Highlights of Obama’s NPR interview: Russia, Trump, race, and where liberals went wrong

President Obama spoke to NPR before flying to Hawaii for his last family vacation as president.
President Obama spoke to NPR before flying to Hawaii for his last family vacation as president.
Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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US president Barack Obama held the final National Public Radio (NPR) interview of his term today (Dec. 19), covering topics that ranged from the power of the presidency to race relations and the future of the Democratic party.

The largest section of the one-on-one with Steve Inskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition focused on the Russian hacks into organizations including the Democratic National Committee. Obama’s overarching message about the election-season interference: There should be a bipartisan push to address the issue as a matter of national security, rather than a reflexive response of political squabbling.

“It requires us not to relitigate the election. It requires us not to point fingers. It requires us to just say, ‘Here’s what happened, let’s be honest about it and let’s not use it as a political football, but let’s figure out how we prevent this from happening in the future,'” Obama said, according to NPR’s transcript of the interview.

Here are some other highlights of the hour-long back and forth:

On whether Russia’s intervention won the election for Donald Trump and if it was meant to do so:

As in his Dec. 16 press conference, the president stopped short of concluding that Russia’s hacks definitively tipped the balance in Trump’s favor. Instead, he leaned on what has become a recurring theme—that the media covered the leaks to an irresponsible extent.

“I have no doubt that [the hacks] had some impact just based on the coverage. And by the way, I’m talking about mainstream news coverage,” he said. “I’m talking about what was in the The New York Times and The Washington Post and on the nightly news and even on NPR. And it meant that the field where I think Hillary shone, the field of substance…that wasn’t the field in which the campaign was ultimately decided.”

Obama also rowed back slightly on the current consensus that the Kremlin was trying to shepherd Trump to victory, returning to the topic after the formal end of the interview to emphasize, “When it comes to the motivations of the Russians, that there are still a whole range of assessments taking place among the agencies…the point I’m making is that right now what you’ve had are CIA leaks, not of an official document.”

On whether Trump’s campaign cooperated with Russian officials on the hacks:

“I’m not suggesting cooperation at all…it just means that they understood what everybody else understood, which was that this was not good for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. And when you combine that with the fact that the president-elect has been very honest about his admiration for Putin and that he hopes to forge a more cooperative relationship with him and focus on the threat of Islamic terrorism, then my only point was we shouldn’t now suddenly act as if [the suggestion that Russia was trying to help Trump win] is a huge revelation.”

On whether Russia should pay a price for the hacks:

Obama drew a clear line between regular intelligence-gathering work—which he condoned as the work of intelligence agencies of any country (and led to the US allegedly tapping German chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone)—and invasive actions like cyberattacks.

“There is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections that we need to take action and we will, at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be. But Mr. Putin is well aware of my feelings about this, because I spoke to him directly about it.”

On his foreign policy conversations with Trump:

“[We discussed how] America’s exceptionalism, our indispensability in the world, in part draws from our values and our ideals and the fact that even our adversaries generally respect our adherence to rule of law, our transparency, our openness. And if we start losing that, if other countries start seeing that, ‘Oh, America doesn’t care about these issues,’ or it’s just a ‘might makes right’ environment, and we’re not speaking out on behalf of our values and demonstrating our values, then America is going to be significantly weakened.”

On whether Trump should use powers like executive orders in the way Obama has:

“I think that he is entirely within his lawful power to do so. Keep in mind though that my strong preference has always been to legislate when I can get legislation done. In my first two years, I wasn’t relying on executive powers, because I had big majorities in the Congress and we were able to get bills done, get bills passed. And even after we lost the majorities in Congress, I bent over backwards consistently to try to find compromise and a legislative solution to some of the big problems that we’ve got.

“So my suggestion to the president-elect is, you know, going through the legislative process is always better, in part because it’s harder to undo…that doesn’t mean, though, that he is not going to come in and look at the various agencies and see the rules we’ve passed and if he wants to reverse some of those rules, that’s part of the democratic process.”

On whether “political correctness” has become too overbearing in America:

Noting that “the definition of political correctness is all over the map,” Obama argued that some language—using racial epithets, for example—isn’t an affront only to political correctness, but to “good manners” and “sound values.” Where liberals often fall into problems, he said, is when making ad hominem attacks based on someone’s views.

“Advice I give my own daughters, who are about to head off to college, is don’t go around just looking for insults. You’re tough. If somebody says something you don’t agree with, just engage them on their ideas. But you don’t have to feel that somehow because you’re a black woman that you’re being assaulted. But speak up for yourself, and if you hear somebody saying something that’s insulting, feel free to say to that guy, ‘You know what? You’re rude,’ or ‘you’re ignorant’ and take them on,” he said.

On the future of race relations in the US:

“The demographics of the country are going to change. It’s inevitable…The Latino community in America is going to grow. If you stopped all immigration today, just by virtue of birth rates, this is going to be a browner country. And if we’re not thinking right now about how we make sure that next generation is getting a good education and are instilled with a common creed and the values that make America so special and are cared for and nurtured and loved the way every American child is treated, then we’re not going to be as successful.”

And on the current state of race relations in the US:

“[A]ll these smartphones suddenly taking pictures are not documenting a suddenly worsening relationship between the African-American community and the police. They are recording what has been a long-standing tension and the sense on the part of police that they’re put in a very difficult situation of trying to manage law enforcement in poor communities where guns are easily accessible, [with] the African-American community being rightly convinced that there is a long history of racial bias in our criminal justice system.”

On where the Democrats went wrong:

Obama said the Democrats’ main problem has been a failure to communicate outside of the party’s urban and coastal bases, meaning they had lost margins in rural areas.

“On the individual issues that Democrats talk about, there’s strong support—for example, the minimum wage. In every survey across the country, people support a higher minimum wage. There are clearly, though, failures on our part to give people in rural areas or in exurban areas a sense day-to-day that we’re fighting for them or connected to them.

“The Republicans, funded through organizations like the Koch brothers, have been very systematic at…building from the ground up and communicating to state legislators and financing school board races and public utility commission races, and, you know, I am a proud Democrat, but I do think that we have a bias towards national issues and international issues, and as a consequence I think we’ve ceded too much territory. And I take some responsibility for that.”