President Obama urges Black Americans to ‘fight back’ against voter suppression

EXCLUSIVE: In an exclusive interview with theGrio, former President Barack Obama tells voters to 'keep showing up to the polls to demand change'

Former President Barack Obama (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Former President Barack Obama knows a thing or two about organizing and building coalitions for change. As a community organizer in Chicago, Mr. Obama developed the art of bringing people together around issues that impacted poor and marginalized communities, ultimately harnessing those same skills as a politician to energize voters — particularly Black and young voters — and making political history.

In his memoir A Promised Land, Obama chronicles his life and historic presidency with rich prose and deep reflection. America’s first Black president inspired a nation marred by its racist past and gave new hope for a future of true equality and full democratic participation.

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In 2014, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama sort out gifts that will be distributed to less fortunate children in the U.S. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Despite the progress of Obama’s presidency, both symbolically and politically, the nation saw a regression during the presidency of his successor Donald Trump with a rise in violent acts of racism and, recently evidenced by Georgia’s controversial SB 202 law, more stringent efforts to block access to the ballot for Black and brown voters.

In an exclusive interview with theGrio, President Obama expresses confidence in his former vice president, now President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to continue the efforts his administration made to advance health care and end poverty and urges voters of color to “fight back” against voter suppression.

“Keep following Stacey [Abrams]’s lead. Keep organizing. Keep showing up to the polls to demand change,” Obama tells theGrio.

“That is what the generation before us did. In the face of billy clubs and lynchings, poll taxes and literacy tests, they were relentless in their pursuit of expanding access to the ballot box.”

Read our full interview with former President Barack Obama below.

theGrio: So many Black people voted for Biden off the strength of your relationship. What does accountability look like in the Biden era — how do we ensure he keeps his promises to Black America?

President Obama: I’ll admit that when I began my search for a Vice President, I had no idea I’d end up finding a brother. Because, on the surface, there’s not much Joe and I have in common. We come from different places and different generations. But what I quickly came to realize was we had so many of the same values. 

His empathy, his decency, his belief that everybody counts—that’s who Joe is. It’s why, when I was president, I wanted him to be the last one in the room with me whenever I faced a big decision. And it’s why I campaigned so hard for him. Because I knew that, just as he made me a better president, he would make America a better country. 

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, left, greets former U.S. President Barack Obama, right, with a fist bump during the inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

In many ways, he already has. The American Rescue Plan will lift millions of families out of poverty—and could cut child poverty by nearly half. It will lower premiums for millions of people and make health care more affordable. It will enable us to beat back this pandemic and build back a better America. So I may be biased, but I’m optimistic. 

But it’s also true that you don’t just elect a president, then kick back and hope they will follow through on their promises. You’ve got to stay informed and engaged. You’ve got to hold them accountable when they do something you don’t agree with. And you’ve got to keep voting—not only at the federal level but at the state and local levels, too. 

Because participating in our democracy is the only way you can make sure your elected officials keep their promises and do what you elected them to do. 

theGrio: What policy priorities were previously blocked under your administration due to a GOP majority, that now can be moved forward with Democrats in the lead and VP Kamala Harris in position? 

President Obama: You know, I’ve always believed the presidency is like a relay race. You run as far as you can while you’re in office and then pass the baton to the next generation of leaders, who run as far as they can. Of course, change doesn’t always move in a straight line. Sometimes, it zigs; sometimes, it zags; sometimes, it does both. But, hopefully, over time, you move in the right direction. And I think that’s what we’re seeing now. 

Take health care, for example. 

I am proud of The Affordable Care Act. It’s helped 20 million Americans get coverage—and up to 130 million Americans can no longer be denied coverage because of a preexisting condition. But I’ve also always said that the ACA is like a starter home, and it’s our job to keep tinkering with it and improving it over time.

