Disinformation and Democracy: My Conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg

Yesterday, at the Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy, a conference hosted by The Atlantic and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, Jeffrey Goldberg and I spoke about the threat of disinformation and what we can do to stop it.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Talk a little bit about Ukraine, where we are right now. Something that I think everybody here would appreciate is the chance to hear you talk about this through the prism of your knowledge of Vladimir Putin. You spent a lot of time with him, a lot of time grappling with him. Spend a couple of minutes, if you can, explaining where we are and where you think this is headed.

Barack Obama: Well, it is a tragedy of historic proportions. That’s not news to people here. You can see it. It is calling the question about a set of trends around the world that we’ve seen building for some time. Putin represented a very particular reaction to the ideals of democracy, but also globalization, the collision of cultures, the ability to harness anger and resentment around an ethno-nationalist mythology. And what we’re seeing is the consequences of that kind of toxic mix in the hands of an autocratic government that doesn’t have a lot of checks and balances. I think it is also fair to say that it is a bracing reminder for democracies that had gotten flabby and confused and feckless around the stakes of things that we tended to take for granted.

Goldberg: Do you include our democracy in that?

Obama: Yes. Rule of law. Freedom of press and conscience of the sort that one of your previous speakers, Maria Ressa, represents — you have to fight for that information, or you have to fight to provide people the information they need to be free and self-governing; it doesn’t just happen inevitably. Independent judiciaries making elections work in ways that are fair and free. We have gotten complacent, and I cannot guarantee that, as a consequence of what’s happened, we are shaking off that complacency.

As somebody who grappled with the incursion into Crimea and the eastern portions of Ukraine, I have been encouraged by the European reaction because in 2014, I often had to drag them kicking and screaming to respond in ways that we would have wanted to see from those of us who describe ourselves as Western democracies. In terms of Putin and where he takes this, there’s been a lot of literature about this, a lot of reporting about this. I don’t know that the person I knew is the same as the person who is now leading this charge. He was always ruthless. You witnessed what he did in Chechnya. He had no qualms about crushing those who he considered a threat. That’s not new. For him to bet the farm in this way, I would not have necessarily predicted from him five years ago.

There has been speculation on the psychology of how much of that is him aging, him being isolated during COVID, et cetera. But as much as I think we cannot count on the sudden rationality from him, and as disquieting as the absolute control of information within Russia makes me doubtful about any kind of grassroots or oligarch resistance to the current course of events, I think that what has happened in Ukraine in many ways is more remarkable than or less predictable than Putin wanting to seize territory.

Goldberg: You mean the high level of resistance.

Obama: The high level of resistance, the degree to which you have somebody like a Volodymyr Zelensky responding to the moment. Part of what changed between 2014 and today is that I think a sense of national identity continued to fortify itself, and, ironically, him lopping off, at least informally annexing, Crimea and portions on the east, I think clarified within Ukraine who they were and what they stood for, and I also think the thing that he did not fully anticipate is the degree to which the nature of war has changed, where everybody is seeing exactly what is happening on a real-time basis. And all those things I think may lead to — I won’t say a happy resolution, but I think have the potential of preventing a maximalist victory for Putin, and that over the long term may allow for an independent Ukraine.

Goldberg: Two more quick things on this. Do you think that Ukraine can win, by your definition of what win might be?

Obama: You look at these cities, and you look at the populations, and you look at the exodus. It’s hard to describe that as a winner. And I think it’s too early to tell what an endgame looks like. I would not try to predict not only what’s in the mind of Putin, but also how the Ukrainians conceive of this struggle, because we are sitting here comfortably and they are going through heck, and the one thing I try not to do is to project onto them what they should do and what they shouldn’t and how we should define what’s tolerable and what the nature of their resistance should look like; how, if negotiations proceed, those should proceed. I think what we can do is support them and their efforts and their courage.

