U.S. President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, Nov. 10, 2016. 
Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Obama looks ahead to the chance to restore ‘sanity to our politics’

With just two days remaining in his presidency, Barack Obama hosted a White House press conference in which he said he expected the new administration and Congress to make their own determinations about the nation’s direction, and by and large, he intended to stay out of it.

But as regular readers know, Obama also acknowledged at the time that there might be exceptions to the rule. “There’s a difference,” the outgoing president explained, “between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake.”

What the Democratic president couldn’t have known was just how frequently he’d find these core values in jeopardy. At last count, Obama has responded to major policy development with critical statements five times: the separation of immigrant children from their families, Trump’s Muslim ban, the Republican campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Trump rescinding DACA protections for Dreamers, and Trump’s abandonment of the international nuclear agreement with Iran.

In each instance, however, the former president exercised caution and pulled every punch, eager to remain above the fray. Obama showed less restraint today.

During a speech at the University of Illinois, Obama slammed the “crazy stuff” coming out of the Trump White House and blasted the president for politicizing the Justice Department. […]

And Obama took Republicans in Congress to task for being “utterly unwilling to find the backbone to safeguard the institutions that make our democracy work.” Even Republicans “who know better,” Obama said, “are still bending over backwards” to protect Trump.

“This is not normal,” Obama continued. “How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?!”

In a bit of a surprise, he was even willing to reference his successor by name.

“It did not start with Donald Trump,” Obama added. “He is a symptom not the cause. He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years, the fear and anger that’s rooted in our past.”

The former president went to share some unkind words for what’s become of the Republican Party’s governing vision:

“They’re undermining our alliances, cozying up to Russia. What happened to the Republican Party? Its central organizing principle in foreign policy was the fight against Communism, and now they’re cozying up to the former head of the KGB, actively blocking legislation that would defend our elections from Russian attack. What happened? Their sabotage of the Affordable Care Act has already cost more than three million Americans their health insurance. And if they’re still in power next fall, you’d better believe they’re coming at it again. They’ve said so.

“In a healthy democracy, there’s some checks and balances on this kind of behavior, this kind of inconsistency, but right now there’s none. Republicans who know better in Congress – and they’re there, they’re quoted saying, ‘Yeah, we know this is kind of crazy’ – are still bending over backwards to shield this behavior from scrutiny or accountability or consequence. Seem utterly unwilling to find the backbone to safeguard the institutions that make our democracy work.”

Which was soon followed by the look ahead to November:

“These are extraordinary times. And they’re dangerous times. But here’s the good news. In two months we have the chance, not the certainty but the chance, to restore some semblance of sanity to our politics. […]

“Because in the end, the threat to our democracy doesn’t just come from Donald Trump or the current batch of Republicans in Congress or the Koch Brothers and their lobbyists, or too much compromise from Democrats, or Russian hacking. The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference. The biggest threat to our democracy is cynicism - a cynicism that’s led too many people to turn away from politics and stay home on Election Day.”

Expect to see and hear more along these lines over the next two months. Obama will be in California tomorrow, campaigning in support of seven Democratic congressional candidates, and he’ll be in Ohio next week, campaigning in support of Richard Cordray’s Democratic gubernatorial candidacy.