An hour with Barack Obama 

Barack Obama addressed a sold-out delegation at Oslo Business Forum this autumn, with VIP ticket prices reaching a staggering £3,000. Ethos publisher Fiona Shaw was invited along, as he talked to Birgit Liodden about some of the most pressing issues of our time*. 
Published —
01.22.19
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A stampede of smart, suited adults sprints across the hall of Oslo’s X Meeting Point at 15:50 in the afternoon. Like the charge for the delayed 6:23 from Waterloo, jaws are set, elbows fly and adults grapple for advantage. Chairs tip over.  

The guest for the afternoon session of Oslo Business Forum is Barack Obama, 44th president of the United States. His 2008 presidential campaign became a rallying cry for change; his final message as POTUS was simply “My last ask is the same as my first. I’m asking you to believe – not in my ability to create change, but in yours.” 

The man who presided over the largest reorganisation of the financial sector since the great depression; who made healthcare in the US a fundamental right, knows that there is still work to do. “There is a lot of unfinished businesses,” he tells the audience, as flashes fire and iPads wave, mid-air. “That’s the nature of a democracy. You run your race and have to pass it on, when you haven’t done everything you’d like to do. 

 As president he signed the US up to the unprecedented Paris Agreement, so it’s no surprise to hear Obama describe environmental sustainability and climate change as “the single highest priority that I see globally.” But he also admits that technology is accelerating faster than expected, with the anxieties of globalisation and technology seen not just in the US, but around the world. 

“There are lots of reasons for the current political turmoil,” he says. “One of the main reasons is that the advanced stages of capitalism tend to produce a ‘winner takes all’ economy. If you have a unique skill or talent or an algorithm, you have access to an entire global market and can amass extraordinary wealth very quickly. If you don’t have a specialised skill or talent, then a lot of your work is being replaced. People feel that their economic and social status is declining. That creates resentment and frustration and fear – and that feeds the trends that we’re seeing.” 

Obama on political turmoil 

As 2008’s financial crash has shown, continuous progress isn’t a given. Obama says: “Many of us felt that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid and European unification, there was a sense that a liberal market-based order would be the dominant and growing manner in which countries organised themselves. We saw a lot of progress during the ‘90s and early 2000s. And in some cases, some arrogance and hubris on the part of the West, thinking everyone would be moving in the same direction. That backlash can be seen in things like Brexit and certain European countries like Poland or Hungary; we see it in the US – people feeling left behind and unsettled. Old fashioned politics based on tribe and race and very narrow nationalism; there’s a danger of that sort of politics in a world connected by the internet and transportation. We can’t take for granted the inevitability of a democracy. It’s something we have to fight for and cultivate and nurture.” 

Obama on the internet  

“I was some young man who had an unusual name was able to mobilise all of these people,” smiles Obama, reminiscing about using MySpace and MeetUp to get his message out. “The promise of the internet was to connect the world in a positive way and we’ve learned that the same power be used to deliver a hopeful message can also be used to deliver a hateful message. Terrorist organisations can mobilise and radicalise easily and cheaply; so too can far right parties.” 

Obama on humanity 

“This will sound like a cliché,” says the former president. “But I’ve been on the planet now for 57 years and have had a good vantage point of a range of humanity. And the single thing that I know to be true is that humans are basically the same everywhere you go. There are beautiful and extraordinary differences in cultures and rituals and the stories that people have told themselves about the world around them, expressed in their food and their music and their religion; their dance. But people are people. They have hopes, dreams, expectations, fears, weaknesses and blind spots – patterns that we all have in common. If we can hang on to that, we can solve most of our problems. The cruelty, the horrors and the dangers arise out of people telling themselves a story that ‘I’m different to them. They’re less important than me, or less worthy, or God has chosen me and not you.’ Or ‘because she’s a woman she’s my inferior, or because that person is gay I don’t have to be concerned with their ability to get a job’; or because of their race… 

“When we came out of the plains of Africa millions of years ago and our brains were designed to know about 150 people in our entire lives, there was utility to be able to say, ‘they’re not part of my group’, because there were dangers and scarcity. But now there are seven billion people on the planet and we can’t operate like that anymore. A small child in rural China is similar to my child here and we have to think about how we can give them some education and basic opportunity; treat them with kindness and protect them from disease and not start wars that will consume them. That is the one thing that will save us. Not only must we hang on to that idea, but we must spread that idea.”   

