Last week, at a White House press conference, a reporter asked, President Obama, “Some of your critics have pointed to the incredibly polarized political climate under your administration as contributing to the rise of someone as provocative as Donald Trump. Do you feel responsibility for that?” He didn’t seem surprised by the line of inquiry.
“I’ve actually heard this argument a number of times,” the president replied. “I have been blamed by Republicans for a lot of things, but being blamed for their primaries and who they’re selecting for their party is novel.”
But Obama isn’t just deflecting responsibility for Trump’s rise in GOP politics, he’s also directing blame where he believes it belongs. The Washington Post published a partial transcript of the president’s remarks on Friday at an Austin fundraiser, in which Obama made a compelling case that the 2016 frontrunner is simply capitalizing on the conditions Republican officials themselves created.
“What is happening in this primary is just a distillation of what’s been happening inside their party for more than a decade. I mean, the reason that many of their voters are responding is because this is what’s been fed through the messages they’ve been sending for a long time – that you just make flat assertions that don’t comport with the facts. That you just deny the evidence of science. That compromise is a betrayal. That the other side isn’t simply wrong, or we just disagree, we want to take a different approach, but the other side is destroying the country, or treasonous. I mean, that’s – look it up. That’s what they’ve been saying.“So they can’t be surprised when somebody suddenly looks and says, ‘You know what, I can do that even better. I can make stuff up better than that. I can be more outrageous than that. I can insult people even better than that. I can be even more uncivil.” I mean, conservative outlets have been feeding their base constantly the notion that everything is a disaster, that everybody else is to blame, that Obamacare is destroying the country. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. It’s not, ‘We disagree with this program,’ ‘We think we can do it better,’ it’s, ‘Oh, this is a crisis!’“So if you don’t care about the facts, or the evidence, or civility, in general in making your arguments, you will end up with candidates who will say just about anything and do just about anything. And when your answer to every proposal that I make, or Democrats make is no, it means that you’ve got to become more and more unreasonable because that’s the only way you can say no to some pretty reasonable stuff. And then you shouldn’t be surprised when your party ultimately has no ideas to offer at all.”
It was a stinging rebuke, which had the added benefit of being accurate, though the president took time to make the case for an improved and more responsible Republican Party, which would challenge Democrats on substantive grounds, and force Dems to be better by questioning the party’s assumptions and “blind spots.”
Obama added that he knows there are “good people in the Republican Party” who are “troubled by what’s happening inside their own party.” The president urged them, however, to acknowledge the circumstances that allowed for Trump’s success in the contemporary GOP.
“The notion [in some Republican circles] is, ‘Obama drove us crazy,’” he added. “Now, the truth is, what they really mean is their reaction to me was crazy and now it has gotten out of hand. But that’s different. I didn’t cause the reaction. The reaction is something that they have to take responsibility for and then figure out, ‘How do we make an adjustment?’”
That reckoning does not yet appear close at hand.
Postscript: At the same Austin event, the president also took a bit of a victory lap, pushing back against GOP rhetoric that the nation has suffered in the Obama era. “When the cynics told us we couldn’t change the country, they were dead wrong; we proved them wrong,” he said. “Think about it: if somebody told you seven years ago we’d have 4.9% unemployment, 20 million newly insured, gas is $1.80, deficits cut by three-quarters, marriage equality a reality, bin Laden out of the picture, Wall Street reform in place you wouldn’t have believed me…. Imagine what Trump would say if he actually had a record like this – instead of selling steaks.”