MSNBC’s Russert Offers ‘Kudos’ to NPR’s Inskeep for Teeing Up Obama to Blast GOP as Racist

Talking to NPR’s Steve Inskeep on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports, fill-in anchor Luke Russert congratulated the Morning Edition host for teeing up the President to slam Republican critics as racist in a recent interview. A clip played of Inskeep asking the President: “Do you feel over seven years that you’ve come to understand why it is that some ordinary people in America believe or fear that you are trying to change the country in some way that they cannot accept?”

Obama replied: “Well, look, if what you're asking me, Steve, is are there certain circumstances around being the first African-American president that might not have confronted a previous president, absolutely. If you’re referring to specific strains in the Republican Party that suggest that somehow I'm different, I'm Muslim, I'm disloyal to the country, that's probably pretty specific to me, and who I am and my background...”

Russert praised: “Well, kudos to you for getting President Obama to speak about this, because he's been hesitant to do so in the past, Steve, to the level that he did in your interview. Fascinating. Opening up the idea that yes, he is treated differently...”

Inskeep helped read between the lines of Obama’s response:

He spoke very carefully, of course, even in this circumstance. He was fairly frank. But he never says in this conversation, “I believe that many of my opponents are racist.” He never says anything that direct. And the President has said previously he tries to avoid that kind of language. But you hear him speaking there about quote, “my unique demographic.” There's no doubt what he is saying there. He’s saying that the situation is different because of his race.

On foreign policy, Russert pointed out that the President was “Ostensibly putting blame on the media that perhaps the focus was not necessarily on the entirety of the campaign against ISIS but more specific on certain incidents...” Inskeep acknowledged: “Well, first, this is a classic politician's thing to say, isn't it?...That to us from the outside can seem a little disingenuous, can seem a little bit cynical.”

However, he then offered excuses for Obama:

But in defense of the President, he is talking about a situation where really, the media game is everything. This is a battle of perceptions. It's a battle of propaganda....The media broadly have pushed this story in a huge way, which is fair enough to say, the President would argue that we’ve even blown it up beyond the proportions that it should be, and then he’s acknowledging that he just hasn't been there in the way that he ought to be to make sure that the public is reassured. So that’s what he’s trying to do. You can criticize it as side-stepping the flaws in his policy, but really a big part of the policy in a war like this is the propaganda and is the public image.         

Russert observed that the President seemed “unaware that the fear is more not that ISIS is going to invade the United States and take over and raise their flag over the White House, but more so that, ‘I'm worried about my safety by simply going to the grocery store or simply going to a work party like we saw in San Bernardino.’”

Inskeep explained that away as well:

I think the President didn't quite go to what I'm going to say, but people who are familiar with his thinking suspect that he might even go to that point, to point out that yes, San Bernardino was terrible, but many terrible things happen in the United States. The President defended a Justice Department official who a couple of months ago noted that more people have been killed by domestic terrorists in the last few years than by international terrorists. So he's tried to keep that in perspective.

Wrapping up the discussion, Russert gushed over the softball presidential sit-down: “Wonderful interview. You cut through so much of what I call the echo chamber and the “Rah, rah, rah!” we often see in those types of features. Great job.”

Here is a transcript of the December 21 exchange:

12:17 PM ET

LUKE RUSSERT: President Obama is in Hawaii taking some time off with his family for the holidays, but before leaving the White House on Friday, he sat down with NPR's Steve Inskeep for a wide-ranging interview. First topic, the battle against ISIS. He discussed both the criticism of his administration's approach and his take on the media's reporting of it.

BARACK OBAMA: I think that there is a legitimate criticism of what I’ve been doing and our administration's been doing in the sense that we haven't, you know, on a regular basis, I think, described all the work that we've been doing for more than a year now to defeat ISIL. And so, if people haven't seen the fact that in fact, 9,000 strikes have been carried out against ISIL, if they don't know that towns like Sinjar, that were controlled by ISIL, have been taken back or that a town like Tikrit, that was controlled by ISIL, now has been repopulated by previous residents, then they might feel as if there's not enough of a response.

RUSSERT: And Steve Inskeep of NPR joins us now. Thanks so much for making the time.

STEVE INSKEEP: Oh, great to talk with you, Luke.

RUSSERT: So I found that answer to be quite fascinating from President Obama. Ostensibly putting blame on the media that perhaps the focus was not necessarily on the entirety of the campaign against ISIS but more specific on certain incidents, also saying that his administration should do a better job of pushing it forward. But he's facing some backlash from that answer he gave to you, some columnists even saying, “Look, he has the bully pulpit, he's the president, it's up to him to do that.” Give me your analysis of his answer there.

INSKEEP: Well, first, this is a classic politician's thing to say, isn't it? “My – whatever I'm doing,  my policy is great, my policy is right, and the reason it's unpopular is because we haven't explained it well enough yet.” That to us from the outside can seem a little disingenuous, can seem a little bit cynical. But in defense of the President, he is talking about a situation where really, the media game is everything. This is a battle of perceptions. It's a battle of propaganda. And in our long discussion, the President was saying ISIS has been very effective in its use of propaganda, has been very effective in its use of the media.