Obama on globalisation 

“Globalisation and global capital – combined with technology – have stitched the entire world together,” he says. “I can order goods made on the other side of the world and have it here in two days. Business has contributed to the breaking down of barriers. There is a common set of global attitudes, particularly amongst young people. That is a powerful and good thing. But business is not as good at thinking about how we create social, political and economic arrangements so that we don’t have a few people doing extraordinarily well and a lot of people left behind.  

“In Washington, Davos and Brussels, there is a certain arrogance… experts told us to ‘break down trade barriers’ and ‘open up your economies to the marketplace’ and ‘everything will be fine’. But 2008 showed us that the market’s not perfect and can break down fairly rapidly, precisely because it’s interconnected, and bring the entire world economy to a standstill. People don’t think about their own lives in terms of aggregate GDP – they think ‘how am I doing? Can I afford to buy a house? How do I make sure my child gets a good education?’ 

“If we are to sustain the good of globalisation and efficiencies of technology we need to create stabilisers through our economic, political and social arrangements. We need a social welfare state that is well run, efficient and captures enough of society’s surplus that it can be reinvested in education and severe poverty. If we don’t do that, these imbalances over time will break the system. It’s a challenge for any business leader, thinking about profits, shareholders and expanding their markets. It’s not an entrepreneur’s job by themselves to solve these problems. But many businesses think about their missions and forget that it depends on a society that is functioning well. 

“My frustration with US business organisations, which are interested in cutting taxes and reducing regulatory constraints and less interested in exerting influence to make sure that the society is operating in a more just fashion. Failure to do that ultimately will be bad for business. Young entrepreneurs are already recognising that they have to pay attention to what is happening outside the four corners of their balance sheet.      

Obama on youth 

“Old people don’t give up what they have so, very nicely, at some point, you’ll have to take it. My daughters are becoming young women. There are times where they’re smarter than me. It’s very offensive. I used to know so much more than them about so many things. And now they start correcting me…  

“It’s a natural impulse of the previous generation that they’ve done things the best way. If you’re a business leader or entrepreneur my age; if you’re not cultivating young talent, your organisation will fail. The single most important thing for you to do is identify and empower and nurture that next generation of talent.  

“If you’re a young person, then my primary advice is to learn how to be useful to other people; not just the person who’s your direct boss. That is noticed.” 

Obama on equality 

“Studies have repeatedly shown that organisations that have a critical mass of women in leadership perform better; are more profitable, have higher stock valuations and are better at recruiting talent. If you’re on the board of a company and look around and it’s all a bunch of men, you’ve got a problem. You are not well organised to succeed. In today’s global market, the same would be true in terms of diversity generally. 

“In the US, the majority of six and seven year olds are not white. The majority of them are Latino and Asian American in origin. So, if you’re a company interfacing with the public, that’s your market. If you don’t have anybody who looks like that market, you will not succeed. You may succeed in the short term, but you won’t succeed in the long term. If you have different points of view, [they] will help you identify blind spots. When I was president, in any meeting – whether it was about war, or ebola – I knew that every point of view was in some way represented, so I could see it from every angle. It guards against the natural biases we bring. 

“Put people at the table who don’t just tell you how smart you are, and look like you and laugh at the same things and live in the same neighbourhoods. If you only want people like you, then you don’t need anyone else in the meeting.” 

Obama on risk 

“If you take calculated risks, which are necessary to achieve important objectives, there will be times when you fail. Silicon Valley has a culture of failing fast, breaking things, keeping moving –   but if you keep failing then you’re a failure. Success is good. But if you’re not at least sometimes making mistakes and failing, then you’re probably not trying to push the boundaries of what you do; you’re missing opportunities. You’re probably operating somewhat out of fear. It’s important to take calculated risks – not to make a cult out of failure – but so that if you see a mistake, you can correct it quickly.  

Obama on his younger self  

“At 20 I was very serious. All I did was read and write and take long walks and ponder existence. I’d say ‘relax. Go talk to a girl. Go dancing.’ I was overcompensating for all the fun times I’d had when I was younger. At 30, I would say ‘determine fairly early on how you’re going to effectively balance your career with your family.’ And in my 40s – ‘start dyeing your hair early. Once it starts going grey, it’s too late. Everyone will notice.’”     

*but wasn’t a VIP. We do our best for our readers, but… 

Photo credit: Alexander Eriksson