And the other thing that we can do is take this as a lesson that sadly they’re paying the price for, but that speaks to a much more bumpy, difficult, violent, challenging future for the coming generation if we don’t get some things right here at home, in Europe, and in Asia and Latin America, because what’s happening there is not isolated. What we’re seeing is a reversion back to old ways of thinking about power and place and identity. And I think part of our complacency grew out of the notion that once the Berlin Wall fell and Nelson Mandela was released and the world was flat and you had McDonald’s everywhere, and now suddenly that was it — we were done. And we forgot that that post–World War II 50-years stretch to 60-years stretch — that’s the anomaly. And that there is millennia of brutality and pillage and violence and displacement and cruelty, and we created a set of institutions out of 60 million people dying in World War II and tried to reconfigure how we might organize our societies. But it is not self-executing. It’s something that we have to continually nurture and respond to new circumstances, whether that’s changes in technology, changes in globalization, climate change — all those things require us to say, All right, what does that mean for our capacity to maintain human dignity and freedom and self-governance? And that’s the prism through which we should be examining these questions and being willing to modify, adjust, reform our institutions to keep up with that. And that’s something that I think we have not done as well as we need to.

Goldberg: One last question on this. Back in 2013, 2014, if you could go back and do things over again, would you have done more to work against Putin’s aims in Donbas and Crimea? I remember you and John McCain going at it at various points.

Obama: I actually don’t, because the circumstances were different. The populations in Crimea, certainly, and their attitudes towards Russia were different, which is why you did not have to have a full-scale invasion. The East was more complicated, and we had a very robust response that, as I said, required a lot of work with the Europeans in order to mount. And Ukraine itself was different. I mean, keep in mind that you had just had essentially a strongman who was aligned with Putin, and we had had to intervene to prevent a massacre in the Maidan. The Verkhovna Rada still had elements that were linked to the old order. And so for us to check at least his efforts for eight years, I think, was what we needed to do at the time — the notion that we were also concerned about making sure that we did not give an excuse for a further incursion. And a lot of the arguments back then had to do with arming Ukraine, which in turn could have provided, you know, those kinds of excuses, and you had issues of training. Anyway, if you ask me what I’m most concerned about when I think back to towards the end of my presidency, it probably has more to do with the topic here today — it’s something I grappled with a lot during my presidency; I saw it sort of unfold — and that is the degree to which information, disinformation, misinformation was being weaponized. And we saw it. But I think I underestimated the degree to which democracies were as vulnerable to it as they were, including ours.

Goldberg: Well, let me ask you about something notable that’s happening in Russia, which is that despite a somewhat porous internet, globalization, everything else, most Russians, from what we understand from reporting, seem to have very little idea that Ukraine is not the aggressor nation, that it’s not run by neo-Nazis, and so on. And so my question for you has to do with how do you break through to authoritarian regimes or populations controlled by authoritarians to give them your understanding of reality, democracy’s understanding of reality?

Obama: I don’t think we have an easy solution. We have courageous journalists. You saw a woman with a handheld sign going across the TV screen saying, “This is all a lie,” and that obviously got suppressed quickly. Here’s one way to think about it, though. For all the flaws that may exist in our own society, you can get any information you want right now. It’s in your pocket, unfiltered. And yet in our society, you have currently roughly 40 percent of the country that appears convinced that the current president was elected fraudulently and that the election was rigged. You have 30 to 35 percent of the country that has chosen not to avail itself of a medical miracle, the development of a vaccine faster than anything we’ve ever seen before, which, by the way, now has been clinically tested by about a billion people. And yet they are still refusing to take it despite extraordinary risks to themselves and their families. So if that’s true in our society, imagine how any of us would process information if we are not getting, if we’re not seeing, anything else.

I have to be careful. The reason I’m pausing is I’m about to tell a dad joke. So I’m sure my daughters, if they see this, will roll their eyes. But it’s like the story of the old fish who’s swimming by a couple of young fish and moseys past them and he says, “How’s the water?” And he keeps on swimming. And one of the young fish looks at the other and says, “What’s water?” And I think that that’s how we are in terms of information. We don’t know what we don’t know. It’s very difficult for us to get out of the reality that is constructed for us. And that is part of the reason why the stakes of this issue are so important, because it is difficult for me to see how we win the contest of ideas if in fact we are not able to agree on a baseline of facts that allow the marketplace of ideas to work.

Goldberg: I just want to note, for the record, that that joke was 40 percent too epistemologically sophisticated to count as a dad joke. I have dad jokes. We can do better in our second hour.

