Before our commander in chief makes way for our new, more orange version, the former Harvard Law professor spent about an hour and a half on Friday answering questions and pontificating on our current malaise.
“I’m finding it a little curious that everyone’s 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. This was an obsession that dominated the news coverage. So I do think it’s worth us reflecting how it is that a presidential election of such importance, of such a moment, with so many big issues at stake and such a contrast between the candidates, came to be dominated by a bunch of these leaks. What is it about our political system that made us vulnerable to these kinds of manipulations, which I’ve said before were not particularly sophisticated. This is not some elaborate complicated espionage scheme. They hacked into some Democratic party e-mails that contained pretty routine stuff – some of it embarrassing or uncomfortable because I suspect that if any of us got our e-mails hacked into there might be some things that we wouldn’t want suddenly appearing on the front page of a newspaper or a telecast. Even if there wasn’t anything particularly illegal or controversial about it. And then it just, took off. And that concerns me, and it should concern all of us.”
This is one of those situations where…unless the American people genuinely think that the professionals in the CIA, the FBI, our entire intelligence infrastructure – many of whom by the way, served in previous administrations and are Republicans, are less trustworthy than the Russians…then, uh, people should pay attention to what our intelligence agencies say. This is part of what I meant when I said that we’ve gotta think about what’s happening to our political culture here.
The Russians can’t change us, or significantly weaken us. 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. And what I worry about, more than anything, is the degree to which, because of the fierceness of the partisan battle, you’ve started to see certain folks within the Republican party and Republican voters suddenly finding…a government and individuals who stand contrary to everything that we stand for, as being OK because, that’s how much we dislike Democrats. I mean think about it. Some of the people who historically have been very critical of me for engaging with Russians and having conversations with him, also endorsed the President-elect, even as he was saying that we should stop sanctioning Russia, and being tough on em, and work together with em – against our common enemies. He was very complementary of Putin very personally. That wasn’t news – the President-elect during the campaign said so. And some folks who had made a career out of being anti-Russian didn’t say anything about it. Then after the election suddenly they’re asking ‘well why didn’t you tell us that maybe the Russians were trying help our candidate?’ Well…Come on…
Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin. The former head of the KGB. Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave. And how did that happen? It happened in part, because, for too long, everything that happens in this town, everything that’s said is seen through the lens of “does this help or hurt us relative to Democrats or relative to President Obama?” And unless that changes, we’re gonna continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence, because we’ve lost track of what it is that we’re about and what we stand for.
“One way I do believe the President-elect could approach this would be unifying: is to say we welcome a bipartisan independent process that gives the American people an assurance not only that votes are counted properly – that the elections are fair and free, but that we have learned lessons about how internet propaganda from foreign countries can be released into the political bloodstream, and that we’ve got strategies to deal with it in the future. The more this can be non-partisan, the better served the American people are gonna be. Which is why I made this point earlier, and I’m gonna keep repeating this point – our vulnerability, to Russia or any other foreign power, is directly related to how divided, partisan, dysfunctional our political process is. That’s the thing that makes us vulnerable.
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, because it doesn’t seem that far-fetched compared to some of the other stuff that folks are hearing from domestic propagandists. To the extent that our political dialogue is such where everything is under suspicion, and everybody’s corrupt, and everybody is doing things for partisan reasons, and all of our institutions are full of malevolent actors. If that’s the storyline that’s being put out there by whatever party is out of power, then when a foreign government introduces that same argument with facts that are made up, voters who’ve been listening to that stuff for years, who have been getting that stuff every day from talk radio or other venues, they’re gonna believe it. So, if we want to really reduce foreign influence on our elections, then we better think about how to make sure that our political process, our political dialogue is stronger than it’s been.
If we have a strong message, if we’re speaking to what the American people care about, typically – the popular vote and the electoral college vote will align. I guess part of my overall message here as I leave for the holidays is that if we look for one explanation or one silver bullet or one easy fix for our politics, then we’re probably gonna be disappointed. There are just a lot of factors in what’s happened not just over the last few months but over the last decade that has made both politics and governance more challenging. I think everybody’s raised legitimate questions and legitimate concerns.
I do hope that we all just take some time – take a breath, this is certainly what I’m going to advise Democrats – to reflect a little more about how can we, how can we get to a place where people are focused on working together. Based on at least some common set of facts (laughs). How can we have a conversation about policy that doesn’t demonize each other? How can we channel what I think is the basic decency and goodness of the American people, so that it reflects itself in our politics – as opposed to it being so polarized, being so nasty that in some cases you have voters and elected officials who have more confidence and faith in a foreign adversary than they have in their neighbors. And those go to some bigger issues. How is it that we have some voters or some elected officials who think that Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiative and school nutrition program is a greater threat to democracy than…uh…uh…you know our government goin after the press if they’re issuing a story they don’t like. That’s an issue that I think you know, we’ve gotta wrestle with. And we will.
And just like that, our first African American president ended his last press conference with these final thoughts:
“I’m responsible for where we’ve screwed up. The successes are widely shared with all the amazing people who have been a part of this administration.”