The Russian hack of the 2016 election worked because America let it work. That was the message from President Obama at the final pre-holiday press conference of his presidency.
Obama said hundreds of words about the election hacking revelations some Democrats are still desperately hoping will prevent Donald Trump from attaining the presidency — and nearly all of them were about what Obama saw as systemic failures by the press, the Republican Party, and the public.
Russia’s gonna Russia, Obama said. Its actions, which seemingly amounted to hacking and leaking info from Democrats in an effort to swing the election to Trump, had an impact only because America’s divisions allowed them to have an impact.
“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,” Obama said.
He was particularly critical of President-elect Trump’s allies who seem to have warmed to Putin.
“Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB. Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave,” Obama said. “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.”
The president was defensive about his actions, or lack thereof, in the wake of the hacking. Critics have bemoaned the fact that there was no retaliation or public upbraiding of Putin from Obama before Election Day. Obama said that wouldn’t have helped in the partisan environment of campaign season. He told Putin off in private, he said, explaining that his focus was on making sure voters didn’t think he was trying to help Hillary Clinton by being more forceful on the hacking.
“That’s exactly how we should have handled it,” Obama said.
Obama has spoken often about partisanship and cynicism, saying they’re what prevent political progress. He started his national political career talking about how the construct of two Americas — one red, one blue — was phony and unhelpful. He went back to that message Friday.
“What is it about our political system that made us vulnerable to these kinds of potential manipulations which, as I’ve said publicly before, were not particularly sophisticated?” Obama said early on in the press conference. “This was not some elaborate, complicated espionage scheme.”
For the president, the answer to that question is a press obsessed with minutiae and partisans obsessed with winning at any cost.
“To the extent that our political dialogue is such where everything is under suspicion, and everybody is corrupt, and everybody is doing things for partisan reasons, and all of our institutions are, you know, full of malevolent actors, if that’s the story line that is 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 have been listening to that stuff for years, who have been getting that stuff every day from talk radio or other venues, they’re going to believe it,” Obama said.
The answer to the Russian hacking is not a cyberwar with Russia, Obama said, though he did promise some kind of retaliation, both secret and public.
The real answer, he said, was for America to change.
“So if we want to really reduce foreign influence on our elections, then we had better think about how to make sure that our political process, our political dialogue is stronger than it has been,” Obama said.