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In their book, Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen envision a more unified U.S.


Former President Barack Obama has a podcast. Doesn't everyone? - you may be thinking. But "Renegades: Born In The USA" is co-hosted by Bruce Springsteen. In it, the two regular guys talk about their dads, race, the future of the country, among other things. Now that podcast has become a book, and its publication gave our colleague Audie Cornish, the host of All Things Considered, a chance to talk to them.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: I sat down with them virtually about a week ago. The podcast was something of a pandemic project and, they say, an effort to offer some perspective during a difficult period for the country.

BARACK OBAMA: It was a tumultuous time during the recording. I think our general attitude was America was going through a reckoning. We had to figure out who we were. And part of the goal of the podcast and now the book was to maybe offer with some humility the sense that there is a common American story to be had under all the polarization and division and anger and resentment that had been fanned during that year.

CORNISH: And what the two of them do in those conversations is try and find a unifying story for themselves and for the country. It's something Obama did as a presidential candidate, and Springsteen told me it's at the core of what he does as a musician.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: Music searches for commonality, basically. I mean, that's the job that I'm in. You know? What the artist does is he tries to get his audience to experience those common values, that sense of shared narrative and to take that outside with them in the real world, let's say, you know. So as a musician, that's basically my job.

CORNISH: But finding that shared narrative is something Americans are struggling with right now, and so often people can't agree on the facts. And that commonality can be elusive, even when you're talking about something like Springsteen's music. I mean, think of "Born In The U.S.A." The song has been misunderstood since it was released almost four decades ago. The refrain sounds like a celebration of a red, white and blue kind of American patriotism.


SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Born in the U.S.A.

CORNISH: And it's been embraced by Republicans from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. In reality, Springsteen, who supported Democrats in the past several elections, wrote the song about a Vietnam veteran returning home to desperate circumstances and few options.

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) ...Go down to see the VA man - he said, son, don't you understand? Born in the U.S.A.

I think that the reason that song has sort of become a bit of a political football is, one, because it expresses great pride and identity as an American. That's attractive to any political side. All right? But at the same time, it's also a song that at its core is about a critical patriotism, a patriotism that basically accepts the weaknesses of the country and is looking forward to both - to that reckoning. I think that - I don't know if it's an issue or those particularly people voting the way that I vote right now. I think plenty of them are, and some of them aren't. You know?

CORNISH: I just ask 'cause when you describe your background in the podcast, where you both talk about your childhoods, you know, it did occur to me that the kind of place where you grew up is the kind of place that now is routinely talked about as being lost to Democrats. And I don't know if you, Mr. President, want to take a kind of a crack at that question about what is the disconnect there?

OBAMA: Yeah. See, I actually think...

CORNISH: 'Cause it's not just about shared story.

OBAMA: Well - but I actually think that, you know, this is part of why we did the podcast is to try to remind ourselves that a lot of the simple categories we're using right now are actually not a reflection of the complexity that is going on on the ground. Right? So the truth is is that either we tell each other stories that allow us to see each other as fellow travelers and humans, or we have conflict and clash, and whoever gets the most power wins. And I would argue that at its best, America's been able - with a pretty major exception in the Civil War - to try to make progress and perfect the union without resort solely to violence, solely to power. And I think this is part of the reason why we want to resurface some of these older conversations - remind ourselves, all right, here's the path we traveled; here's where we came from - because maybe that allows us a chance to get back to a place that is an inclusive common story about America.

KING: Our colleague Audie Cornish talking to Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.