Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen’s Podcast Is Another Empty Appeal to Unity

Spotify's 'Renegades: Born in the USA' lets the two riff about their legacies and try to figure out why we can't all just get along.
JT
Chicago, US
February 24, 2021, 7:46pm
Spotify's 'Renegades: Born in the USA'
Image via Youtube and Spotify

"America [is] as divided as it's been in our lifetimes," says Barack Obama. "How can we find our way back to a more unifying American story? That was the topic of so many of my conversations last year—with family, with friends. And one of those friends was Mr. Bruce Springsteen." 

Thus begins the trailer for Renegades: Born in the USA, a new marquee podcast from Spotify featuring one-on-one commentary from the former President and the rock and roll legend known as the Boss. The eight-episode show, part of an ongoing deal the Obamas struck with the streaming service to produce exclusive podcasts like The Michelle Obama Show, promises to get to the bottom of issues like race, class, and family. But in the two installments released so far, the most striking thing—more than any call for national unity or dissections of the country-defining issues— is how much Obama and Springsteen seem to enjoy hanging out. 

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Their friendship began with Springsteen's early endorsement of Obama during the 2008 election and grew over Obama's tenure in the White House. In 2016, the then-President awarded Springsteen the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A few months later, after Obama left office, the two were seen vacationing on David Geffen's yacht outside Tahiti, along with Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks. (So far, the celebrity yacht vacation has not been mentioned on the podcast). 

There's a reason Springsteen's "The Promised Land," the single from his 1978 record Darkness at the Edge of Town, and Obama's latest memoir, A Promised Land, share a similar title: Both men are true-believers in a pragmatic, bipartisan liberalism, channeled in the rhetoric of optimism and folksy Americana. "When I first saw you, you sort of spoke to a broad sense of American hopefulness," says Springsteen to the former President in the second episode of Renegades.

In the series' first episode, "An Unlikely Friendship," the pair explore some of the reasons why they clicked—aside from being two astoundingly famous men who share a similar vision of America. For example, they share that they both grew up feeling like outsiders—with Obama navigating racism as a Black kid in Hawaii and elsewhere, and Springsteen dealing with a difficult home life in New Jersey. 

It's, by all means, well-produced podcasting, even if certain moments are cheesy, such as when Springsteen strums a guitar to soundtrack Obama's sentences. That said, one tidbit about the backstory behind Springsteen's Born In the USA song "My Hometown"—which tackles race riots in his "redneck, racist" Freehold, New Jersey hometown—is particularly affecting considering Springsteen's sincerity and honesty in talking about his experiences. 

The basically guaranteed popularity of this podcast is another win for the Obamas' burgeoning media empire, Higher Ground Productions. With exclusive, undisclosed but surely extremely lucrative deals with Spotify and Netflix, Barack and Michelle have translated post-White House life into content creation; they've produced three documentaries so far, including the Oscar-winning 2019 documentary American Factory, and have several more in the pipeline

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And they're not the only politicians to pivot in this direction: Hillary and Chelsea Clinton have a show about women who are Kurdish militants fighting ISIS in the works, and former Vice President Mike Pence just announced a podcast

Especially in the aftermath of a Trump presidency, the trend of politicians branching out into the entertainment and media space has raised some concerns about the changing nature of political celebrity. As Slate's Willa Paskin points out in a piece on the Renegades series, "The idea that political work is not passing legislation or concretely helping constituents, but becoming a voice, a personality, a brand, is a big part of our dysfunctional political culture." 

But even the show's most profound moments of political commentary can seem superficial at best. The second episode, "American Skin: Race in the United States," includes frank and emotional anecdotes from Springsteen about the racism experienced by his former bandmate Clarence Clemons, a Black man, as well as some self-reflection from the rock star about how he forced Clemons to navigate Springsteen's predominately white fanbase and environment. Later on, though, Springsteen senses the limits of his understanding as brings up his shock at the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist rally. "The marching with the polo shirts with your tiki torches: I thought that that was kind of over, you know?" he says. In the recording, Obama laughs: "Yeah, you thought we weren’t debating Nazism anymore?" 

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It's a telling moment. While Springsteen correctly describes Charlottesville as "a call to arms" that "lets us know obviously how much work we have left" as a country, his initial naivete underscores a blindspot in a liberal, bipartisan worldview. 

Calls for civility and a renewed interest in a "fundamental belief in the American ideal," as Obama describes it in the first episode, have been ill-equipped to stop the rampantly escalating right-wing extremism in this country. These calls were the thesis to Obama's breakout 2004 Democratic National Convention speech as well as his 2007 book The Audacity of Hope. But while they launched him to the presidency, they also coincided with birther conspiracies, obstructionist Congressional Republicans, and a future Donald Trump presidency. Empty and idealistic overtures for unity is the same reason Springsteen's now-pulled Jeep ad fell flat: What good is realizing we "need the middle," when so many of the other side's elected officials falsely believe the election was stolen, in some cases actively encouraging their supporters to storm the Capitol?

"Renegades" will be a treat for anyone who likes former President Obama and Bruce Springsteen enough to listen to them shoot the breeze and talk about America's present moment for nearly eight hours total. But it's hard to imagine any insurrectionist or right-wing extremists being deradicalized by Spotify's podcast page—or even choosing to tune in. It's curated content that preaches to the choir.