The president’s base wanted fiery words and an explicit rebuke of Donald Trump. Instead, they got a lot of cautious dignity. One wonders why anyone is surprised.
By Ted Scheinman
President Barack Obama answers questions during a news conference at the White House in what could be the last press conference of his presidency, on December 16th, 2016. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
When the White House announced yesterday that President Barack Obama would be delivering his final press conference of the year, progressives got pretty excited. On Twitter, there was a shuddering orgy of speculation, led by former intelligence officials and cybersecurity consultants, but also by a lot of people who claim hazy sources in the #NatSec world, plus plenty of progressive journalists and anti-Donald Trump civilians, all of them spoiling for a fiery performance from Obama.
An emblematic tweet from yesterday afternoon: “Obama press conference tomorrow will be the biggest event in American history…. If he does what it’s looking like. I’d watch.”
Viewers who took this hype to heart were bound to be disappointed, and so they were. The hope was that Obama would deliver a Dwight Eisenhower-style denunciation of shadowy forces that threaten the Republic, or at least that he would explain his plan for a proportional response to Russia, especially with the Federal Bureau of Investigation now backing the Central Intelligence Agency’s assessment that Russia interfered in the election to help Donald Trump.
Obama opened with a by-the-numbers victory lap for his successes over the last eight years, with special emphasis on the pride he took in building the successive coalitions that put him in office and then re-elected him — one of many moments where it seemed clear that the president was eager to underline a distinction between his style of campaigning and that of Hillary Clinton.
Democrats, Obama said, need to “reflect a little bit more” about why they lost. He emphasized his own success in visiting communities that are traditionally hostile to Democrats, and winning them over:
How do we make sure that we’re showing up in places where I think Democratic policies are needed, where they are helping, where they are making a difference, but where people feel as if they’re not being heard? … That’s how I became president. I became a U.S. Senator; not just because I had a strong base in Chicago, but because I was driving downstate Illinois and going to fish fries and sitting in V.F.W. Halls and talking to farmers. And I didn’t win every one of their votes, but they got a sense of what I was talking about, what I cared about, that I was for working people, that I was for the middle class, that the reason I was interested in strengthening unions and raising the minimum wage and rebuilding our infrastructure and making sure that parents had decent childcare and family leave, was because my own family’s history wasn’t that different from theirs even if I looked a little bit different. Same thing in Iowa.
Here’s what Obama didn’t do: He didn’t declare war on Russia. He didn’t call the election rigged or illegitimate. He didn’t call Trump dangerous or traitorous. For all these reasons, Trump skeptics were deeply unhappy with Obama’s performance. #Resistance-minded observers distilled Obama’s message into four syllables: “You’re on your own.”
I’m not entirely sure what any of us wanted from this press conference, which was anticlimactic no matter your politics but also vintage Obama, who twice praised the “fundamental goodness and decency of the American people.” The president warned that “chest-thumping” was no way to honor our values, and responded to a radioactive question about intelligence briefings for electors by invoking “our common creed,” followed by an explicit reference to his career-launching 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention. Today’s cautious performance — more chin-stroking than chest-thumping — was designed not to sway electors, nor to inflame tensions with Russia, but to establish a baseline of reality from which to critique the president-elect once the latter takes office. That makes a certain sense. It also makes for very boring television.
“If we look for one explanation or one silver bullet or one easy fix for our politics, we’re gonna be disappointed,” Obama told the assembled press.
Few things illustrate that truth with more clarity than today’s presser.