In his final press conference, Obama looked back on eight years, but pressing questions about Russian hacking and violence in Syria took center stage.
President Obama held his final news conference of 2016 and painted a rosy picture of his tenure as president — from economic growth to foreign policy. So how did he hold up on the facts and what context did he leave out?
We look at five different quotes:
1. “The Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies are trying to obfuscate the truth. The world should not be fooled, and the world will not forget.”
President Obama accuses Russia and Syria of trying to “obfuscate the truth” in the city of Aleppo but says the world will not be fooled and will not forget. He says they are to blame for the atrocities unfolding there. The president says he does feel responsible, too. He is defending his decision, though, not to take any military action to tip the balance in Syria. He says it couldn’t be done on the cheap. The Obama administration often argued that the choice was between diplomacy or military action, though activists argued there were other options short of sending in thousands of troops uninvited, including safe zones or targeted strikes on Syrian airfields to take out helicopters that were dropping barrel bombs and chlorine bombs on civilian areas.
— Michele Kelemen, diplomacy correspondent
2. “So with respect to Syria, what I have consistently done is taken the best course that I can to try to end the civil war while having also to take into account the long-term national security interests of the United States. And throughout this process, based on hours of meetings — if you tallied it up, days and weeks of meetings … we went through every option in painful detail with maps and we had our military and we had our aid agencies and we had our diplomatic teams, and sometimes, we’d bring in outsiders who were critics of ours.
“Whenever we went through it, the challenge was that short of putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground uninvited, without any international law mandate, without sufficient support from Congress, at a time when we still had troops in Afghanistan and we still had troops in Iraq and we had just gone through over a decade of war and spent trillions of dollars …”
President Obama talked about the only other option in Syria being large numbers of troops, but that’s not necessarily so. His national security advisers four years ago wanted him to arm and train the rebels on a large scale. He decided against it. One of those advisers was Gen. James Mattis, Donald Trump’s choice to run the Defense Department. Another was Hillary Clinton, as well as Obama’s former CIA Director David Petraeus.
Obama said permission, but he just sent 200 more. And Turkey never got permission but already has sent in combat troops, heading to Al Bab. — Tom Bowman, Pentagon reporter
3. “There was a survey some of you saw where — not this just one poll, but pretty credible source, 37 percent of Republican voters approve of 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 appears to be referring to a YouGov poll that showed a recent spike in Republicans’ favorability of Vladimir Putin. Pollster Will Jordan tweeted a chart of this on Wednesday:
And as Politico reported on Friday:
“Back in July 2014 just 10 percent of Republicans held a favorable view of Putin, according to a poll conducted by the Economist and YouGov. By September of 2016, that number rose to 24 percent. And it’s even higher today: 37 percent of Republicans view Putin favorably, the poll found in December.”
Republicans’ favorability of Putin is still negative, but it is a sharp increase from where they were as recently as September. — Danielle Kurtzleben, political reporter
4. “[T]he median household income grew at the fastest rate on record. In fact, income gains were actually larger for households at the bottom and the middle than for those at the top.”
This is right — the median household income in the U.S. climbed by 5.2 percent between 2014 and 2015, to $56,516. That’s the biggest jump since the Census Bureau started keeping track in 1967.
In addition, income growth at the bottom and middle was stronger than it was at the top by those census data. Growth at the 10th percentile level was around 7.9 percent, a rate that declined as one went up the income ladder toward the median (that is, the 50th percentile). Median income grew by 5.2 percent. For people at the 90th percentile, it grew by nearly 2.9 percent.
That said, how good the numbers look for lower income levels depends upon how they are sliced, not to mention which data one uses. As economist Emmanuel Saez pointed out at the Center for Equitable Growth in July, IRS data showed that incomes for people in the top percent of earners grew by 7.7 percent in 2015, compared with 3.9 percent for the bottom 99 percent. That’s still solid growth for the 99 percent, and it could still mean strong growth in the bottom tiers of earners, but it suggests that in the top sliver of earners, income growth was once again stronger than for many people in lower classes.
— Danielle Kurtzleben
5. “And where Democrats are characterized as coastal, liberal, latte-sipping, you know, politically correct, out-of-touch folks, we have to be in those communities. And I’ve seen that, when we are in those communities, it makes a difference. That’s how I became president. I became a U.S. senator not just because I had a strong base in Chicago, but because I was driving downstate Illinois and going to fish fries and sitting in VFW halls and talking to farmers.”
There’s no way of knowing how widespread the perception of Democrats as precious, out-of-touch, urban coastal elites is, nor how much it may have hurt Clinton and other Democrats in the election. However, it is altogether possible that the isolation from and resentment toward political power that many Americans feel pushed them to vote for Republicans. As one political scientist explained to NPR this year, that may be a force behind many rural Americans rejecting Clinton in favor of Trump.
And Clinton really did tend to do far worse in rural areas than in urban areas. Her performance in those rural areas was also worse than Obama’s in 2012, which in turn was worse than Obama’s performance in those areas in 2008. Those declines in rural areas were much larger than any declines that took place over those same periods in suburban or urban areas. — Danielle Kurtzleben