A pair of presidential podcasts

April 15, 2021

Much like everyone else in 2020, former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama added “podcaster” to their already-lengthy resumes. Take a look at what two students have to say about these new presidential projects. 


‘Why Am I Telling You This?’: Bill Clinton Takes the Mic

As president, Bill Clinton was known for repeating the rhetorical question “Why am I telling you this?” in speeches. It makes sense that Clinton, a notoriously talkative and sociable person, used the pandemic as a time to begin a podcast. In “Why Am I Telling You This,” Clinton channels the feelings and memories evoked from his childhood experiences gathered around the radio with his family. 

With episodes ranging in length from 30 minutes to an hour, Clinton delves into topics like jazz in democracy, the implications of the 2020 presidential election and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Each week, he also hosts a celebrity or expert on the episode’s topic to foster conversation and bring in a different perspective. Some guests include Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Magic Johnson and Stacey Abrams. 

In the episode “How Facts Can Fight a Pandemic,” Clinton and Gupta discuss the politicization of the pandemic and the potential decrease in respect for healthcare workers as the pandemic continues. They also speak about Gupta’s new book “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age,” which explores the process of neurogenesis and the idea that the deterioration of cerebral health is not inevitable with age. Clinton strikes a nice balance between asking interesting questions and adding his own thoughts, though Gupta spends far more time speaking than Clinton. Clinton effectively blends topics of politics and science in the episode, discussing Gupta’s research in neural function and his knowledge of Covid-19.

To reflect on the 2020 Presidential Election and January 6 insurrectionist attacks, Clinton hosted political commentator and Rice Professor of History Douglas Brinkley for an episode titled “How History Will View the 2020 Election.” Though there are certainly many overlaps between science and politics, especially amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the discussion about the implications of the last election cycle is in Clinton’s wheelhouse. Brinkley brings up the symbol of the mask as a key component of Biden’s campaign message, especially in contrast with Trump’s symbolic MAGA hat, and the idea that moving forward, “the only way out of this mess politically is to work our way through [it].” 

Part of Clinton’s aim for the podcast is to provide a platform for storytelling and discussion with people whom he views as having relevance to current happenings. However, especially in this episode, it would have been nice to hear more from Clinton himself. As a former president and long-standing political figure in Washington, Clinton certainly has a unique perspective surrounding this past election cycle.

The podcast also touches on voter suppression and the importance of voters’ rights legislation in the episode, “How to be a Changemaker,” with Stacey Abrams. Considering the important role Abrams has played in the outcome of the recent election, and how much she has fought for guaranteed voter enfranchisement, her appearance on the podcast is exciting. The conversation between Clinton and Abrams flows well, particularly because they have a well-established relationship, and he is able to provide an effective platform for her to speak about the voting rights legislation for which she is advocating. 

The content of Bill Clinton’s podcast is overall varied, engaging and relevant. The big-name figures that Clinton has been able to have on the podcast since its debut show Clinton’s continued relevance in the political sphere and encourage a variety of listeners to be interested in the podcast. In our world of exponentially increasing podcast options, “Why Am I Telling You This?” is a quality podcast for listeners interested in hearing from important figures about current topics hand-picked by former president Bill Clinton. 

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‘Renegades: Born in the USA’: A conversation between a rock and roll legend and Bruce Springsteen

Last week, Spotify released the final episode of “Renegades: Born in the USA,” a podcast hosted by former president Barack Obama and rock-and-roll legend Bruce Springsteen. Over eight episodes, the two men — who became friends during Obama’s first presidential election cycle in 2008 — discuss topics including music, politics, gender and racism in America. The podcast was produced by Higher Ground Productions, which was founded by Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. 

The general angle of the podcast’s first episode is how Obama and Springsteen perceive America through the eyes of an outsider — a “renegade.” Then, in “Our Unlikely Friendship,” Obama talks about his unique childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia as a mixed-race kid in the 1960s and 70s. Springsteen relates to Obama in a discussion of his own origins in Freehold, N.J., a small, predominantly working class beachside town.  

Obama famously posts a list of his favorite movies, shows, books and songs on social media at the end of each year, so it is no surprise that while discussing the arts with Springsteen, the former president is able to hold his own. 

On the topic of how many white Americans admire Black artists while simultaneously holding racist beliefs, Obama has a nuanced view: he stops short of disparaging cultural appropriation in favor of praising the melting pot which is American art, while also acknowledging its flaws. “There is this notion that Black folks are the other,” Obama notes. “Yet the culture is constantly appropriating and regurgitating and processing the style that arises out of being an outsider. And knowing the blues. And having suffered these scars.”

In a particularly thoughtful episode, Springsteen discusses how the E Street Band’s saxophonist Clarence Clemons kept up a stoic facade when called racist slurs at concerts and bars. Springsteen acknowledged that he could only glean the surface of Clemons’ struggles. The segment on race in America has a blither coda with Obama and Springsteen discussing their favorite protest songs, such as “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” 

“[A Change Is Gonna Come] can make me cry,” says the former president. Springsteen agrees.

Although Donald Trump is rarely mentioned in the podcast, his shadow looms over the production. “For three years I’d had to watch a presidential successor who was diametrically opposed to everything I believed in,” Obama notes early on in the first of several allusions to Trump.

When and why do we listen to podcasts? I found myself tuning into “Renegades: Born in the USA” while folding laundry and looking over apartment leases, hazily gripped by several segments of the podcast. However, I propose that a fair litmus test for whether a podcast is truly exceptional  is whether you would sit down in a room around 9 o’clock at night, with everything tidied up and your day over, and listen: your eyes closed and your mind empty, sans laundry and sans apartment leases. Perhaps at the end of a great episode you go back to relisten. “Renegades” doesn’t exactly inspire that attention. 

Obama’s contributions in “Renegades” are nothing that we haven’t heard before, and Springsteen’s are probably only of interest to the singer’s fans. Skip randomly to any point in “Renegades,” and it feels as if there is a 90% chance that Springsteen will be speaking; too often, Obama’s control of tempo and genuinely entertaining stories are sidelined. Easily one of our most relaxed presidents, Obama won’t interrupt or steer Springsteen to more narratively rich waters, which is a problem for an eight-hour podcast. 

The podcast’s problem is less of an issue than it is a wasted opportunity. The former president, especially, steers clear of politics, focusing more on his uniquely optimistic vision of America as a country that is slowly aligning with its ideals. Of course, Obama’s gift for language soars in “Renegades,” but he plays things safe here. He is more restrained here than in his recently published memoir “A Promised Land” — famous for its brutal honesty about the failures and triumphs of his administration.

“Renegades” is fine enough. But you deserve a more dynamic rock-and-roller for a podcasting partner, Mr. President. Perhaps Bob Dylan next time?

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