“I slept in,” Barack Obama says, describing the first day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Obama is onstage with David Letterman in the first episode of Netflix’s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman, explaining the “slow motion” that has come to define his life after eight years as president. In retirement, Obama notes that the urgency of the presidency has evaporated from his private life. He describes a conversation with his literary agent in which “right away” turns out to mean two weeks. “Where I’m coming from,” Obama says, “if we don’t do something in a half hour, somebody dies.” Obama’s interview with Letterman airs nearly a year after the 44th president left office, making way for Trump — the figure who haunts Letterman and Obama’s conversation without ever coming into focus as its subject.
Instead, Letterman and Obama chat about retirement, family, child-rearing, Dreams From My Father, voting rights — topics that Obama has addressed in countless interviews through several phases of his political career. Smiling wide onstage for half an hour, Obama seems at ease with Letterman. And why shouldn’t he? Letterman is a former late-night TV talk-show host, so accustomed to questioning actors, singers, and even politicians in a low-stakes setting. A Letterman appearance is as safe as it gets for an ex-president who’s down to chat but doesn’t want to drive a news cycle or cause any trouble. This forum is a haven from the rowdy media landscape populated with agitators, hacks, and trolls.
Letterman grants Obama friendly terms, and it makes for a cute interview dynamic, but neither Obama nor Letterman is breaking new ground here. Their conversation gives few hints of when, exactly, it was taped. Trump is president, but it’s otherwise tough to discern which batch of Trumpian indigities were fouling up the air in the auditorium and weighing on the nation’s thoughts as Obama, Letterman, and the audience sat down. In his asides, Letterman hints obliquely toward a hellscape that has developed off-camera, but Obama — as eloquent and unflappable as always — declines a nation’s standing invitation to reemerge as Trump’s righteous rival. Instead, Obama speaks like a guru in terms as vague but nonetheless optimistic as his 2008 campaign rhetoric. He reassures the audience that “change” is just a civic action away.
As a result, Letterman’s conversation with Obama exists outside of time. It’s most notable for how irrelevant Obama seems to the present course of human events. The ex-president has made himself scarce these days, with his retirement playing out publicly as a reel of vacation highlights, flattering paparazzi shots, and high-dollar speaking engagements that remain closed to the press. And having served two terms, Obama has earned his leisure and this rough approximation of privacy. Yet Obama’s supporters, including Letterman, would love to invade that privacy and force Obama’s old job back upon him. At one point, Letterman takes to addressing Obama as if he’s still president. Toward the end of the interview, he jokes that the conversation must wrap up because Obama is soon due back at the White House.
There’s a classic, post-presidential nostalgia to this sort of humor. Conservatives once deployed it to celebrate Ronald Reagan, and Democrats under George W. Bush clamored for a third Clinton term. But Obama nostalgia rings out a bit more urgently given the loud, profane, chaotic demoralizations that Trump’s presidency produces each week, and so Obama’s withdrawal from the discourse strikes his sappiest partisans as benign neglect. Meanwhile, a smiling Letterman subtly pleads for Obama to conspire against history to stop this madness. Smiling, Obama resists.
But I’ll tell you what — even as an Obama skeptic, I caught myself smiling, too, lit up with a dumb and vapid happiness as I watched the first black president hit his familiar, charismatic notes. On TV, the mere sight of Obama is vaguely reassuring, and I might go so far as to describe the man as inherently relaxing. As Obama spells out the self-imposed terms of his obsolescence to Letterman, I recall that reassurance is, in fact, Obama’s rhetorical craft.
“Even as I was approaching the end of my term, I had to ask myself, what will be most impactful, what will be most useful,” Obama tells Letterman. Ultimately, Obama decides, “the thing I could probably do uniquely is work to train the next generation of leaders to bring about change.” I don’t totally know how to process this considering how absent Obama, the supposed teacher, seems. His words recall an earlier promise — which the president made on a conference call with Obama campaign alumni immediately after Trump’s election — that the former community organizer would join the nascent Resistance in the trenches after a few months of recuperation. But Obama has mounted no such reemergence in Trump’s first year. Without a return to public life to personally vanquish Trump, Obama suggests that his supporters should work as vigorously against Trump’s presidency as they did in support of Obama’s election. He tells us, Best of luck.
A discrete phase of political optimism began and ended with Barack Obama. Now, Obama’s Letterman appearance is something of an apolitical prompt — a warm feeling followed swiftly by the sneaking suspicion that one should be looking elsewhere, toward the future. For Letterman and the rest of us, there are new guests and episodes to come.