Mr Viswa Sadasivan interviewed Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States of America, on 19 March 2018 in a closed-door session organised by the Bank of Singapore, at the Shangri-la Hotel Island Ballroom in Singapore. The Bank of Singapore invited 1,000 guests and clients from around the world to attend the session.
By Viswa Sadasivan
When I was invited by the Bank of Singapore to interview Barack Obama, in my mind it was just another assignment. Being on stage doing a one-on-one interview for a full hour with the 44th President of the USA wasn’t a big deal. After all, I had done this with several luminaries over the years.
I would be lying if I said that. I admired that as the president, he had remained true to himself. Meeting and interviewing him would be such an honour.
Barack Obama isn’t just a former President of the USA. He had the “audacity” to challenge stereotypes and conventional assumptions. At 47 he became the first black president in the White House. He achieved this despite his limited exposure to the capital, and limited access to capital to fund a presidential campaign. He stepped into the arena with a compelling self-belief, an indefatigable belief in possibilities, and a doggedness driven by conviction. His inauguration inspired not only Americans but millions around the world to believe that change is possible. “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek", he said.
There was an expectation that President Barack Obama would be the one who can and has the will to change the adversarial nature of the world and reduce the polemics in politics. This certainly seemed to be the mission that he set for himself. Whether he achieved it in his eight-year term is a separate issue. Right from the start he also made it clear that he hopes to accomplish this by focusing on shared interests, respect for the rule of law, and a values-based leadership.
For my interview with the man my goal was to bring out the person behind the persona. I needed to temper my own adulation and conduct the interview without being overly deferential, and with integrity. I was acutely conscious that the 1,000 invited guests in the audience – serious minded individuals who came from all over the world – would expect an interview to comprise questions they would want to ask Obama themselves.
An on-stage interview before a “live” audience has a certain set of dynamics. The interviewee – especially if he or she is a politician – tends to struggle with the need to balance answering the questions squarely, and responding to the reactions of the hundreds seated in front of them. The less savvy ones confuse engaging the audience with playing to the gallery. It’s also more transparent where it’s easier for the audience to more accurately assess character, personality and authenticity. It is a challenging setting for both the interviewee and the interviewer.
The audience wants to see if the interviewee is defensive or offensive to inconvenient questions or comments, or whether he takes them in his stride. You can also tell if he is too smooth to be real.
A discerning “live” audience doesn’t appreciate clever-by-half remarks or wordsmithing by the interviewee, or an obvious desire to impress. In fact, more than substantial answers to substantive questions, the “live” audience would want to see whether the interviewee is trustworthy and authentic. This is especially so if he is a politician.
Just before the interview, I was ushered backstage to meet my interviewee and briefly get acquainted. President Obama walks in, accompanied by the CEO of the Bank of Singapore, Bahren Shaari. He walks right up to me and when I start to introduce myself, he said, “I know who you are, Viswa. Kirk (the former US Ambassador to Singapore and a good friend of the President) told me good things about you, and I have been looking forward to meeting you.” He said this with sincerity and interest. It broke the proverbial ice!
He was interested to know about my experience as a Nominated Member of Parliament. I told him, “you have done your homework”. He gave a cheeky smile.
We discussed a few other issues and throughout he showed interest. His attention did not stray. It wasn’t small talk. He wasn’t patronizing in his tone or demeanour. He was friendly, without being overly familiar. He clearly had a sense of humour and smiled quite readily. Fumbling through taking a wefie I exclaimed, “oh no, we look like monsters!”. He promptly retorted, “not me”, still keeping the smile. We talked briefly about our families. I told him that I expect to be experiencing the same emotional pangs he went through when his older daughter Malia went to university a few months ago. He was interested to know where my daughter was going to study and the area of her study. He saw me holding a copy of his book “The Audacity of Hope” and promptly asked if I would like it autographed. I said my daughter would be thrilled. His eyes lit up when I said her name is Maya. “That’s my sister’s name” he said and proceeded to sign it.
We covered much ground with such ease in just six minutes. Usually, it is the interviewer who uses this time to put his guest at ease. He played the role here.
He was called on stage and I could hear a rapturous applause from the audience. I could feel my adrenaline pumping. Having seen the man backstage, I was curious to find out if he would be the same on-stage before a “live” audience.
I decided to start the interview by asking him what advice he had for me, having experienced what he described as “an open-heart surgery” when Malia went to university. He laughed – naturally – and started with this line: “I don’t know what to tell you. Just don’t cry in front of her!” I could see he immediately connected with the many fathers in the audience.
I have always found it interesting to say something complimentary about my guest and observe his response. This often betrays what he really thinks of himself. A common response, unfortunately, tends to be falsely modest. Others are just awkward. Obama quietly acknowledged it when I said he is seen as one of the more authentic leaders of our time. He promptly went on to share that it was perhaps easier for him to be authentic because he didn’t start off wanting to be in politics and that right up to a few years before becoming President, he and his wife led their lives as regular Americans. He had the knack of making a serious point in good humour, which you very seldom see in political leaders today. He said, “…it’s helpful having my mother-in-law in the White House. Between her, Michelle, my daughters – they always kept me grounded.” The mostly male audience clearly connected with this point. Obama was aware it would. What struck me was that he said it looking at me and not playing to the gallery, so to speak. He kept with the conversation.
