Witcover: Obama's disappointing swan song

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

As President Obama enters his final month in the Oval Office, he does so licking his wounds, not only over the defeat of his Democratic Party and the candidate he campaigned diligently for, but also for the besmirching of his legacy.

The 11th-hour disclosure that Russian hacking played a role in Hillary Clinton's loss, and Mr. Obama's passive response to the outrage -- he said only he would take some unspecified action against it -- left him looking weak and indecisive as he heads out the door.


His lame report in his final White House press conference, that in a confrontation with Vladimir Putin he told the Kremlin strongman to "cut it out," came off ludicrously like a whine to a schoolyard bullyboy.

Mr. Obama defended that reply, made during the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, on grounds he didn't want to fuel more questions about the interference with the American political process and the legitimacy of the result.


It took him an inordinate time to say he agreed with the declared judgments of his prime intelligence agencies, the CIA and FBI, that high Russian government officials and agents were directly involved. He settled by saying that "not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin."

Many Democrats and some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, have expressed dismay that the outgoing president didn't speak out when he first was apprised of the Russian hacking and subsequent leaks.

His order to the full intelligence community to produce for a comprehensive report on the whole hacking affair before he leaves office on Jan. 20, while critical and warranted, may be widely seen as too little and too late. The House and Senate intelligence and national security committees have already said they will be doing their own investigations.

Prior to the defeat of Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama had some basis to believe that he would be able to leave the presidency claiming some lasting accomplishments, starting with pulling the country out of the Great Recession, cutting the national unemployment rate in half and adding more than 15 million new jobs.

Despite his Affordable Care Act's disastrous start and rising premium rates, "Obamacare" was beginning to settle in as part of the old New Deal health-care safety net, until the Trump election revived the previously moribund Republican crusade to "repeal and replace" it.

Despite the damaging publicity during the 2016 campaign, Mr. Obama was able in his final press conference to point to 670,000 new enrollments, a record for a single day. Yet the Democratic minorities in both houses of Congress will be facing a bitter partisan fight to save his signal health-care initiative next year.

As the nation's first black president, Mr. Obama won the Oval Office in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012 with resounding support from African-American voters. In the 2016 campaign on behalf of his first secretary of state, Mr. Obama urged black voters to defend his legacy, saying he would consider a Democratic loss a personal repudiation. But to no avail, the black turnout for Hillary Clinton fell far short of what he had garnered in those two previous elections.

The retiring president sought to accentuate the positive in his last major exchange with the White House reporters, saying, "By so many measures, our country is stronger and more prosperous than it was when we started."


But a certain melancholy hung over the occasion, particularly regarding the continuing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, which he had hoped to end or tamp down as a centerpiece of his presidential tenure.

Citing "places around the world where horrible things are happening," he said "because of my office, and because I'm president of the United States, I feel responsible. I ask myself every single day, 'Is there something I could do that that would save lives and make a difference and spare some child who doesn't deserve to suffer?' "

It was a lament that will long hang over this originally optimistic man as he reflects on what went wrong for him over the last eight years in the face of the realities of an imperfect world.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is