Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never … If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
That was the message Abraham Lincoln conveyed to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield in 1838, as the storm clouds of the Civil War were gathering. It was also, more or less, the message Barack Obama conveyed to the American people on Friday, as a man who was rejected by a majority of voters — but embraced by Vladimir Putin — prepares to assume the Oval Office.
The president’s press conference came one week after the CIA leaked its assessment that the Russian government had interfered in the 2016 election with the intention of aiding Donald Trump’s candidacy — and one day after CNN reported that Trump’s attempts to discredit that intelligence had led Obama to decide an orderly transition was no longer his top priority.
Thus, liberals had high hopes for the president’s address. Finally, Obama would call out the president-elect for what he is; or announce that he would be appointing Merrick Garland during the legislative recess, since he has more right to pick the next Supreme Court justice than the Siberian candidate does; or call on the Electoral College electors to exercise their prerogative to spare the country from an incompetent despot foisted upon this nation by a hostile foreign power.
But instead, Obama said of Russia’s interference, “This was not some elaborate, complicated espionage scheme. They hacked into some Democratic Party emails … routine stuff.”
The president said that he had worried the hacks of the Democratic National Committee — and of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta — might presage an attack on America’s voting infrastructure.
“So in early September when I saw president Putin in China, I felt that the most effective way to ensure that that didn’t happen was to talk to him directly and tell him to cut it out and there were going to be serious consequences if he didn’t,” Obama explained. “And in fact we did not see further tampering of the election process.”
In other words, Russia didn’t ultimately do anything extraordinary to us. Foreign governments are going to, occasionally, succeed in hacking email systems. What was extraordinary was what we did to ourselves.
“I am finding it a little curious that everyone is acting surprised that this looked like it was disadvantaging Hillary Clinton, because you guys wrote about it every day,” Obama said, beginning his lecture by addressing the media itself. “Every single leak about every little juicy tidbit of political gossip, including John Podesta’s risotto recipe.”
“I do think it’s worth us reflecting how it is that a presidential election of such importance, of such 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,” the president continued. “It just took off. And that concerns me, and it should concern all of us.”
Then, Obama shifted his criticism from the reporters in the room to the voters watching at home.
“The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us,” the president said. “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,” Obama continued. “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 okay to intimidate the press. Or lock up dissidents. Or discriminate against people because of their faith or what they look like.”
It then became unclear whether Obama was describing something that could happen to the United States — or something that just did.
“What I worry about is … because of the fierceness of the partisan battle, you’ve started to see certain folks in the Republican Party and Republican voters suddenly finding a government and individuals who stand contrary to everything we stand for as being okay because that’s how much we dislike Democrats,” he said.
Obama cited the spectacle of Republicans — who had criticized him for opening up relationships with Russia — turning around and endorsing Trump, even as the GOP standard-bearer praised Putin.
“Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB,” he continued, citing a recent poll. “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave.”
In this hyperpartisan climate — where the American people cannot agree on mutual sources of authority, and, thus, mutual facts — we are especially vulnerable to foreign manipulation, Obama argued.
“If fake news that’s being released by some foreign government is almost identical to news being released though partisan news venues, then its not surprising that foreign propaganda would have an effect,” he reasoned, “because it’s not that different than what folks are hearing from domestic propagandists.”
Thus, in sum, Obama argued that Russia can’t significantly weaken us — unless we have an irresponsible mainstream media incapable of exercising prudent editorial judgement, a Republican Party bereft of all princuples save the will to power, and a deeply polarized electorate that lives in different epistemological universes.
Which is to say: Russia can totally, significantly weaken us. And probably just did. And we only have ourselves to blame.
This was not the message that most progressives wanted to hear.
And their disappointment is understandable. It’s not obvious that it’s easier to arrest the decline of our civic society than it is to prevent any foreign government from ever penetrating a campaign’s email system again.
And Obama’s remarks on Donald Trump — who has chosen to discredit the entire intelligence community instead of acknowledging the existence of evidence that his victory was not solely the product of his own greatness — did not indicate any deprioritization of an orderly transition.
“There’s just a whole different attitude and vibe when you’re not in power than when you’re in power,” Obama said of Trump’s behavior, suggesting that the only thing preventing the president-elect from comporting himself with humility and sobriety is his lack of power.
Still, the essence of Obama’s remarks is hard to dispute. The Republican Party didn’t nominate Donald Trump because of John Podesta’s emails. Maybe they helped put Trump over the top on November 8, but WikiLeaks did not make a transparently unqualified, authoritarian demagogue a competitive candidate for president of the United States. Putin may have been our enabler, but we are responsible for what we did.
And Obama isn’t going to fix this mess for us.
If resurrection be our lot, we must ourselves be its author.