Obama defends democracy, if not Trump – Politico
ATHENS — That’s the trouble with democracy, President Barack Obama said here Wednesday: Sometimes Donald Trump wins.
But that’s also the good thing about democracy, Obama insisted: Trump won’t win in the end.
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Summoning the founding ideals of democracy here in the Greek capital — he’d just returned from a tour of the Acropolis — Obama’s final major speech on the world stage as president tried to connect history to the future, a zigzagging line he said should prevail, despite the threat he suggested it’s now facing at home and in Europe.
The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, he said, using his favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quote. But the arc of the moral universe hit a snag.
“This impulse to pull back from a global world is understandable. If people feel they are losing control of their future, they will push back,” Obama said.
But the answer, Obama argued, is less make America great again than make America — and the rest of the world — greater than they ever were: “We can’t look backwards for answers, we have to look forward.”
It was yet another public, nudging civics lessons for his successor, whom he repeatedly slammed during the campaign as unprepared and ignorant, a threat to the republic. A defense of his presidency on everything from Obamacare to tax policy to opening relations with Cuba that’s rising from a whisper each day. A careful distancing of himself from the president-elect, despite his continuing public and private efforts to make the transition a success.
“As you may have noticed, the next American president and I could not be more different,” Obama said. “We have very different points of view, but American democracy is bigger than any one person.”
There are some basics, Obama said, in America now and for the future, in Greece with its history of dictatorship, and all across the world: freedom of speech and assembly, a free press, freedom of religion, an independent judiciary, separation of powers, and free and fair elections.
As Obama spoke, Trump was tweeting again about the New York Times, insisting the newspaper had misreported a story about chaos in his transition process that’s been noted by several other outlets as well. In the week since his election, the president-elect has tweeted about protesters against him being “very unfair!” To the alarm of Obama and others, Trump campaigned on banning Muslims, attacked a judge because of his Mexican heritage and insisted — until he won — that American elections were rigged.
“Democracy is simplest where everybody thinks alike, looks alike, eats the same food, worships the same god,” Obama said. “Democracy becomes more difficult when there are people coming from a variety of backgrounds and trying to live together.”
This isn’t an abstract thought, Obama said.
“In a multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural society like the United States, democracy can be especially complicated. Believe me, I know,” he said to mild laughter in the theater where he was delivering the speech.
Have faith, he said, addressing Greeks, Europeans, Americans, the world: “It allows us to test new ideas, and it allows us to correct for mistakes.”
As he’s been doing over the past week, Obama insisted again that America’s role in the world will remain the same, despite Trump’s campaign promises to the contrary and a lack of any public statements saying he’s changed his mind. NATO commitments, the Paris climate treaty he engineered — all of that, Obama said, will remain in place.
But what Trump tapped into, and what the Brexit vote and other nationalistic efforts have tapped into, is real, he said — and needs to be acknowledged by everyone: “The current path of globalization demands a course correction.”
That sense people have of being disconnected from the government is real, he warned. That sense of elites and institutions failing to even care enough to be in touch is real too, he said, and both have parallels throughout history.
The main issue, he argued, is addressing inequality, which seems to have only grown greater at home and abroad in recent years. “Inclusive economies,” he said, are the only way to preserve what worked in America and what worked in bringing together the European Union, fostering more growth, prosperity and peace in the last century than ever before.
As with the 2008 economic crisis, the Greek debt crisis and the continuing fallout of both, the recoveries haven’t been enough, Obama said, and certainly haven’t been felt by enough people.
That’s the task of politics to address now, he said, and here in Athens, there’s a clear way forward that’s a microcosm of what needs to happen more widely: international creditors need to help the Greek people recover, but the Greek people need to focus on their hopes, not their fears.
“When people have opportunity and they feel confidence in the future, they are less likely to turn on each other, and they’re less likely to appeal to some of the darker forces that exist in all our societies, those that can tear us apart,” Obama said.
Those forces need to be guarded against, he said, and leaders need to take the kinds of steps toward accepting political and ethnic minorities that he criticized Trump’s campaign for lacking, but has praised the president-elect for doing since the election was called last week.
“Economics is something that will be central to preserving our democracies,” Obama said. “When our economies don’t work, our democracies become distorted and sometimes break down.”