Courtesy of Qualtrics

‘No drama Obama’ in Utah: Former president talks about keeping cool during ‘polarized’ time

By Liesl Nielsen, KSL.com | Updated - Mar 6th, 2019 @ 5:38pm | Posted - Mar 6th, 2019 @ 1:55pm



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SALT LAKE CITY — Former U.S. President Barack Obama says his wife is a “glass half empty” kind of person.

He’s not going to get in trouble for saying that though, because former first lady Michelle Obama will admit it herself. While she worries about what may happen, he takes more of an “it’ll all work out” approach.

“What’s happened to me successively over the last decade ... is a shedding of fear,” Obama said during Qualtrics' Experience Management Summit in Salt Lake City Wednesday. “‘No drama Obama’ and all that. And what is true is that I have an even temper. I don’t get too high and I don’t get too low. But that doesn’t mean … there were not times where I wasn’t constrained by, ‘Man, I don’t want to screw this up.’”

In fact, Obama believes he was a better president during his second term than his first because he learned how to calm the fear of what people thought about him and discovered ways to take constructive criticism that was truly helpful.

“Ironically, by taking your ego out of what you do, it liberates you to do it and get more accomplished,” he said.

Obama worries as his two daughters and other young people grow up in a world dominated by social media and become even more self-conscious about what others think of them. On top of it all, the information everyone receives is fractured, and people form facts around their opinions rather than their opinions around facts, he said.

“We live in such a polarized time," Obama said. "If you watch Fox News, you’re in one reality, and if you read the New York Times, you’re in a different reality, and if you’re at Buzzfeed, you’re someplace else. It’s been challenging to have a common conversation.

“What we have in common matters more. And if we listen to the voices that help us rediscover our common hopes and dreams and values rather than constantly gravitating to those things that push us apart, that often times are designed to make us angry, … we can accomplish big things.”

Things like rule of law, competence and facts are not partisan ideas. Nor do they happen automatically, Obama said. There must be citizens who insist that they happen. A democracy is a garden that must be tended to carefully, he quipped.

Gardening tips

During the eight years Obama spent "tending the garden," he said he learned a couple of lessons in dealing with problems that had no good solutions. If it was a moderately easy problem to solve, it wouldn't even make it to him — someone else would have already solved it, he said.

"Decisions that came were horrible and didn't have a good solution, and they said, 'Oh let's send this to Obama. Let him deal with it so when it gets all screwed up they'll blame him,'" he laughed.

"There were a couple things that were critical in handling that," Obama added. "Number one was being comfortable with the fact that you're not gonna get a 100 percent solution and understanding that you're dealing with probabilities so that you don't get paralyzed trying to think that you're actually going to solve this perfectly."

The second lesson was learning how to set up processes that could establish an order for solving problems, he said.

"I'm old fashioned and believe in values like facts and reason," Obama said, in what may have been interpreted as a dig on President Donald Trump based on the loud cheers and laughter from the audience.

The former president also said that he relied heavily on those smarter than himself who were experts in their field. When they explained things to him that he didn't understand, he would ask questions instead of acting as if he knew what was going on — a character trait he's still proud of cultivating.

"I think one of the problems with people that are in big jobs is they start feeling like 'I have to project that I have every answer.' When, in fact, most of the time, you may not."

When an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010 caused the largest marine oil spill in history, both Obama and experts in the field were flummoxed on how to shut down a hole in the bottom of the ocean.

"About three weeks into this thing, Malia and Sasha are saying, 'Daddy when are you going to shut down the hole in the ocean? 'Cause there are all these pelicans that are getting hurt and dolphins.' And I'm feeling bad because my daughters think I'm not handling this whole thing well."

Luckily, Obama said, he had appointed Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy. Chu came to him with something drawn on a napkin that "looked like a little hat," Obama said. They sent the plan to the oil rig company and it worked.

"My role as a leader in that organization was not to come up with the little hat because I wouldn't have thought of that. I would have thought, 'That doesn't look complicated enough.' ... But my job was to have Steven Chu there," Obama said. "I had confidence in the talent I had brought around me. I was good at making sure the people that were working for me and with me were there for the right reasons, and there was a core integrity to what they were doing."

On failure

Obama believes, however, that one of the "biggest management failures" in his presidency was the launch of the Obamacare website. All the former president wanted out of the website, he said, was for the average American to be able to understand where they should go and what they should do when they logged on.

"Somehow, on the day of, it didn't work. And I was really annoyed and really mad. There was some drama in Obama," he laughed.

But the 44th president believes even failure can lead to greater things when handled appropriately — a sentiment shared by both billionaire Sir Richard Branson and actor and activist Ashton Kutcher, who joined Obama on the Qualtrics stage Wednesday.

Yeah, there were a lot of celebrities on stage today

Branson, the founder of the Virgin brand (from records to airplanes to space travel), called himself the “warm-up act” — and he wasn’t entirely wrong, especially with Oprah on the docket Thursday.

But Branson regaled attendees with both entrepreneurial and life advice, the gist of which seemed to be: just go for it.

Branson said some years after he began Virgin Records at age 15, he was on a flight to the Virgin Islands when the airline bumped people off the flight. He realized air travel could be much more enjoyable than it was, and shortly after, gave Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company, a call to ask if they had any secondhand 747s for sale.

After a long pause and a bit of a discussion, the Boeing employee told Branson they’d go into business with him — but only if he didn’t use the name Virgin (because people would assume the flight wouldn’t “go all the way"). Spoiler: he did not listen.

Now, Branson is working to take his Virgin brand "all the way" with Virgin Galactic — a space exploration venture. He says he’ll go up into space in July with the company, then they’ll open bookings and people can become “astronauts in waiting."

Then, just moments after Branson left the stage, actor Ashton Kutcher appeared and gave a passionate speech that seemed to take on every problem in the world, including everything from bioengineering to overwhelming college debt.

Kutcher, who has come a long way from his days on MTV, is currently focusing his efforts on human trafficking and child sexual exploitation.

“Unbridled enthusiasm will solve most problems,” he said.

Liesl Nielsen

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