Facing rejection of his worldview on both sides of the Atlantic, President Obama doubled down Tuesday on the dangers of populism and declared that Donald Trump’s supporters don’t realize how good they’ve had it for the past eight years.
Declaring, “My vision’s right,” the president said Mr. Trump won the presidential election by exploiting conservatives’ “troubling” rhetoric to play on Americans’ skepticism of globalization and diversity. He accused Republicans of fanning flames of “anger and fear in the American population” over economic uncertainty to help Mr. Trump win, and warned that similar forces are threatening the European Union.
“You’ve seen some of the rhetoric among Republican elected officials and activists and media,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference in Athens, Greece, with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. “Some of it [was] pretty troubling and not necessarily connected to facts, but being used effectively to mobilize people. And obviously President-elect Trump tapped into that particular strain within the Republican Party and then was able to broaden that enough and get enough votes to win the election.”
Asked if the election of Mr. Trump and British voters’ decision to leave the European Union amounted to a rejection of his worldview, Mr. Obama pointed to his relatively high approval ratings and retorted, “Last I checked, a pretty healthy majority of the American people agree with my worldview on a whole bunch of things.”
It was a remarkable display of cockiness for a president whose favored candidate just lost the election to succeed him and who failed to persuade British voters last spring to remain in the EU.
Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Obama was displaying hubris and a lack of understanding of the anti-EU forces rising in Europe.
“He is a president really in denial with regard to the sweeping changes that are taking place both at home and abroad, especially across the Atlantic,” Mr. Gardiner said in an interview. “The biggest development in Europe in the last few years has been growing support for sovereignty and self-determination. He continues to lecture Europe and European politicians about the right path forward. I think it’s a message that is stuck in a time warp.”
The lame-duck president, whose legacy initiatives are imperiled by an incoming Republican president and Republican-led Congress, said Americans will realize eventually how dangerous it is to foment discrimination based on race or religion. He said it’s a lesson that Europeans who favor breaking up the European Union should heed as well.
“My vision’s right on that issue,” Mr. Obama said. “It may not always win the day in the short term in any political circumstance, but I’m confident it will win the day over the long term.”
After eight years of denying that he pays attention to polls, Mr. Obama pointed to his job approval ratings (57 percent in Gallup) as proof that there was a “mismatch … between frustration and anger” among Mr. Trump’s voters. He speculated that voters simply felt a “need to shake things up.”
Mr. Obama also pushed a theme of “You’ll miss me when I’m gone,” predicting that voters in the U.S. and Britain will eventually realize that he was correct in his assessment of the political forces at work. He forecast that Mr. Trump’s supporters will grasp soon, probably before the Republican faces re-election, how good things have been during his administration.
“Time will now tell whether the prescriptions that are being offered, whether Brexit or with respect to the U.S. election, ends up actually satisfying those people who have been fearful or angry or concerned,” Mr. Obama said. “I think that’s going to be an interesting test, because I think I can make a pretty strong argument that the policies we put forward were the right ones, that we’ve grown faster than just about any advanced economy. The country is indisputably better off, and those folks who voted for the president-elect are better off than they were when I came into office, for the most part. But we’ll see whether those facts affect people’s calculations in the next election.”
He said he has pushed an agenda for economic equality over the past eight years but congressional Republicans have blocked him.
The president’s 52nd and final foreign trip was not supposed to become a postelection autopsy. It was planned before the election as part sightseeing tour — Mr. Obama had never been to Greece — and partly to offer a fond farewell in person to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Mr. Obama counts as his closest partner over his two terms.
Mr. Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton changed all that. Now Mr. Obama is traveling on a mission to reassure anxious European allies that Mr. Trump will keep the U.S. commitment to alliances such as NATO and will largely preserve the continuity of U.S. foreign policy.
Mr. Obama praised Greece as one of only five NATO members that spends the advised 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, despite its heavy debt burden and austerity measures.
Thousands of Greeks protested Mr. Obama’s visit. Riot police fired tear gas Tuesday night at demonstrators marching a few miles from the presidential mansion where Greek leaders were hosting a state banquet for Mr. Obama.
About 7,000 people, among them many hooded protesters and members of the communist-affiliated group PAME, marched through the streets of central Athens holding banners reading, “Unwanted!”
Police clashed with the protesters after they tried to break through cordon lines to reach the parliament building and the U.S. Embassy. Some demonstrators threw two gas bombs at police before dispersing into nearby streets close to Athens’ main Syntagma Square.
In a separate protest in the northern city of Thessaloniki, protesters burned a U.S. flag.
Mr. Obama was visiting two days before the anniversary of a bloody 1973 student revolt that helped topple a military junta that took power in 1967 with U.S. government support.
Before Mr. Obama left Washington on Monday, he conducted an hourlong press conference at the White House, hoping that questions about Mr. Trump’s election wouldn’t follow him overseas. They did.
A reporter for NBC News reminded Mr. Obama of an interview he conducted in January with “Today” show co-host Matt Lauer, who had asked the president if he felt responsible for creating the conditions for Mr. Trump’s candidacy. At the time, Mr. Obama replied, “Talk to me if he wins.”
The NBC reporter asked the president Tuesday if he felt responsible for Mr. Trump’s victory.
“I still don’t feel responsible for what the president-elect says or does,” Mr. Obama said. “But I do feel a responsibility as president of the United States to make sure that I facilitate a good transition and I present to him, as well as the American people, my best thinking, my best ideas about how you move the country forward.”
Mr. Obama warned that “we are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’”
“I will never apologize for saying that the future of humanity and the future of the world is going to be defined by what we have in common as opposed to those things that separate us and ultimately lead us into conflict,” he said. “Take Europe. We know what happens when Europeans start dividing themselves up and emphasizing their differences and seeing a competition between various countries in a zero-sum way. The 20th century was a bloodbath.”
Mr. Gardiner said Mr. Obama has no real understanding of the forces reshaping Europe.
“I think President Obama remains a figure of tremendous hubris who does not really understand the changes taking place across the world, and whose administration has been incredibly weak-kneed in terms of projection of American influence and power,” he said.
“For a president with such an embarrassing foreign policy record, President Obama’s been an extraordinarily self-confident figure. His record doesn’t match his arrogance,” he said.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.