(New York, NY) — Former President Barack Obama on Tuesday received the PEN America Voice of Influence Award during the literary and free expression organization’s annual gala celebration. Accepting the prize, the former president ruminated on race and his political fortunes, human rights, the global contest for ideas amid resurgent authoritarianism, a free press, and the precariousness of social progress in a wide-ranging discussion with historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Ron Chernow.


President Obama and Chernow discussed the tumult of 2020, especially the murder of George Floyd and the movement demanding an end to anti-Black violence by police. The president reflected on how politics demanded that he moderate his language in talking about racial inequality, contrasting his own measured tone and message with the bracing critiques of James Baldwin. But in the PEN America conversation Tuesday night, he said the Black Lives Matter movement and generational change may allow for a more blunt reckoning with race in America.

“If I talk to white friends of my daughter, they have internalized the degree to which there are structures of racism that are still embedded in our institutions and the criminal justice system in a way that their parents might not have been as comfortable talking about,’’ the former president said. He attributed the shift to the role of literature in allowing readers to see into worlds not their own, and thereby sparking wider societal evolution.

“What I think has changed—and we saw this this summer—is, because of people’s witness of George Floyd, because of what seems like a constant stream of irrefutable evidence of excessive force against unarmed Black folks, that I think white America has awakened to certain realities that even 20 years ago they were still resistant to. That creates a new opening for a different kind of political conversation.”

Turning to the global human rights struggle, the President Obama said that advocacy such as PEN America’s on behalf of dissidents and imprisoned writers worldwide “makes all the difference” when it comes to freeing those imprisoned for exercising their free expression rights.

“It does impact foreign policy, and it does impact presidential decision-making. I was consistently raising issues of jailed journalists, jailed dissidents, censorship issues, freedom of the press issues in conversations that I would have,” the former president said. “There were a number of occasions where, as a consequence of us being aware of the plight of a journalist or a dissident, a human rights activist, that making it onto the agenda of a conversation that I had, that it ended up resulting in somebody’s freedom.”

President Obama acknowledged his own conflicts with the press during his time in the White House, including his Justice Department’s crackdown on whistleblowers—though he caveated that such investigations were “not at my direction, but it was on my watch.” Still, the president said such tensions are part of a normal political tussle between the press and the president. He told Chernow, however, that the nature of that relationship has been warped by outlets willing to spread disinformation, a pattern he labeled “dangerous for our democracy.”

“How do we preserve freedom of the press when you’ve got an internet in which somebody who denies climate change or promotes wild conspiracy theories can put up a website that is getting as many viewers as The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal?” he asked. “If that’s the case—and people can choose whatever news or facts fit their opinions, rather than having their opinions fit the facts—can we still have a functioning marketplace of ideas?”

He said relentless attacks on a free press during the Trump administration had damaged our common concept of truth. “The good news is,” he said, “I think that you’re going to have a new administration that will level-set back to the norm, which doesn’t mean that the press is always going to be happy.”

Chernow cited the lie of birtherism as a key recent example of disinformation spinning out of control, and he pressed the former president on why he did not address those falsehoods earlier in his presidency. President Obama said he was wary of giving credence to what he labeled “carnival barkers,” but that once the lies continued to spread into the mainstream press, he had no choice but to act.

“One of the concerns I had after a while was the degree to which Donald Trump’s arguments that I wasn’t born in this country were not just getting attention and coverage from marginal news sites or even Fox News, but were rather being prominently discussed and reported on in mainstream news,” he said. “I think it is at that point where I realized I can’t ignore this, because it’s actually distracting us from doing the necessary work of the presidency.”

In particular, the president noted how that dynamic had shifted even within his own career as a politician. He discussed how early on, he could often connect with white, conservative voters, even if they didn’t agree. “By my second year in office, I’m not sure if I could make that same connection, because now those same people are filtering me through Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and an entire right-wing or conservative media infrastructure that was characterizing me in a way that suggested I looked down on those folks or had nothing in common with them,” President Obama said.

More broadly, President Obama in the interview lamented the rise of strong-man politicians in the U.S. and worldwide, acknowledging to Chernow that notwithstanding Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous aphorism that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, “history can move backwards.” The former president expressed optimism in the rising generation, citing the high value young people globally place on human rights and equality.

“The challenge we have is that our institutions have not adapted as quickly to those longings, which is why the younger generation often doesn’t have the same mechanisms to express their idealism. Oftentimes, they’re disappointed with existing political structures, existing media structures—those are going to have to be remade,” he said.

To PEN America’s Membership of authors and reflecting on the recent release of his first volume of his presidential memoirs, A Promised Land, President Obama, said he had never stopped reading while in the White House and that Obama as writer and Obama as politician were often intertwined.

“My politics, my public life, and my more interior writing life have never been that far apart,” he told Chernow. “Great writers, both fiction and nonfiction, helped shape my sensibility and the decisions that I made, and that probably preserved somewhere in the recesses of my mind the possibility that when I started writing again, something other than speeches, that even though it was a little rusty, I could get back into that kind of frame of mind.”

A full transcript of the former president’s interview is available here, as are video and audio clips of the conversation. Contact Stephen Fee at [email protected] for more information.