But go to definitions. Let’s just start there. What is the difference between disinformation — I’m asking you this as a retired politician who uses facts or used facts to your advantage, your electoral advantage — what’s the difference between disinformation and information that’s narratively inconvenient, let’s say. How do you define disinformation, misinformation?

Obama: I don’t think that the definitions are that tough. Misinformation is just wrong information, and that’s always been with us. We get facts wrong, we say stuff wrong, and we’re not going to solve for that problem anytime soon. The way I define disinformation is if you have a systematic effort to either promote false information, to suppress true information, for the purpose of political gain, financial gain, enhancing power, suppressing others, targeting those you don’t like and that, I think it’s entirely different from information that is inconvenient.

I’ll use an example because I think it also shows that sometimes we get too cute about this, and we’re not operating on common sense. I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. There’s a clipping there of me in the newspaper dated 1961. I walked by the hospital every day for the first several years of my life. And so that wasn’t an example of people being misinformed. There was an agenda behind that promotion of what was clearly a false fact.

I was identified as having engaged in a political falsehood when I said and repeated several times that if you want to keep your doctor, you can. And the point we were trying to make is 85 percent of people had health care, and one of the big problems in trying to get health care for the uninsured is making sure that folks who already had it weren’t vulnerable to scare tactics that they were all going to be rationed, and socialized medicine, and they’d lose their plan and doctor. And we said, “Look, we’re keeping the system for folks who have employer-based health care intact.” Once we passed it and we were starting to implement, one of the things that we had done is to raise standards for what insurance could or could not provide, because there was a bunch of phony insurance on the marketplace that people thought they were purchasing insurance, but it turned out that when they actually got sick, there were so many restrictions to it that it didn’t do them any good. And there was constant churn in this market. So when people were up for renewal for these ultracheap insurance plans that didn’t actually provide coverage to the standard we had set, it turned out they couldn’t renew, because those plans were no longer being offered. Well, many mainstream reporters, not just Fox News, said, “Look, he lied. You lost your insurance that you had and you were perfectly satisfied with.” I thought, Well, I guess technically it’s true that you no longer had the plan you had, because the bogus plans that you used to pay for that offered you no protection when you actually, finally got sick, we regulated out of existence. That was deemed as I hadn’t been accurate. Four Pinocchios on Obama!

That’s an example of what can happen in politics. And by the way, although I promise you I cursed a lot in the Oval Office when I read people saying that I hadn’t been truthful, because the basic principle I had laid out I meant and was true, but I couldn’t really complain about people criticizing me for it. And that’s okay. But let me put it this way: Me saying that was not a threat to democracy. It was not intended to somehow subvert the democratic process, and because people could then criticize me for it, the democratic process worked. That’s how the marketplace is supposed to work in theory.

Goldberg: Can I ask you a meta question? Not a Mark Zuckerberg Meta question, a meta meta question?

Obama: Have you been holding that joke?

Goldberg: No, three seconds! Seriously, it just happens. Spontaneous! No, no, no, the meta question is prompted by your statement here. I’m wondering, given what you understand about the information environment — no one has been afflicted by some negative aspects of this current information environment like you have, the birth certificate being one example. You just kind of sort of admitted that maybe you didn’t tell the whole truth or you shared something that was inaccurate, and you just shared that publicly. Are you worried tomorrow that Fox News is going to say, “Obama admits he lied about ACA” or about keeping your health care?

Obama: I am, now that you just said it that way! Because I thought I was making the exact opposite point! This is how the press works, even in advocacy! Even with an award-winning magazine editor. No, that is not the point!

Goldberg: To make it meta meta, Brian Stelter is sitting over there already typing how he’s going to report on this meta moment.

Obama: That is not the point I was making. The point I was making is that in a democracy, in the normal course of debate, we will contest what’s been said, what’s been promised, what’s been delivered, and there will be some play in the joints in terms of how we interpret stuff. I actually, to this day, believe that what I said was accurate, which is when you say you can keep your doctor, if your doctor drops dead tomorrow, that is not the fault of the Affordable Care Act. Technically speaking, you did not keep your doctor. You had to find a new one.

