In a 32-minute interview that aired on Tuesday’s episode of “The Daily Show,” Obama expanded on his concern that the catchphrase ― essentially a rallying cry to redirect some government funding for the police to social services ― may put off potential supporters who don’t fully understand its aim.
It ultimately boils down to “how do you get enough people to support your cause that you can actually institutionalize it and translate it into laws, structures and so forth?” Obama explained to host Trevor Noah.
“I think that people assumed that somehow I was making an argument that that’s why we didn’t get a bigger Democratic majority” in Congress, Obama said of the criticism he received.
Instead, Obama said he was attempting to make a “very particular point around that, if we want to translate the very legitimate belief that how we do policing needs to change and that if there is, for example, a homeless guy ranting and railing in the middle of the street, sending a mental health worker, rather than an armed untrained police officer to deal with that person might be a better outcome for all of us and make us safer, right?”
“That, if we describe that to not just white folks, but let’s say Michelle’s mom, that makes sense to them,” the former president continued. “But if we say ‘defund the police,’ not just white folks, but Michelle’s mom might say, ‘If I’m getting robbed, who am I going to call and is somebody going to show up?’”
Obama said concerns in this kind of debate often center around “are we just trying to make white people comfortable rather than speaking truth to power.”
“The issue to me is not making them comfortable,” he said. “It is, can we be precise with our language enough that people who might be persuaded around that particular issue to make a particular change that gets a particular result that we want. What’s the best way for us to describe that?”
Obama earlier in the interview said “nothing” had made him “more optimistic during a very difficult year” overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic “than the activism that we saw in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter.”
He also denied that he had attempted to chastise the Black Lives Matter movement, hailing its “courage, activism” and “strategic resolve” as far exceeding “anything I could have done at their age” and praising it for shifting “the conversation in ways that I could not have imagined even a couple of years ago.”
Check out the full interview below. (Obama’s comments on “defund the police” start at the 18-minute mark.)