With his most pointed criticism since leaving office 20 months ago, former President Barack Obama broke his silence on U.S. politics in recent days, first on Friday at a college in Illinois to criticize “the politics of division and resentment and paranoia” of President Donald Trump and supporters in the Republican Party, then on Saturday at a rally in Anaheim while campaigning for seven Democratic congressional candidates. Millions of Americans who can’t stand Obama will just tune out the rhetoric, so different than Trump’s and so missed by his supporters, but Obama’s view of his successor is shared by prominent conservatives such as columnists George Will and Michael Gerson and Sens. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, and Jeff Flake, R-Arizona.
It was classic Obama. Friday’s speech approached 7,000 words but boiled down to the notion that “common ground exists” and that change is possible at the voting booth. Yet it was 50 words about the media that undercut Obama’s credibility with the absurd claim that he — unlike Trump — didn’t “threaten the freedom of the press.” Baloney.
“It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say that we don’t threaten the freedom of the press because — they say things or publish stories we don’t like,” Obama said. “I complained plenty about Fox News, but you never heard me threaten to shut them down or call them ‘enemies of the people.’”
Actually, about Fox News, Obama White House Communications Director Anita Dunn told The New York Times in 2009, “We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent.”
And in 2013, Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, wrote “the administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.”
In 2015, James Risen, then a reporter at The New York Times, called the Obama administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”
In 2017, in Obama’s last days, the San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board echoed the criticism from Downie and Risen and called Obama’s administration “the least transparent and the most antagonistic toward the media since the Nixon administration.” In a nuanced analysis of his eight years, we wrote, “So much for Obama’s promise to lead ‘the most transparent administration in history.’”
Some specifics? Obama’s administration prosecuted three times as many cases targeting whistle-blowers and leakers than all previous administrations combined. It said there was probable cause that a Fox News reporter was a “co-conspirator” in a plot against the U.S. government because of his attempts to gather information about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. It secretly scoured the phone records of nearly 100 Associated Press reporters and editors for two months, which an editorial in The New York Times characterized as “a fishing expedition for sources and an effort to frighten off whistle-blowers.” And in 2014, according to AP, the Obama administration broke its own record for censoring government files or refusing to provide files sought under the Freedom of Information Act.
None of this criticism of the Obama administration is meant to draw an equivalence with Trump’s unprecedented three-year verbal assault on a free press. There’s no comparison when Trump calls the media “the enemy of the people,” and more and more Americans believe him. One was even charged by Trump’s own Justice Department with threatening to travel from California to The Boston Globe newsroom to kill newspaper employees. Such violence would be on Trump’s hands.
Trump’s own rhetorical attacks on journalists are dangerous. But as Risen wrote in late 2016 for The New York Times, “If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the FBI to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.” We’ve never heard rhetoric like Trump’s, and that’s partly because of the legacy of Obama.