So I was making a broader point, which is that systematically, we are not forcing you out of existing employer-based health care, which is what people at an aggregate level are concerned about. But the reason I told that story is to illustrate that yes, there are still going to be disputes around what’s true and false, even in a well-functioning democracy and a free press. That is okay. I was going to the point you were making: What’s the difference between systematic disinformation, whether it’s by the state or by product design on internet platforms, that are different in kind and are destructive in different ways? And, you know, just to go back to basics, if you think about our constitutional design — and obviously even each democracy has sort of a different coding for how their democracy is supposed to work — but in our design, the theory is in the First Amendment, you have freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, and everybody has a say, and in that marketplace then we’re going to sort out what’s true and what’s false or what’s best for us, how we act collectively and so forth. In reality, as we all know, some voices have been louder than others. Some voices were excluded entirely. But we did come to a point. Let’s call it post–World War II. Sometimes we have a rosy nostalgia about the past, and you had Father Coughlin, and you had the McCarthy era, and you had the treatment of Black people and brown people generally. But at least after World War II, you had enough of a consensus that we built both a set of standards within journalism and we built a set of regulatory guidelines that industries had to follow, and it was possible then to have a debate between the left and the right in which we differed strongly on substance but we agreed on process. And what we’ve seen is a breakdown of that consensus, and what we’ve seen is a shift in technology and who controls these platforms in ways that are not transparent, and that has contributed to, aggravated, a sense in which we are no longer operating by the same rules or on the same facts.

Goldberg: I want to come to that, because Maria Ressa talked very effectively about these questions about what the platforms should do. But there’s a story that you have told over the course of your career. It was in volume one of your autobiography. When is volume two coming, by the way?

Obama: Let’s move on.

Goldberg: Okay. It’s kind of an Iowa story, but it’s also a downstate-Illinois story: You talk about entering politics as a Black politician, a Black Democratic politician from Chicago with a name like yours, getting a fair shake downstate.

Obama: I think it speaks to the evolution of press and information and how it reflects on politics. And David Axelrod will remember this because he was highly skeptical about the idea of me running for the U.S. Senate two years after 9/11 with a name that rhymed with Osama, and I can’t fault him for that. So I’m going down to downstate Illinois. And those of you who know downstate Illinois, it is conservative. It’s rural. It is conservative. It’s 98 percent white in some of these counties. And I drive around and swing into a town, and we’d arrange for me to stop by the local newspaper. And usually sort of a stereotype — bow tie, crew cut, glasses, look at you kind of skeptically. “Come on in. You want some coffee?” — would organize a little roundtable with the reporters and you’d sit there and you’d answer questions and bat some ideas around and explain why you’re running for the Senate. And typically, the next day, there would be a little article because these are small towns, so there wasn’t much going on. So even though nobody knew who I was, they’d still report on it, and they’d say, “Well, you know, this young man came down. Little liberal for our taste. Funny name. But he had some okay ideas. And he’s running for Senate.” And that was the extent of the filter that I was dealing with. And so then I’m going to the fish fry or the VFW hall or the county fair and people might still be a little suspicious of the Black civil-rights lawyer from Chicago and whether they can connect with him, but I could get a fair hearing. There weren’t a set of impenetrable assumptions about who I was. And as a consequence, I could win those counties, which I did. And if I went there today, I could not. Now, let me take myself out of the equation because people may have some fixed opinions at this point, I think it’s fair to say. But someone like me going downstate or traveling through Iowa, they would have to work through a different set of barriers because that newspaper probably doesn’t exist, has been replaced, by the way, not just by Fox in every barbershop and beauty salon or Sinclair local news, but it’s also been replaced now with digital community newsletters that are being manufactured, printed out, and just pumped into these communities as local journalism has frayed. And by the way, I don’t think there is an equivalence necessarily on the left and the right in terms of the media space, but I suspect it is also harder to get a hearing if you are a rural guy coming up to Chicago that doesn’t check every box with respect to certain issues — certainly if you were a conservative Democrat who’s coming up here running in a primary. So that, I think, is an indication of how things have changed. And by the way, there was just recently a report that confirms what I feel and what I’ve seen. And anecdotally, it’s just one study that was done. Interesting study, though. They paid a pretty large cohort of Fox News watchers to watch CNN for a certain period of time. And these are very hard-core conservatives, not Biden voters, not swing voters. These were folks who watch Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson and so forth. And after a relatively short period of time, what it showed was that their views on issues, controversial issues like immigration or police or vaccinations, had changed by 5, 8, 10 percent. Just simply by changing their diet. It hadn’t turned them into liberals. It didn’t make them want to vote for Joe Biden. They had just had access to a different set of information, and so I say that to suggest that I think we underestimate the degree of pliability in our opinions and our views and what that means. I take that as hopeful. Not in the sense that the divisions that we see in our democracy of race, of region, of faith, of identity — those are there. They are not creations of social media. They’re not creations of any particular network. They’re deeply rooted, and they’re hard to work through. But it does give me faith that if people are given different information, they can process differently, and that the stories they tell themselves about who they are and their relationship to their neighbors, their friends, people who don’t look like them, people who don’t think like them, that those are subject to — well, to quote Abraham Lincoln: You can either encourage the better angels of folks’ nature or their worst. And democracy is premised on the idea that we can come up with processes, including how we share information and argue about information that encourages our better angels. And I think that’s possible.

