I leave here, one of the things I’m most concerned about is the Balkanization of the media, where you’ve got 800 stations, you’ve got all these websites, and people have difficulty just sorting out what’s true and what’s not.”
“We can have a disagreement about how to deal with climate change, but if we have a big chunk of the country that discounts what 99 percent of the scientists say completely, it’s very hard to figure out how we move the democracy forward.”
The conversation then turned to pot laws (“You and I,” said Maher, “could have had both of our lives ruined not by smoking it, but by being arrested for it”), and Obama said the addiction should be treated as a health issue.
“Look, I’m an ex-smoker…”
“Ex?,” Maher interjected, to which Obama replied firmly, “Ex,” then winked and said he’s still “chewing the heck out” of Nicorette. “When I passed health care reform, I think I’ve had my last cigarette.”
Finally, the conversation arrived at its inevitable conclusion, as Obama addressed what he called “the conversation in the aftermath of the rise of Trump, this notion that part of what’s happened is that both Republican and Democratic elites have neglected the white working class.”
“The truth is that every policy I’ve put forward would make a huge difference with the life of the white working class, and the black working class and the Latino working class,” he said, citing raising the minimum wage, the Affordable Care Act, strong unions and consumer finance protection.
At the end of the 17-minute segment, Obama listed one further accomplishment: “Even though I wasn’t on the show that often,” he told Maher, “I watched it all the time.” Maher looked pleased for one of the few moments of the evening. Joining his roundtable of guests for the evening – comedian Martin Short, journalist David Frum and former Mich. Gov. Jennifer Granholm – Maher, fretting over a Trump victory, said, “I’m gonna be honest with you, I’ve had a couple drinks.”
“I can be honest with you,” Short shot back, “you’ve had more than a couple of drinks.”