Joe Biden is “finishing the job” begun by Barack Obama, the former president told the New York Times in an interview released on Tuesday.

“I think that what we’re seeing now, is Joe and the administration are essentially finishing the job,” Obama said. “And I think it’ll be an interesting test.

“Ninety per cent of the folks who were there in my administration, they are continuing and building on the policies we talked about, whether it’s the Affordable Care Act or our climate change agenda and the Paris [climate deal], and figuring out how do we improve the ladders to mobility through things like community colleges.”

Obama also considered why in 2016, after his eight years in power, so many voters plumped for a hard-right successor in Donald Trump.

“It’s hard to just underscore how much the bank bailouts just angered everyone, including me,” Obama said, of the remedy for the 2008 financial crisis he helped lead.

“And then you have this long, slow recovery. Although the economy recovers technically quickly, it’s another five years before we’re really back to people feeling like, ‘OK, the economy is moving and working for me.’

“… Let’s say a Democrat, a Joe Biden, or Hillary Clinton had immediately succeeded me, and the economy suddenly has 3% unemployment, I think we would have consolidated the sense that, ‘Oh, actually these policies that Obama put in place worked.’

“The fact that Trump interrupts essentially the continuation of our policies, but still benefits from the economic stability and growth that we had initiated, means people aren’t sure. Well, gosh, unemployment’s 3.5% under Donald Trump.”

Obama also mused about Biden’s much-discussed ability to reach voters, particularly in post-industrial midwestern states, who voted Obama then switched to Trump.

“By virtue of biography and generationally,” Obama said, his vice-president, who is 78 and was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, “can still reach some of those folks”.

“People knew I was left on issues like race, or gender equality, and LGBTQ issues and so forth,” Obama said. “But I think maybe the reason I was successful campaigning in downstate Illinois, or Iowa, or places like that is they never felt as if I was condemning them for not having gotten to the politically correct answer quick enough, or that somehow they were morally suspect because they had grown up with and believed more traditional values.”

In fact Obama famously stirred controversy in 2008 when he said such voters “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”.

The New York Times interviewer Ezra Klein did not raise those remarks.

Obama continued: “I could go to the fish fry, or the [Veterans of Foreign Wars] hall, or all these other venues, and just talk to people. And they didn’t have any preconceptions about what I believed. They could just take me at face value.”

The former president noted the drastic effects on such states of the collapse of local newspapers and the proliferation of misinformation via rightwing and social media.

“If I went into those same places now,” Obama said, “or if any Democrat who’s campaigning goes in those places now, almost all news is from either Fox News, Sinclair news stations, talk radio, or some Facebook page. And trying to penetrate that is really difficult.

“It’s not that the people in these communities have changed. It’s that if that’s what you are being fed, day in and day out, then you’re going to come to every conversation with a certain set of predispositions that are really hard to break through. And that is one of the biggest challenges I think we face.”

According to recent polling, 53% of Republicans – and 25% of Americans – accept Trump’s lie that his defeat by Biden was the result of electoral fraud, while 15% of Americans believe the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that a cabal of child-murdering cannibals controls the US government.

“If you have a conversation with folks,” Obama said, “you can usually assuage those fears. But they have to be able to hear you. You have to be able to get into the room. And I still could do that back in 2007, 2008. I think Joe, by virtue of biography and generationally, I think he can still reach some of those folks. But it starts getting harder, particularly for newcomers who are coming up.”

Obama also said a successful Biden administration “will have an impact” on a deeply polarised political landscape in which Republican states are restricting voting among communities of color and making it easier to overturn results, while Republicans in Congress block a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack on the US Capitol by Trump’s supporters.

“Does [success for Biden] override that sort of identity politics that has come to dominate Twitter, and the media, and that has seeped into how people think about politics?” Obama asked. “Probably not completely. But at the margins, if you’re changing 5% of the electorate, that makes a difference.”



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