Yes, President Obama Is Going to Watch the Debate

Presidents often like to say they're ignoring the polls and the elections to succeed them. Don't believe it.

President Obama arrives in Los Angeles aboard Air Force One on Saturday.  (John M. Heller AFP/Getty)

The White House wants you to know that President Obama is not watching every step taken by those who want his job.

“He feels like he’s got better things to do,” explained press secretary Josh Earnest when asked why the president didn’t watch the early GOP candidate debates. While Earnest on Tuesday grudgingly acknowledged that Obama might watch “parts” of the first Democratic debate, he said the competition from “some pretty good playoff baseball” is just too much to keep the president riveted on the debate stage.

Don’t believe it. Incumbent disinterest in politics is one of those fibs every White House tells, right up there with the assertions that the president doesn’t follow his own poll numbers and doesn’t really think about his legacy.

The truth is that this president—like all presidents—is a politician and a competitor. He is intensely proud of his record in office, doesn’t deny that he’d be tempted to stick around longer if not barred by the Constitution, and is peeved by the criticism being tossed around by the Republican wannabes. That much was clear from his weekend fundraising trip to the West Coast and his interview aired Sunday on 60 Minutes.

He knows that he can’t count on the Democratic candidates to defend his record. He understands they can’t be seen as running for his third term. So he has started using his speeches and interviews to mount his own defense and attack the Republicans who cast him as a failure. On Friday and Saturday, in four speeches in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, he let Republicans have it as grumpy, depressing, pessimistic, short-sighted candidates who want to take the county backwards.

“What we see most prominently in the presidential campaigns ... is that politics of fear being fanned and expanding,” he said in Los Angeles. “And it can express itself in anti-immigration rhetoric. It can express itself in hunkering back on the need to take care of folks who are vulnerable, or to provide more opportunity for people who’ve been locked out of the American Dream. It can express itself in sort of cheap jingoism and militarism and nationalism that’s not grounded in our national security interests. But it’s a dangerous path.”

In Seattle, he drew laughter when he mocked the Republican candidates. “Why are all these Republican politicians so down on America? I mean, I know it’s political season, but listening to them is really depressing.”

He added, “It kind of doesn’t match up with the truth. In the reality they create, everything was terrific in 2008—in the middle of the worst recession in our lifetimes. Unemployment, uninsured rates going up; we were in two wars, hopelessly addicted to foreign oil, bin Laden still at large. To hear them tell it, those were the good old days.” He accused the candidates of “spending all their time trying to scare people and trying to tap into fear, particularly fear of other people.”

In San Francisco, he urged people to “listen to them a little bit just to hear what they’re saying.” He credited them with great “chutzpah” for their attacks on him, adding, “The fact-checkers can’t even keep up.”

His criticism is more specific when it comes to national security policies espoused by the Republican contenders. In little-noticed remarks during a White House meeting closed to the press on Sept. 10, the president said if he took the advice of Republicans “we’d be in, like, seven wars right now.” The remarks to a small group of veterans and Gold Star mothers of American troops killed overseas were uncovered by Olivier Knox of Yahoo News, who found a video of the president’s presentation. In the video, Obama said, “I’m not exaggerating. I’ve been counting. We’d be in military actions in seven places around the world.” The president did not specify the seven places. The various Republican candidates have at different points called for a stronger U.S. military response in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, and the South China Sea.

In his 60 Minutes interview, the president rebuffed efforts to handicap Donald Trump’s campaign beyond calling him “a great publicity seeker” who he doesn’t think will ever be president. Beyond that, Obama demurred, stating, “I’ll leave it up to the pundits.”

He also danced a little bit around reporter Steve Kroft’s question on his feelings about being barred from running for another term. “I think it’s bittersweet,” he said. “On the one hand, I am very proud of what we’ve accomplished and it makes me think, I’d love to do some more. But by the time I’m finished, I think it will be time for me to go.”