The Cable

Obama’s Farewell to Journalists (and America): ‘Good Luck’

In his final press conference as president, Obama called for distinguishing between political disagreements and challenging the core values of society.

obama-presser

On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to the White House press corps for the final time, thanking them for their work and covering a range of issues from Russia to voting rights to Israel. He offered warnings to President-elect Donald Trump, but sidestepped direct criticisms of him.

Obama lavished the media with praise, an indirect dig at Trump’s unhinged press conference last week, in which he referred to CNN as “fake news” and BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage.” Rumors are swirling of Trump’s team kicking the press out of the White House, though Trump said his team may “just pick” the reporters who are allowed in.

Obama, in contrast, told the reporters that “Having you in this building has made this place work better,” urging reporters to “continue with the same tenacity that you showed us to do the hard work of getting to the bottom of stories…and to push this country to be the best version of itself,” he said.

Asked about Trump’s suggested quid pro quo of removing sanctions on Russia in exchange for shrinking nuclear stockpiles, Obama warned the incoming president that rescinding sanctions on Russia wouldn’t serve American interests. He reminded Trump why sanctions were slapped on in the first place: Russia’s occupation of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea were a frontal challenge to the existing order, Obama said.

“It would probably best serve not only American interests, but also the interest of preserving international norms, if we made sure that we don’t confuse why these sanctions have been imposed with a whole set of other issues,” he said.

Obama also defended his controversial decision to grant 11th hour clemency to former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who shared classified U.S. documents with Wikileaks. Having served years of her prison sentence, Obama said, Manning will not likely set an example that hacking America’s secrets comes risk free. “I feel comfortable that justice has been served,” he said.

He also defended his stance on Israel — and, by extension, the recent U.S. abstention on Resolution 2334 at the U.N. Security Council, which censured Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

Taking indirect aim at Trump’s incoming Israel policy, Obama defended efforts to advance a negotiated solution to the decades-old impasse. “Ultimately, what has always been clear is that we cannot force the parties” to agree on a peaceful two state solution, he said But if they do not come to those terms on their own, he said, “I don’t see how this issue gets resolved in a way that maintains Israel as both Jewish and a democracy. Because if you do not have two states, then in some way or fashion you are extending an occupation; functionally you end up having one state in which millions of people are disenfranchised.”

Trump and David Friedman, his pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, have urged a more pro-Israel stance, including reversing that U.N. resolution and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Obama urged policymakers to remember that “the actions that we take have enormous consequences and ramifications … I think it is right and appropriate for our new president to test old assumptions and reexamine … make sure you’ve thought it through.”

Likewise, on issues from immigration to LGBTQ rights to racism and criminal justice, Obama warned the country to protect “our core values.” Deporting undocumented children who have grown up in the United States is a challenge to those values, as is systematic discrimination, whether due to race or orientation. “We’ve got work to do” on racism, criminal justice reform, and voter disenfranchisement, he said.

“It traces directly back to Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery, and it became sort of acceptable to restrict the franchise … that’s not how America works best. I hope people pay a lot of attention to making sure that everybody has a chance to vote.”

Despite it all, though, the outgoing president insisted he does not despair for the future of the country. “The only thing that’s the end of the world,” he helpfully tautologized toward the end of his final press conference, “is the end of the world.”

After taking the final question, Obama thanked the press corps for its work over the course of his presidency. “Good luck,” he said to the room — and seemingly to the rest of the nation — as he stepped off the podium for the last time.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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