That’s exactly what President Biden, Vice President Harris, and the Democratic majorities in Congress have done. Through the American Rescue Plan, they’re lowering premiums for millions of families, making health insurance more affordable for low-and middle-income Americans, and providing incentives for states to expand Medicaid and cover as many as four million additional Americans. All of a sudden, our starter home is beginning to look pretty spacious.

Harris Biden
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

That said, until every American has health care they can afford we will still have work to do. But we are making progress—and we can’t lose sight of that, either. That’s true across a whole range of issues, whether it’s working to create jobs or tackling climate change. The Biden Administration has the baton now, and I’m glad to see them running as hard as they can.

theGrio: America is constantly in a battle between living up to the promised land you wrote about and facing the ugly truth of our nation’s racism and inequality. With events like CPAC and conservative organizations still bolstering Donald Trump, the GOP’s endless efforts of voter suppression, and QAnon/Trump supporters, how do we preserve our democracy? 

President Obama: For starters, democracy isn’t dead yet. In November, under incredibly difficult circumstances, Americans turned out in numbers we’ve never seen before and proved that the system can still work. But for democracy to endure, we all need to be active citizens—not just on Election Day, but every day. 

The good news is that, over the last year, we have seen so many citizens take up the mantle of change—including the young people who have marched in our streets, put a spotlight on injustice, and made the powers that be uncomfortable. That kind of civil disobedience couldn’t be more important. Throughout our history, it has often been the only way to get the people in charge to pay attention.

A view of voting rights signs as people gather during the Count Every Vote Rally In Philadelphia at Independence Hall on November 07, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for MoveOn)

But eventually, movements have to be translated into laws and policies—and that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands. It’s another form of participation, and one that is just as important as protesting. 

It’s true we face real challenges now, and we’re deeply divided as a country. But the path to preserving our democracy is to follow those who came before us—folks who were up against some pretty big challenges themselves. Protest and politics have always gone hand-in-hand when it comes to defending our rights and expanding our freedoms. 

theGrio: Since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Republican-controlled states have feverishly and strategically worked to make voting harder, particularly for Black and Brown communities. The Court is set to rule on another crucial case in Arizona that could set the tone for future cases on voting access. With a conservative majority in the Supreme Court, do you worry that the voter mobilization work of Stacey Abrams and others won’t be enough to ensure full voting rights for Americans? How should Democrats address this challenge?

President Obama: Again, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen folks trying to suppress the vote to advance their own narrow interests. It’s frustrating that we’re still seeing it. But no matter what happens in the Supreme Court, the best tool we have to fight back is to keep following Stacey’s lead. Keep organizing. Keep showing up to the polls to demand change. 

That is what the generation before us did. In the face of billy clubs and lynchings, poll taxes and literacy tests, they were relentless in their pursuit of expanding access to the ballot box. Now it’s up to us to do the same, to refuse to grow weary, to rally around legislation like the For The People Act. 

The U.S. Capitol is seen, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

theGrio: Nearly 12 years ago (on March 26, 2009), you became the first president to hold an online town hall meeting. We’ve since seen the huge impact that the Internet and social media can have on our elections. What role do you think social media plays in politics? How do we balance its usefulness with its potentially devastating effects? 

President Obama: When I was running for President the first time, I could sit in the living room of any family’s home—whether they were Democrats, Republicans, or couldn’t care less about politics—and find common ground. Sure, they might disagree with me on some issues, but in all likelihood, we would see eye-to-eye on something.  

But these days, there are lots of people whose worldviews aren’t based on facts. Partisan media outlets propagate the falsehood that the last election was stolen. And social media has made it possible for people to live in their own bubbles, with the only opinions they see coming from people who think just like they do.

Now, I don’t think social media is inherently bad. I obviously used it as president and continue to today—a lot of good things happen on these platforms, and social media companies didn’t set out to destroy our shared sense of truth. But until those companies own up to their role in our society and help reverse the damage, our marketplace of ideas, which is the basis of our democracy, won’t work. 

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