Obama: America Has a ‘Great Smugness’ About Wealth, Status

While speaking Tuesday at Rice University’s Baker Center with author Jon Meacham and former White House chief of staff, James Baker, former President Barack Obama discussed identity politics and its history regarding race in the United States.

Obama said that America, particularly American elites, have had a history of “great smugness” when it comes to wealth and status,

Partial transcript as follows:

OBAMA: We did not adapt quickly enough to the fact that there were people being left behind. And that frustrations were going to flare up and that all of these changes that were happening were happening really quick, and you had to address them and speak to them.

In those environments, you then start getting a different kind of politics. You start getting politics that’s based on, that person’s not like me. And it must be their fault. You start getting the politics based on a nationalism that’s not pride and country, but hatred for somebody on the other side of the border. And you start getting the kind of politics that does not allow for compromise because it is based on passions and emotions.

BAKER: It’s identity politics.

OBAMA: Which is why, by the way, when I hear people say they don’t like identity politics, I think it’s important to remember that identity politics doesn’t just apply when it’s black people or gay people or women. The folks are really originated identity politics were the folks who said, three-fifths clause and all that stuff. That was identity politics. That’s still out there. Maybe that was a little too controversial for Houston, but Jim Crow was identity politics. That’s where it started.

So, part of what’s happened is that when people feel their status is being jostled and threatened, they react. What I would agree with is that the Washington consensus, whatever you want to call it, got a little too comfortable with — they are looking at GDP numbers and looking at the Internet and everything is looking pretty great, particularly after the Cold War. After what you guys engineered, you had this period of great smugness on the part of America and American elites thinking, “We got this figured out.” … That came back to bite us.

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