As we progressed with the interview, I decided to provoke him with a comment to see whether he would react or respond. I said that there is a fine line between idealism and naivety and that there are just as many who see him as being the latter. His immediate response was candid: “that’s an abstract comment….” He wasn’t defensive in tone or substance. I know of political leaders whose reaction would have been: “how did you come to that conclusion? Did you do a survey?” I could see he wasn’t quite sure where I was going with this line of questioning. Yet, he was sporting enough to honour it with a serious, thoughtful response. The audience appreciated this. He said that during his two terms in office he was dealing with several unprecedented situations and he “wasn’t looking at them idealistically…in each of those instances my main focus was practical…how do we solve this problem…When it came to fighting terrorism we were vigilant and tough and very realistic about the need to eliminate Al Qaeda, for example. But what I also believed as a practical matter was that we did so in a way that respected our traditions of rule of law…I didn’t do that out of a sense of idealism.”
He later crystalised the point by saying that, “in politics, often times, there is this false divide between people who are idealistic and want to do good and people who are realistic and tough. But what I would suggest is that most of the time, having regard for your fellow men and thinking of the perspectives of those who are not like you, showing a sense of compassion for those who are less fortunate – those are very practical responses that will lead to better outcomes.”
Obama brought up the rule of law just when I was going to ask him why it appeared to be particularly important to him. For me, this was evidence of how much it mattered to him. Not only was it a key point in his farewell speech as President in 2017, he also highlighted it in his book “Audacity of Hope” which he authored in 2006, two years before he became President. He wrote: “…since 9/11 we have played fast and loose with constitutional principles in the fight against terrorism. But I acknowledge that even the wisest president and the most prudent congress would struggle to balance the critical demands of our collective security against the equally compelling need to uphold civil liberties….” There is clearly a consistency in Obama’s belief system over the years. His admission that it is a “struggle” to find that balance, made him come across honest, idealistic and pragmatic at the same time. The audience saw this.
Apart from the fact that we both had microphones and were projecting our voices – Obama’s tone and style remained the same as when we were having the conversation back-of-stage.
It was time to take it up a notch and stretch his equanimity. I asked him to respond to the criticism levelled against him, that his decision to withdraw US troops from the Middle East not only left their allies in a lurch but further destabilised the region. Here he did seem somewhat uncomfortable. He appeared to be buying time to gather his thoughts before answering the question. President Obama was not his persuasive best here. He said, “…in most of these decisions that I was making, what I would have to do is assess whether action in any certain circumstance would be sustainable, whether it would lead to a better outcome…one of the things you had to reconcile with as the president of the USA was that you could not actually solve every single problem….”
He went on to say that when he looks back at his presidency there aren’t many decisions he regrets making. The conversation then seamlessly went into the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which he candidly singled out as something he was “irritated for not getting done”.
I felt that his comment on the TPP would pave the way naturally for me to bring the discussion to Asia and get him to tacitly comment on the policy position of the current administration. It was a pointed question on whether he feels there is a basis for being apprehensive about the political, economic and military power of China. His response was honest and refreshing. He said, “I have said this in China. I would be more worried about a chaotic, poor China than a successful, wealthy China…so that it feels confident and is able to interact with countries in the region and around the world and take on responsibilities that are commensurate with its size and its wealth. So, I welcome a peaceful rise of China and I think the world should welcome a peaceful rise of China.” He then went on to say that he would like to see a China that is less “mercantilist” in its orientation, and willing to share the burden of responsibility with the USA in responding to international crises.
This came across as a reasoned and reasonable argument. It captured Obama’s sense of fairness and fair-play, and his abiding belief in shared interests and multilateral, multi-modal means of settling disputes versus the use of force for unilateral intervention.
This led naturally to getting a sense of his commitment – beyond his presidency - to be the fulcrum of the change he wants. His energy and tone were in sync with what he said especially when he started talking about his faith and belief in young leaders across the world. This is embodied in the raison d’etre of The Obama Foundation. Even though it was at the tail end of the hour-long interview, he became very much alive when he talked about youth. He said that in the years ahead he feels the single thing he could do best is, “to train a next generation of leaders around the world and in the United States so that the values I care about and the issues and policies that I care about…would be carried forward. And more importantly, that new solutions and new ideas and innovation in the areas of politics and social change could come about.”
Going by the response of the audience during the interview and the comments I got from some members of the audience after, it was clear that they respected Obama for his candour and honesty. Even though, for some, there were questions that weren’t asked and some that may not have been adequately or satisfactorily addressed, they connected with the values he espoused with consistency.
For me, not only were his responses thoughtful and thought-provoking, Obama did come through as an authentic person. It didn’t matter as much that he may not have got all his policies or actions right when he was in office. After all, I can’t think of any president who did. It’s evident that his heart is in the right place. He is a good man, with the energy, clout and will to make things happen for a better world. He gives us much needed hope.
Hence, my closing lines: “we look forward to a braver, better new world with President Barack Obama continuing to lead the charge”.