President Obama said Friday he is leaving behind a more prosperous and safe country than the one he inherited from his predecessor.
“Almost every country on Earth sees America as stronger and more respected today than it was eight years ago,” the president said at a White House news conference on Friday before the Obama family’s departure to Hawaii for its annual holiday vacation.
Obama ticked off a list of his economic milestones including lower unemployment, income growth, a tripling of the stock market and access to health care for 20 million Americans since he took office in 2009.
On the foreign policy front, the president said he de-escalated the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and worked to forge new relationships with Iran and Cuba, as well as the Paris climate deal to combat man-made climate change.
Obama also said he is committed to ensuring a smooth transition for President-elect Donald Trump. “I think they would be the first to acknowledge that we have done everything we can to make sure that they are successful, as I promised, and that will continue.”
The president described his interactions with Trump as “cordial” and said he will “always make myself available to him just as previous presidents made themselves available to me as issues come up.”
The president and Trump have very different views on the realities and motives of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. Trump has downplayed the Russian hacks and questioned the intelligence analysis of the Central Intelligence Agency that the Russians intervened to help Trump win the election.
Obama side-stepped attempts to criticize Trump. Instead, he said he has “great confidence” in U.S. intelligence and their conclusions about Russia’s influence. The president has ordered a report from U.S. intelligence agencies on the matter by Jan. 20, his last day in office.
“Not much happens in Russia without Vladmir Putin,” Obama added, although he declined to explicitly state that he believes Putin ordered the hacking. “Last I checked, there’s not a lot of debate and democratic deliberation.”
Obama reiterated that Russians were responsible for the hacks of Democratic Party emails but that they did not affect voting machines or the election outcome. “This was not some elaborate, complicated espionage scheme,” Obama said, though he did chastise the media for exhaustive coverage of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s emails.
Obama ducked when asked if the hacking cost Hillary Clinton the election. “I’m going to let all the political pundits in this town have a long discussion about what happened in the election. It was a fascinating election.”
He also warned that cybersecurity will remain a national security threat for the U.S. government and businesses.
“Our goal continues to be to send a clear message to Russia, or others, not to do this to us, because we can do stuff to you,” he said. “But it is also important for us to do that in a thoughtful, methodical way. Some of it we do publicly, some of it we will do in a way they know, but not everybody will.”
Looking to his post-White House life, Obama said he will work to grow the Democratic Party. “The thing we have to spend the most time on because it’s the thing we have the most control over is: How do we make sure we are showing up in places where I think Democratic policies are needed, where they are helping, where they are making a difference.”
He praised Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who is running to chair the Democratic National Committee. “He is tireless; he is wicked smart,” Obama said, although he stopped shy of endorsing him in the DNC race.
On Syria, Obama spoke at length about his administration’s hands-off approach to the civil war there. “My first priority has to be, what’s the right thing to do for America,” he said, in reference to his decision not to commit ground troops to Syria — an act that would have required authorization from Congress.
On China, Obama was forgiving of Trump’s decision to speak by phone with the president of Taiwan. He said new presidents have the prerogative to examine the way things have been done in the past, and if they want to change them. But he cautioned to move deliberately and thoughtfully with China because Taiwan is at “the heart of the conception as a nation.”
The news conference was the last one for 2016. Asked on the way out whether he would have another before leaving office, Obama responded: “I don’t know, I’ll have to reflect on that.”