Goldberg: Let’s stay on the journalism question, because this is not a natural disaster. Yes, there have been unique pressures that tech companies have put on newspaper companies. Alden Capital, for instance.

Obama: You guys did a great story about a venture-capital firm that single-handedly scooped up and destroyed a whole bunch of newspapers in this country, for profit.

Goldberg: So it’s a man-made disaster in some cases. What is your specific recommendation about these news deserts that have been created across the country? You could fold in the tech companies.

Obama: Why don’t I step back just for a second and maybe share a couple of assumptions that I have, in the interest of this transparency? Number one, as I said, I don’t think that our media companies, our tech companies, social media, created the divisions in our society. But I do think that what has happened in our media ecosystem is exacerbating and making democracy more difficult. Number two, I am close to a First Amendment absolutist. I believe in the idea of not just free speech, but also that you deal with bad speech with good speech, that the exceptions to that are very narrow. And particularly among this cohort of folks in college — and I’ve talked to my daughters about this — I don’t want us to be such a society of manners that we feel like our feelings are hurt and we can’t hear something that somebody says and we wilt. I want us all as citizens to be in the habit of being able to hear stuff that we disagree with and be able to answer with our words. Number three, I think that duplicating the consensus that we had post–World War II, when you had three TV stations and newspapers in every major city — in some cases, like Chicago, multiple newspapers — and an FCC and all that. I think that’s hard to duplicate, not just because of technology and the proliferation of content, but also because of the internationalization of content. That makes it more difficult. And number four, let’s stipulate that there is no such thing as perfect objectivity. The New York Times obviously chooses which stories to write and which reporters to hire, and they have certain perspectives that reflect themselves in their newspaper. Even AP and Reuters and UPI — same thing. But along with that, I would also argue that there are things that are more true and things that are less true. The basic ideas of checking sources and having multiple sources and fact-checking and not reporting things that somebody just popped off and you heard, and the value of expertise and science — those things are important. And there are some areas that are not subject to fact-checking. And those are things we call opinions or faith or belief. And those are important too. Those speak to our emotions. But that is different from what, in the public square, we’re supposed to be able to find agreement on. So if I stipulate all that stuff, then what I would say is that the loss of local journalism; the nationalization of sort of a grievance-, anger-based journalism; the growth of social media and technology whose product design monetizes anger, resentment, conflict division, and, in some cases, makes people very vulnerable — and this isn’t just words, but can lead to violence. It’s not just the Rohingya in Myanmar. It’s not just in some far-off place. If you are a woman, if you are a person of color, if you are a trans person right now in certain parts of this country, what’s said matters, and what you now have is these product designs where, in a nontransparent way that we don’t have much insight into, a series of editorial choices are essentially being made that undermine our democracy and oftentimes, when combined with any kind of ethno-nationalism or misogyny or racism, can be fatal. And that is the media ecosystem that we now are occupying. And the good news is I actually think that at every juncture, every time we’ve gotten new media, we’ve had this kind of churn, and then we’ve come up with rules to try to figure out: How do we fix it? But in order to fix it, we are going to have to have at least a consensus about what’s our north star. What is the thing, the guiding principle around which we fix it? And my concern right now is that at least a portion of the country either isn’t interested in fixing it or disagrees with what I would think our north star should be, which is: Do we have a free, self-governing society based on democratic principles?

