WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Barack Obama wants America to know this: he did the right thing.
He may harbor frustration and even anger that the nation’s polarization and the geopolitics of a volatile world thwarted him in many ways, but he won’t spend his looming retirement stewing in regret.
In fact, the President made a case Friday that his administration is a historic success, despite beginning in a riot of hopeful euphoria and ending, according to First Lady Michelle Obama, with many Americans now living without hope after the election of Donald Trump,
In his final press conference of the year, the President justified his actions on issues ranging from the economy to Syria, and from the Russia hacking scandal to the passage of Obamacare — a historic law now on borrowed time.
Obama will have a formal chance to say goodbye next month, but in a long — and sometimes defensive — appearance in the White House Briefing Room, it was clear that at least in his own mind his presidential legacy is already set.
“I am very proud of the work I’ve done. I think I’m a better president now than when I started,” Obama said.
As he surveyed his two terms, Obama did not argue that he had always been successful, but made a case that he had always had the best of motives and that where he had failed it was often owing to a lack of better choices. He seemed intent on placing his legacy — with which he feels satisfied despite the shock of an election result which traumatized Democrats — in what he sees as its proper historical context.
Where Obama showed dissatisfaction it was not with his own record, but with the Republicans who opposed him, the press who he believes overly dwell in trivialities and the coarsening of political culture.
He delivered only veiled criticism of Trump, amid deepening tension between the President-elect and the White House over the Russia hacking scandal and his only real fury were reserved for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And as the world watches in helpless horror at the human carnage in Aleppo, Obama admitted he agonized over Syria more than any other issue.
But he could not see anything he could have done differently, despite criticism that he should have used military action to oust President Bashar al-Assad or acted earlier and more forcefully to arm anti-government rebels.
“I always feel responsible,” Obama said. “There are places around the world where horrible things are happening and because of my office, because I’m President of the United States, I feel responsible. I ask myself every single day, ‘Is there something I could do that would save lives and make a difference and spare some child who doesn’t deserve to suffer?'”
But displaying the hard-headed realism that has infuriated critics, Obama reasoned that only a massive deployment by an already exhausted American military could have turned the tide. His only choice therefore was to use diplomacy to stem the bloodletting.
“I cannot claim that we have been successful. That’s something that, as is true with a lot of issues and problems around the world, I have to go to bed with every night,” Obama said. “But I continue to believe that it was the right approach given what realistically we could get done.”
Obama also rebuffed criticism that he had been slow to respond to allegations of Russian cybermeddling in the presidential election.
“My primary concern was making sure that the integrity of the election process was not in any way damaged, at a time when anything that was said by me or anybody in the White House would immediately be seen through a partisan lens,” Obama explained.
He also said curtly that when he met Putin in China in September he told him to “cut it out” and pledged to hit Russia in public and covert ways before he leaves office on January 20.
‘You can’t argue that we are not better off’
With the GOP ax hovering over Obamacare, the President mounted a firm defense of an initiative that in retrospect drained his administration — and Democrats in general — of huge stocks of political capital.
“When I came into office, 44 million people were uninsured. Today, we have covered more than 20 million of them. For the first time in our history, more than 90% of Americans are insured.”
Obama did not address the uncertainty many Americans now again face over health care or rising premiums and deductibles.
Reprising a familiar theme, Obama went back to the economic turmoil raging when he took office in the teeth of the worst recession in decades in 2009.
“As I was preparing to take office, the unemployment rate was on its way to 10%. Today it is at 4.6%, the lowest in nearly a decade.”
Though he noted that some people were still homeless, hungry or had trouble paying the bills, Obama did not refer directly to the legions of Midwestern voters who feel left behind by his recovery and helped elect Trump.
Abroad, Obama noted, for the umpteenth time, the slaying of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and noted that he had brought 165,000 troops home.
But wars still rage in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But though his legacy may be imperfect, Obama is making no apologies.
“What I can say with confidence is that what we’ve done works. That I can prove. I can show you where we were in 2008 and I can show you where we are now. And you can’t argue that we are not better off. We are.”
Pointing fingers at Republicans, media
Obama lingered on the Republicans who opposed him and a press corps he believes contributed to the White House’s and Democrats’ problems.
He flashed contempt for GOP Russia hawks now ready to accept Trump’s admiration of Putin.
“Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave,” he said.
He lashed out at Putin and Assad for “savage” assaults on Aleppo and was particularly disdainful of Russia itself.
“The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us. They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate.”
Obama told reporters the coverage of Hillary Clinton during the campaign was troubling.
But he also did seem to implicitly jab Clinton’s campaign tactics when he said that Democrats need to show up where people are hurting.
“Democrats are characterized as coastal, liberal, latte-sipping, you know, politically correct, out-of-touch folks. We have to be in those communities.”
The President also denied tensions between he and Trump, as his own aides and those of the President-elect spar over the Russia hacking of emails belonging to the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Where he criticized Trump it was implicit, as when he said China would not stand for the President-elect’s warning that the status of Taiwan could be on the table in his increasingly acrimonious relationship with Beijing.
And he warned that there was a difference between campaigning and being President — a reality Trump has yet to embrace.
“I think there is a sobering process when you walk into the Oval Office,” Obama said.
In many ways, Obama, a president especially conscious of history, seemed to be subtly setting up a contrast with the Trump presidency to come.
“What the President-elect is going to be doing is going to be very different than what I was doing,” Obama said, “and I think people will be able to compare and contrast and make judgments about what worked for the American people.”