Joining Obama on stage was former Secretary of State James Baker. Much of the event focused on the importance of bipartisanship and how that had broken down in the years between Baker going to Washington and when Obama took office. The two agreed the changing media landscape played a big part.
“In 1981, your news cycle was still governed by the stories that were going to be filed by the AP, Washington Post, maybe New York Times, and the three broadcast stations,” Obama said. "Whether people got their news from Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley, they tended to agree on a common set of facts. That set a baseline around which both parties had to adapt and respond to."
“By the time I take office,” Obama said, “what you increasingly have is a media environment in which, if you are a Fox News viewer, you have an entirely different reality than if you are a New York Times reader.”
Obama noted other causes for that division, then he pointed to the costs. He said one of the biggest revelations to him when he took office was the degree to which the U.S. underwrites international order.
“If there’s a problem around the world, people do not call Moscow,” he said. “They do not call Beijing. They call Washington. Even our adversaries expect us to solve problems and expect us to keep things running.”
And here he took a swipe at the current administration. Without naming President Trump, Obama talked about the costs of “dysfunction” in Washington, making it difficult to make decisions, and the undermining of career civil servants particularly in the State Department.
“That doesn’t just weaken our influence. It provides opportunities for disorder to start ramping up all around the world and ultimately makes us less safe and makes us less prosperous,” Obama said.
That led the evening’s moderator, historian Jon Meacham, to pivot the discussion to how U.S. foreign policy has shifted under the current administration. Secretary Baker blasted Trump’s attacks on the alliances and institutions that helped the U.S. win the Cold War.
“This president is right in one respect for sure,” Baker said. “NATO needs to, our European allies need to pay their way, what they’ve agreed to pay, and we shouldn’t be required forever to pick up the tab on that. But these institutions make America stronger, and we ought not to be running them down.” Those included not only military alliances but also economic institutions.
Obama echoed the point. But he noted that supporters of that global model, himself included, became “a little too comfortable.”
“We did not adapt quickly enough to the fact that there were people being left behind,” he said.
Others had, and the results started playing out during Obama’s tenure, shaping the outcome of the 2016 election, and driving policy ever since. “You start getting politics that based on, ‘That person’s not like me, and it must be their fault.’ And you start getting a politics based on a nationalism that’s not pride in country but hatred for somebody on the other side of the border,” he said.
Toward the end of the evening, Obama reflected on his time in the Oval Office, saying he and his predecessors shared a reverence for the office independent of themselves. He declined to mention his successor.