President Obama has acknowledged a "bumpy phase" in politics — but he said a majority of Americans are comfortable with the pace of globalization, and he also said it's up to leaders to give people a sense of control and confidence about the future.
The president spoke during a joint news conference with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, in Obama's sixth and final presidential visit to Germany — the country where he seized international stature back in 2008, when the then-senator addressed a massive crowd during a campaign visit to Berlin.
On Thursday, both Obama and Merkel spoke of the importance of uniting their populations — and the challenges they've run into, from nationalist sentiments to the effects of social media. Obama also spoke about his successor, President-elect Donald Trump, and pointed to his own approval ratings as a sign that Americans aren't as dissatisfied with the results of globalism in the U.S. as it may seem.
"Based on current surveys of public opinion in the United States, it turns out that the majority of Americans think I've done a pretty good job" in looking after the U.S. economy in a time of intense global shifts. Those surveys, Obama said, show that "we haven't in fact gone too fast," as a reporter had suggested in a question about the pace of globalization and change.
Obama also acknowledged that economic and social shifts of recent years have made some uneasy. The president said:
"But what is also true is that the American people, just like the German people, just like the British and people around the world, are seeing extraordinarily rapid change. The world is shrinking, economies have become much more integrated, and demographics are shifting. Because of the Internet and communications, the clash of cultures is much more direct. People feel, I think, less certain about their identity, less certain about economic security. They're looking for some means of control."
It's up to national leaders, Obama said, to manage changes in technology and society along with global integration "in a way that makes people feel more control, that gives them more confidence in their future — but does not resort to simplistic answers or divisions of race or tribe or crude nationalism, which I think can be contrasted to the pride and patriotism that we all feel about our respective countries."
Worldwide, Obama predicted, "our politics everywhere are going to be going through this bumpy phase."
Leaders, he said, must now maintain core values and reach out to everyone who's been left behind by globalization, to "address their concerns in constructive ways, as opposed to more destructive ways."
Obama also singled out social media, saying that the ubiquity and nature of the platforms means that "it's easier to make negative attacks and simplistic slogans than it is to communicate complex policies. But we'll figure it out."
Answering a question about the rhetoric used by Trump and the current U.S. political scene, the president presented what came off as a diagnosis of the problems facing democracy in America — something that he repeatedly called "hard work":
"In the United States, if 43 percent of eligible voters do not vote, then democracy is weakened. If we are not serious about facts and what's true and what's not — and particularly in an age of social media where so many people are getting their information in soundbites and snippets off their phones — if we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems. If people, whether they are conservative or liberal, left or right, are unwilling to compromise and engage in the democratic process, and are taking absolutist views and demonizing opponents, then democracy will break down."
Merkel echoed many of those ideas and expanded on others, saying, "I think we live in a period of profound transformation, very similar to when we had a transition from agricultural societies to industrial societies."
Using the relocation of long-standing production lines to other countries, Merkel said, "people tend to ask the question, 'Where's my place in this modern world?'"
The sentiment exists both in Germany and beyond — and it's up to world leaders to answer the question, she said.
It's a high priority, Merkel said:
"Trying to keep a society together, trying to keep the older and the younger people together; trying to keep those who live in rural areas together with those who live in cities is one of the most important and most noble tasks of politicians these days — trying to see to it that each and every one can find his or her place.
"But those that belong purportedly to certain groups say, 'We are the people, and not the others' — that is something that we cannot allow to happen."
The news conference also focused on Russia — including a question about whether Trump would support sanctions on Russia.
Asked about how Trump might work with Russia, Obama said he hopes that Trump "takes a similarly constructive approach" in finding where U.S. and Russian interests align, but also that "the president-elect also is willing to stand up to Russia where they are deviating from our values and international norms."
Obama added, "My hope is that he does not simply take a realpolitik approach, and suggest that if we just cut some deals with Russia, even if it hurts people or even if it violates international norms or even if it leaves smaller countries vulnerable or creates long-term problems in regions like Syria, that we just do whatever's convenient at the time."
The president added that he's encouraged by Trump's statements that acknowledge the importance of maintaining stable ties to America's NATO allies.
Of Russia, Obama said:
"I've sought a constructive relationship with Russia, but what I have also been is realistic in recognizing that there are some significant differences in how Russia views the world and how we view the world. The values that we talked about (here he gestured toward Merkel), the values of democracy and free speech, and international norms, and rule of law — respecting the ability of other countries to determine their own destiny and preserve their sovereignty and territorial integrity — those things are not something that we can set aside."
Obama also called out Russia's involvement in hacking attacks, saying "there has been very clear proof that they have engaged in cyber attacks." He added, "This isn't new; it's not unique to Russia; there are a number of other states where we've seen low-level cyber attacks and industrial espionage and other behavior that we think should be out of bounds."
Recalling his discussion about the issue with President Vladimir Putin , Obama said, "I delivered a clear and forceful message, that though we recognize Russia's intelligence gathering will sometimes take place even if we don't like it, there's a difference between that and them either meddling with elections or going after private organizations or commercial entities."
Saying that the U.S. will "respond appropriately" in such cases, Obama also called for the international community to develop standards and norms "so that we don't see a cyber arms race" as countries try to protect vulnerable infrastructure and economies.
Obama's current visit to Germany comes as a sort of bookend to his trip there as a candidate in 2008, when he addressed a crowd of thousands at Berlin's Victory Column.
In that 2008 speech, Obama discussed "global citizenship":
"Yes, there have been differences between America and Europe. No doubt, there will be differences in the future. But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden. In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more – not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity."