Barack Obama's final press conference: Fake news, Jim Crow and the prospects of another black president

With his legislative legacy on the line, President Obama extended his farewell tour for one final act Wednesday

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published January 18, 2017 10:24PM (EST)


Preparing to leave the White House with favorable numbers approaching the astronomical highs he entered with in 2009, Barack Obama remained consistent to the very end. At his final presidential press conference Wednesday, Obama  expressed his hallmark optimism on issues of equality, while demonstrating his passion for the technocratic details of issues like redistricting.

President Obama began his 165th press conference, one of several farewell addresses he's delivered in his final days in office, by thanking the White House press corps.

"You’re not supposed to be sycophants, you’re supposed to be skeptics. You’re supposed to ask me tough questions. You're not supposed to be complimentary. You are supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure we are accountable to the people who sent us here," he told the gathered press. Obama's successor, President-elect Donald Trump, made attacks on the press a central tenet of his campaign and has transition team has since remained hostile to the press, even suggesting that reporters be moved out of the White House.

“America needs you and the country needs you," Obama said of the press. “My hope is that you will continue with the same tenacity you showed us to get to the bottom of stories. Having you in this building ... keeps us honest."

But the president who presided over the rise of social and fragmented media didn't have praise for all forms of so-called news.

"This whole notion of voting fraud — this is something that has constantly been disproved," President Obama said of the myth of voting fraud often perpetuated by right-wing media like Fox News. "This is fake news — the notion that there are a whole bunch of people out there who are going out there and are not eligible to vote and want to vote."

Instead, Obama noted, the country has the opposite problem: there are a lot of people who are eligible to vote but don't cast their ballots. "The idea that we put in place a whole bunch of barriers to people voting doesn't make sense," he said with detectable passion in his voice, continuing:

 And that dates back, there's an ugly history to that that we should not be  shy about talking about. The reason that we are the only country among advanced democracies that makes it harder to vote is — it traces directly back to Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery — and it became sort of acceptable to restrict the franchise.

"That shouldn't be who we are," he said. "That's not when America works best."

"We've got more work to do on race," Obama responded when asked to reflect on the state of race relations in the U.S. at the end of his tenure. "This is not the same old battles. We’ve got this stew that is bubbling up."

But, Obama added, "This generation makes me really optimistic." Pointing to the "resilience and hope" he sees displayed by his two teenage daughters, Sasha and Malia, the president argued that young people are more prone to fight for the change they want to see because “they don’t mope." Obama admitted that his daughters were disappointed by Trump's win but also said they understand that "democracy is messy."

Asked about whether his legacy as the first African-American president means that the U.S. is unlikely to see another black president in the foreseeable future, Obama said he fully expects the future to include women, Latino, Jewish and Hindu presidents.

"I think we're going to see people of merit rise up from every race, faith, corner of this country," he said.

"I suspect we'll have a whole bunch of mixed up presidents that nobody knows what to call," he said with a chuckle. "I believe in this country," Obama said. "I believe in the American people."

"There are a lot more good people than bad in this country," he said. "There is a core decency in this country.

Despite his ever-present optimism, Obama did relay a bit of fear at his final presser.

Regarding redistricting, an issue he has already signaled an interest in working on during his post-presidency, Obama said it is "bad for our democracy."

He said: "I worry about that."
The president also repeated his longstanding critique of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision deregulating campaign finance. The president suggested that the court revisit "the endless flood of money that goes into our politics."

Asked what advice he's given the President-elect, Obama said he told Trump "this is a job of such magnitude you cannot do it by yourself" and advised him to rely on his team.

Obama said that he expects the majority of Trump's proposals to be part of "the normal back and forth, ebb and flow, of policy" between the two major governing parties, however, he vowed to speak out as private citizen if he saw "systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion," if there were attempts to stifle dissent and a free press, or if there were "efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and are essentially American" and send them "somewhere else."

One of the cornerstones of Trump's campaign was his plan to create a mass deportation force targeting all undocumented immigrants. The president-elect has also proposed a ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. on the campaign trail, a policy which he never really walked back after winning the election. His nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), has shown skepticism toward the Voting Rights Act while Trump made false claims about millions of illegal votes cast in the election.

Still, Obama argued, certain improvements just can't be pulled back by Trump.

"I don’t think it’s reversible," Obama said of gains for the LGBT community under his watch. "American society has changed.” For that change, Obama credited LGBT activists as the "primary heroes in this stage of our growth as a democracy."

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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