Barack Obama sounds alarm on inequality and climate change
Credit: Sarah Borck

During his Vancouver appearance, the former U.S. president also warned of threats to democratic values in Canada and elsewhere

Once the world’s most powerful man, Barack Obama must now settle for being its most sought-after public speaker.

Yesterday at the Vancouver Convention Centre, the 44th president of the United States sat down for a long-awaited conversation with Iain Black, president and CEO of host the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade. But not before a surprise performance by pop star Sarah McLachlan, who primed the crowd of 3,500 with a few of her hits.

Asked about his last day in the White House in 2017, after serving two terms, Obama said leaving office went smoothly. He and his wife, Michelle, didn’t become national figures until they were in their 40s, he explained, so they knew what it was like to have a normal life. “We didn’t believe our own hype.”

On the low points of his presidency, Obama recalled taking power in 2008 with the global economy collapsing, the mortgage market shut down and big banks teetering on the edge of insolvency. “That first six months of my presidency was extraordinarily intense,” he said. “We had to make a series of decisions very quickly” without knowing what the consequences would be, Obama added.

A high point? Passing Obamacare. “It’s still hanging in there,” he said, without mentioning President Donald Trump’s efforts to dismantle his public health insurance program. “In an advanced, wealthy, civilized nation, people should not be losing their homes because they can’t pay medical bills.”

Obama described his time in the Oval Office as a great vantage point to see how rapidly the world is changing. In Vancouver and elsewhere, automation and other technological advances are creating huge economic opportunities but also displacing people—leading to responses like the rise of the far right in Europe, he said. “How do we create ways of managing this change that are inclusive?”

Paving the way for Trump
What will historians see as the defining moments surrounding his presidency? Obama pointed to Republican rival John McCain’s decision to nominate nativist Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate in the 2008 election. “I think people will see that as an important moment in American politics,” he said, arguing that it paved the way Trump.

Obama said he didn’t appreciate how much the U.S. and its key allies, including Canada, “still underwrite the world order as we know it.” The world relies on America’s military reach and civil service to keep everything together, he maintained. “Which is why it’s really good having competent people in there,” Obama said in a veiled reference to his successor.

“Listen, Canadians, we’re cousins,” he replied when asked what he had learned about his northern neighbours. “It’s colder here, and generally, your hockey is a little bit better,” he joked. “The point is, we should be friends and allies.” Later he told the audience not to worry about Canada’s relationship with the U.S: “We’re good.”

To maintain the existing global order, Canada and its fellow liberal democracies must defend their values, Obama asserted: “There’s a whole other section of the world that doesn’t consider those values important.”

A double threat
Looking ahead, Obama named technological and climate change as the two biggest challenges facing the U.S. and Canadian economies. “This AI thing is coming very fast,” he said of the first, noting that artificial intelligence will eliminate many job categories.

Although the new economy is an extraordinary engine of wealth, growing income inequality has left him worried about the sustainability of the political system, Obama said. “Eventually you don’t have a shared set of values and assumptions and civic trust that allows democracy to thrive.”

Obama warned that climate change could make life very difficult for billions of people in just a couple of generations. “I’m an old-fashioned guy; I believe in facts,” he said. “And the facts are the planet’s getting warmer.”

He urged Canada and other nations with a heavy carbon footprint to help avoid a global catastrophe by shifting away from oil and gas. “It’s important for us to set an example,” Obama said. “If two billion Chinese and Indians are burning [fossil fuels] at our pace, the planet will be literally uninhabitable.”

Obama ended on a hopeful note, saying he’s encouraged by the sophistication, innovation, tolerance and embrace of diversity he sees in young people around the world. “There’s this generation coming up behind us that has enormous talent.”