On ‘Renegades’ Obama Confronts a Center-Left That is Leaving Him Behind
Spotify’s latest plunge into the podcasting world features two giants in American liberalism that don’t quite connect with today’s left.
Last Monday Spotify announced a new podcast series “Renegades: Born in the USA” that features conversations on life, music, and politics between former President Barack Obama and heartland rock superstar Bruce Springsteen. The first two episodes released on the streaming platform introduce Obama and Springsteen’s unusual friendship (the pair met on the campaign trail in 2008 where Springsteen’s song “The Rising” became a rally staple) before diving into a longer discussion about what they see as the central divide in American life — race.
As the series’ name suggests, “Renegades” uses shared feelings of displacement as a framing device for Obama and Springsteen’s unlikely path to friendship and their eventual commitment to racial justice. But this framing is immediately undermined by the Comcast ads spliced into the beginning, middle, and end of each episode. The juxtaposition of anti-establishment branding with corporate sponsors paints the picture of Obama that his progressive critics would make, and it’s a little jarring that no one on the production team considered the optics of such a glaring contradiction.
In fact, contradiction is a running theme throughout Obama and Springsteen’s discussion of race, which both men place at the center of the American political divide. In the first episode, Springsteen recalls how he developed an identity as a musician through the desire to tell the story of the people of Freehold, New Jersey, his hometown. On one hand Freehold is a place full of people he loves and whose material pain he channels in his lyrical storytelling; on the other hand, Freehold is, according to Springsteen, the “typical, small, provincial, redneck, racist little American 1950s town” with the kinds of problems Donald Trump would come to exploit in the Rust Belt in his run for president in 2016.
Springsteen also addresses the racial contradictions in his success with the E Street Band, a group that included legendary Black saxophonist Clarence Clemons and relied heavily on the sounds of soul and jazz in its early years but mostly took a backseat to Springsteen’s climb up the music charts in the 1980s. As Obama tells Springsteen, Clemons “provided something to you — personally — and to the band that helped capture what would end up being your sound. But what you’re also saying…look, here’s an older Black man that’s been hustling out there for a long time…he’s gotta hook up with a young white teen…who is less experienced than him.”
For Obama, the racial contradictions explored over the first two episodes are more political than personal in nature. For instance, Obama acknowledges, though without naming him directly, Trump’s rise to power in the Republican Party five years ago as a racist backlash to his own presidency. Yet he remains wary of today’s racial justice activists making more radical demands on the system (last December he infamously dismissed Defund the Police as a “snappy” sloganeering). In the second episode, Obama also defends his decision not to press forward with reparations during his time in office on the basis that the racist resistance he faced on other policy issues made the prospect of reparations legislation a “non-starter” and “potentially counter-productive.”
Ultimately Obama never settles the contradiction between his belief that race is the main fault line in American life and his reluctance to advocate for economic policies that would close the racial wealth gap.
While Obama and Springsteen cover the issue of race with some depth, the pair largely avoid talking about it in the context of the present-day political environment. This is a serious limitation of the series, but one that indicates where Obama ultimately sees himself in the Democratic Party that has grown out from under his presidency.
During the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, the dividing line in the party was understood to fall between the center-left camp led by President Obama and eventual nominee Hillary Clinton, and the progressive-left camp led by Vermont Senator and insurgent primary candidate Bernie Sanders. But Trump’s shocking win that November galvanized a third camp, the resistance, whose relentless calls to stop Trump and his GOP allies with the force of the law contrasts sharply with Obama’s insistence on treating them as good faith partners in government.
In other words, the center-left as many know it today is well to the left of President Obama, not just in tone but in political urgency. Resistance liberals fear their party and American democracy may not survive if Republicans win another major election, as Republican-run state legislatures begin work to disenfranchise millions of voters at the ballot box following the Democratic gains in the 2020 election.
The real drawback to “Renegades” is that Obama doesn’t quite capture this fear among the resistance. He says he understands the rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism but does not see himself as part of what is needed to bring them down — for good. He says he understands the social and economic challenges that are radicalizing young racial justice activists but cannot endorse their rhetoric or their methods. Who, then, is this podcast for? What makes Obama a renegade after all?