This Time, Obama’s Calm in a Crisis Isn’t Helping

He has his dignity and his faith in civic norms. Republicans have the government.

President Barack Obama speaks during his final press conference of the year.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Most of the time, Barack Obama’s near-supernatural calm and dispassion are among his best qualities. Occasionally, as at Friday’s pallid press conference, they are his worst ones. Obama spoke to journalists at what should be a moment of acute political emergency. It’s increasingly clear that Donald Trump won the election with the deliberate aid of Vladimir Putin, and the president-elect seems intent on rewarding his benefactor with a friendly State Department. Russia also appears to have intervened on behalf of Republicans in congressional races. If the situation were reversed—if the CIA concluded that Hillary Clinton won the election (but lost the popular vote) with an assist from a hostile foreign power—pitchfork-waving Republicans would be demanding that she resign for the good of the nation. Stunned Democrats, by contrast, have been leaderless, marching toward the post-inauguration abyss without a fight. Obama might have rallied them by laying out the alarming political implications of the CIA’s findings. Instead, he minimized them. It was not a reassuring performance. His refusal to acknowledge the intense alarm felt by his supporters only exacerbates it.

At the press conference, Obama discussed intelligence agencies’ belief that Russia was behind the hacks and leaks that plagued the Democratic Party throughout the election, and that Russia did this to help elect Trump. But the president treated this conclusion as something that was widely understood before the election, even if the CIA confirmed it only afterward. Throughout the race, he noted, there was a stream of reporting on Russia’s role in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, as well as of John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s campaign. “I am finding it a little curious that everybody is suddenly acting surprised that this looked like it was disadvantaging Hillary Clinton, because you guys wrote about it every day, every single leak about every little juicy tidbit of political gossip, including John Podesta’s risotto recipe,” Obama said.

This is true but incomplete. To those who were paying attention, it seemed obvious during the election that Russia was trying to aid Trump, but no intelligence agency had confirmed it. The press coverage of the leaks was egregious, but the White House could have changed its tenor by speaking out about the geopolitical gravity of the situation. Obama suggested that he didn’t do that because he didn’t want to sow more paranoia at an already paranoid time. “[P]art of the goal here,” he said, “was to make sure that we did not do the work of the leakers for them by raising more and more questions about the integrity of the election right before the election was taking place—at a time, by the way, when the president-elect himself was raising questions about the integrity of the election.”

Such a stance might make sense in an America where the two parties could unite against foreign adversaries and work together to maintain civic norms. But that is not the America we live in. “Some folks who had made a career out of being anti-Russian, didn’t say anything about it,” said Obama. “And then after the election, suddenly they’re asking, Oh, why didn’t you tell us that maybe the Russians were trying to help our candidate? Well, come on.” He’s right to be exasperated, but at this late date, absolute Republican bad faith should be assumed in all Democratic decision-making.

If the hack did have an impact, Obama argued, it was only because of America’s atmosphere of partisan derangement. “Our vulnerability to Russia or any other foreign power is directly related to how divided, partisan, and dysfunctional our political process is,” he said. “If fake news that’s being released by some foreign government is almost identical to reports that are being issued through partisan news venues, then it’s not surprising that that foreign propaganda will have a greater effect. It doesn’t seem that far-fetched compared to some of the other stuff that folks are hearing from domestic propagandists.” These words had the odd effect of legitimizing Trump’s election while critiquing Trump’s party. Asked whether the election was free and fair, Obama stuck to the narrow point that there was no tampering with the voting process itself. He made it clear that he doesn’t believe any foreign power did this to America. America did it to itself.

Of course, there’s truth to that. Russia could intervene effectively only because the election was so close, and because so many Republicans hated Clinton enough to either ignore or welcome Putin’s intervention. (In June, Monica Crowley, who will be Trump’s senior director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, tweeted a suggestion that Putin hack Clinton’s State Department emails.) Yet the correct presidential response, at this late date, is not to urge Republicans to be better. They have no reason to be better; total partisan warfare has worked well for them. Obama has the dignified assurance that he is modeling the sort of politics he believes in. Republicans have everything else.

“The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us,” Obama said at one point. “They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate. But they can impact us if we lose track of who we are. They can impact us if we abandon our values. Mr. Putin can weaken us just like he’s trying to weaken Europe if we start buying into notions that it’s OK to intimidate the press, or lock up dissidents, or discriminate against people because of their faith or what they look like.”

These stirring words would have been appropriate during the election. Now they ring hollow. The values he was referring to have already been abandoned. Putin has been able to weaken us. Trump’s election has ratified notions that it’s OK to intimidate the press, lock up political opponents, and discriminate against people because of their faith. At least, it ratifies those things if we treat his election as legitimate, which Obama insists on doing. He wants to shore up whatever faith remains in the integrity of our system by refusing to admit that the system is in crisis. Obama aspired to lead a better America. But right now, with only a month left of his presidency, we need him to lead the America we have.