Goldberg: Let me ask a self-described near First Amendment absolutist, how would you very specifically want to regulate social-media companies to make sure that they’re not privileging anger, privileging division and polarization through their algorithms?

Obama: So we’ve got a supply issue and we’ve got a demand issue for toxic information. And on the supply side, I do think that the tech companies are going to be increasingly the dominant players. They are private companies, which means that they are already making a range of decisions about not just what is on or not on their platforms, but also what gets amplified and what does not. And I think it is reasonable for us as a society to have a debate and then to put in place a combination of regulatory measures and industry norms that leave intact the opportunity for these platforms to make money, but say to them that there’s certain practices you engage in that we don’t think are good for our society and we’re going to discourage — a specific example would be there’s been a lot of debate around Section 230. I don’t know that entirely eliminating Section 230 protections from liability is necessary. I certainly think that providing Section 230 liability for paid advertising that is microtargeting certain groups and we have no transparency into that — that’s not serving any particular benefit in terms of start-ups or innovation or so forth. And that can be really damaging.

So I think that we have to have a set of debates around that, and there are smarter people than me who are working on this. The issue of anonymity and the distinction between bots and humans, or bot farms and people who actually have opinions. Are there ways of sorting that out? In some circumstances, it’s important to preserve anonymity so that there’s space in repressive societies to discuss issues. But as we’ve all learned, it’s a lot harder to be rude, obnoxious, cruel, or lie when somebody knows you’re lying and knows who you are. And I think that there may be modifications there that can be made.

The one thing that’s interesting is if you look at, for example, Facebook’s response or Twitter’s response or YouTube’s response post–January 6, they made a point of saying, “Well, we responded by doing a whole series of things,” some of which then were reversed after the heat was off, which tells me that they at least appear to have some insight into what’s more likely to prompt insurrectionist, white-supremacist, misogynist behavior on the internet, bullying behavior on the internet. They seem to know what it is. And in fairness to them, many of them will acknowledge we don’t want to be policing everything that’s said on the internet. But what they haven’t been forthcoming about is what their product designs are. And there are ways in which a democracy can rightly expect them to show us. If not us, then the researchers. If they have proprietary concerns, that can be managed, but to show us in the same way that on any other product — I don’t know exactly how the inspections on meat are done and if somebody says, “Well, we have a proprietary technique to keep our meat clean.” That’s fine! Take it up with the meat inspector. That’s not my job. We can figure out the same thing with cars, the same thing with toasters. This notion that somehow we have to preserve this information to ourselves because somehow we have proprietary interests, I think that’s wrong.

That’s on the supply side. I do think that there is a demand for crazy on the internet that we have to grapple with. And part of the reason I’m spending more time thinking about this through the Obama Foundation is because I work with young people from across the country and around the world who are working on climate change, racial justice. Our goal in the foundation is to train the next generation of leaders and give them platforms and connections and make sure they’re not isolated and that they’re learning from each other across borders and regions. And uniformly, they’re all confronting these issues about how do I deal with misinformation in my country, in my town? How do I get access to the public so that they know the facts that are affecting their lives about pollution or about how budgets are being distributed and so forth? And one of the things that we’re learning is that they are hungry for a voice and for participation. But we haven’t done a very good job in training this next generation to participate, other than virtually and in a fairly shallow way.

And there have been interesting studies showing that the single biggest predictor of whether you’re a regular voter, et cetera, is that you participate in student council, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts. And that’s true for young people. It’s true for all of us. The mediating institutions that used to lead us to be able to practice being involved in any learning: How do we debate and how do we vote and how do we then see results from collective decisions that we make?

We’re going to have to figure out ways to adapt that to virtual platforms, because that’s where people are going to meet and that’s where people are going to be. And that may mean different ways of civic education, teaching critical thinking, finding better tools for participation on the internet. And that’s all on the demand side. The good news is that we’re seeing a lot of experiments being done. They just haven’t been done to scale, which is why — as wonderful as it is to see exercises in virtual democracy developing in various countries and towns, ways to get people to listen to each other and work together — we can’t ignore the mega-platforms that are out there, because they’re still dominating the space.

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Dad, husband, President, citizen.

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Barack Obama

Barack Obama

Dad, husband, President, citizen.

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