For the last time, US president Barack Obama took reporters’ questions in the White House briefing room on Wednesday. It was his last official event before president-elect Donald Trump takes office on Friday.
On international issues, Obama admitted he continued to be “worried about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The status quo is unsustainable.” He said it was bad for the Palestinians, the region, and for national security.
In his final news briefing, he expressed concern that the “moment may be passing” for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He added: “I don’t want to predict today what could end up happening,” in an apparent reference to president-elect Donald Trump’s plan to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The new US ambassador to Israel has spoken out in the past against a two-state solution.
While admitting it was impossible to force peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he said: “There is no alternative to a two-state solution. If you don’t give Palestinians a state, they wind up as second-class non-citizens.”
He cautioned that it was “a volatile environment,” adding that “what we have seen in the past is when some unilateral moves are made that speak to some of the core issues and sensitivities of either side, that can be explosive.”
“We’re the biggest kid on the block,” Obama said. “If you are going to make big shifts in policy, then make sure you think it through. You don’t want to do things off the cuff on an issue this volatile.”
Obama conceded that relations with Russia had returned to the adversarial spirit that existed during the Cold War with “escalating anti-American rhetoric.”
Freedom of the press
Obama thanked the press corps assembled in the White House briefing room, who he said were “supposed to ask me tough questions” and were “not supposed to be complimentary.” Obama said their role was to “make sure we are accountable to the people who sent us here.”
The president said that democracy did not “work if we don’t have a well-informed citizenry” and there was a key task to establish a baseline of facts and evidence. “Free press is part of how our country works,” Obama said.
“Reality has a way of biting back, if you’re not paying attention to it,” Obama commented, adding in possible reference to his successor that “this is a job of such magnitude that you can’t do it by yourself.”
Taking a question from a reporter from a publication focusing on LGBT issues, Obama reflected on the changes in the law for the LGBT community, commenting: “I could not be prouder of the transformation that’s taken place in our society.”
Obama defended his decision to grant approval to Chelsea Manning’s commutation application. The former army intelligence analyst, known at the time of arrest as Bradley Manning, is to be released in May. Obama explained that Manning faced trial and took responsibility for her actions in leaking hundreds of thousands of classified materials in 2010.
He said Manning had “served a tough prison sentence” and would act as a deterrent to anyone thinking of taking similar action. Obama said that he was “comfortable that justice has been served.” The president made it clear that he had not issued a pardon.
For the future
For the future, Obama said he would take time for himself and his family but would weigh in if he saw “systematic discrimination,” voter suppression, or silencing of dissent or of the press.
He also cautioned against “efforts to round up kids who have grown up here… and send them somewhere else.” He added: “The notion that we would just arbitrarily or for politics punish those kids would be something that would merit me speaking out.”
He spoke of his confidence that “people of merit” would rise from all communities as that was “America’s strength.” He added: “I think we’re going to see people of merit rise up from every race, faith, corner of this country.” However, he warned: “We have to examine the endless flood of money that goes into politics.”
Obama admitted that while his children were “disappointed” by the election result, but the “only thing that is the end of the world, is the end of the world.” Neither of his girls intended to pursue a future in politics, Obama said, adding that it was down to “their mom’s” influence, and that they had paid attention to what she said during the election campaign.
He confirmed he would be attending Trump’s inauguration, unlike some of his Democratic party colleagues.
A US poll released on Wednesday showed a 60% approval rating for Obama. The briefing was his 39th solo news conference, his 21st in the White House Briefing Room, and his 224th session of availability to the press of all kinds.