The media broadly have pushed this story in a huge way, which is fair enough to say, the President would argue that we’ve even blown it up beyond the proportions that it should be, and then he’s acknowledging that he just hasn't been there in the way that he ought to be to make sure that the public is reassured. So that’s what he’s trying to do. You can criticize it as side-stepping the flaws in his policy, but really a big part of the policy in a war like this is the propaganda and is the public image.

RUSSERT: Indeed. It also struck me that he spoke of the struggle in larger terms, and this idea that ISIS could never take down the United States, does not have the power to do that, but by framing it in that context, he almost to some degree showcases that he's unaware that the fear is more not that ISIS is going to invade the United States and take over and raise their flag over the White House, but more so that, “I'm worried about my safety by simply going to the grocery store or simply going to a work party like we saw in San Bernardino.”

INSKEEP: Yeah. I think the President didn't quite go to what I'm going to say, but people who are familiar with his thinking suspect that he might even go to that point, to point out that yes, San Bernardino was terrible, but many terrible things happen in the United States. The President defended a Justice Department official who a couple of months ago noted that more people have been killed by domestic terrorists in the last few years than by international terrorists. So he's tried to keep that in perspective.

But this is really hard for any president to do. You remember President George W. Bush after 9/11 saying, “Yes, this is a scary time, but Americans should go about their daily lives. You should go out, you should shop, you shouldn't be afraid to go to the shopping mall. And he was criticized and derided for that.

In our interview with President Obama we talked about the Cold War, when President Dwight Eisenhower was trying to reassure Americans, “Yes, the Soviet Union is scary, but we have the advantage here, keep your chin up,” and he was derided for a failure in leadership and for being out of touch. So what's happening to the President now has happened to past presidents and it's because it's a very complicated message. He is essentially saying, “Be afraid, but don't be too afraid.”

RUSSERT: I like how you frame that historically. Very prudent. Another issue that does have historical similarity, and that is Donald Trump's rise and essentially using the fear of a portion of the electorate and the popularity of populism in this day and age. President Obama had some very interesting perspectives to give on that. I want to play what he said.

OBAMA: Particularly blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy where they’re no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck. You combine those things and it means that there's going to be potential anger, frustration, fear. Some of it justified, but just misdirected. And I think somebody like Mr. Trump's taking advantage of that. That's what he's exploiting during the course of his campaign.

INSKEEP: Do you feel over seven years that you’ve come to understand why it is that some ordinary people in America believe or fear that you are trying to change the country in some way that they cannot accept?

OBAMA: Well, look, if what you're asking me, Steve, is are there certain circumstances around being the first African-American president that might not have confronted a previous president, absolutely. If you’re referring to specific strains in the Republican Party that suggest that somehow I'm different, I'm Muslim, I'm disloyal to the country, that's probably pretty specific to me, and who I am and my background, and that in some ways I may represent change that worries them.

RUSSERT: Well, kudos to you for getting President Obama to speak about this, because he's been hesitant to do so in the past, Steve, to the level that he did in your interview. Fascinating. Opening up the idea that yes, he is treated differently, something that we’ve long heard from the White House, but never, I think, in succinct terms as directly from President Obama as he did in that interview, but also saying this is directly what is leading to Donald Trump's popularity to some degree.

INSKEEP: Yeah. He spoke very carefully, of course, even in this circumstance. He was fairly frank. But he never says in this conversation, “I believe that many of my opponents are racist.” He never says anything that direct. And the President has said previously he tries to avoid that kind of language. But you hear him speaking there about quote, “my unique demographic.” There's no doubt what he is saying there. He’s saying that the situation is different because of his race. In this time of tremendous change in the country and demographic change in the country, for some people, President Obama represents that change which many people are worried about. And then of course, he made that news in the middle there by arguing that Donald Trump is exploiting that anxiety, particularly among blue-collar men, something he hadn't said before.

RUSSERT: Lastly, we don't have time to play the entirety of it, but I found it to be such an interesting answer. You asked him about the college protests that have been going on around the country, a lot of them pertaining to Black Lives Matter. President Obama says in his response to you it's a healthy thing for young people to talk about what's going on and to stand up to authority, but also that he's worried that they’re perhaps not listening to other points of view and that's a problem. Expand on that a little bit and what he said to you.

INSKEEP: Yeah. He said this is a problem on his side, on the left, as much as the right, he said. When people shut down other points of view. He wants people to argue with those with whom they disagree but not shut them off. He gave the specific example of Affirmative Action. President Obama's in favor of Affirmative Action, other people may not be. You should not assume that people are just racist, he was saying, because they argue against Affirmative Action. Let them state their case and argue against them if you don't believe it. I think it's something that may surprise some people that he would take that point of view.

RUSSERT: Steve Inskeep of NPR, thank you so much for your time. Wonderful interview. You cut through so much of what I call the echo chamber and the “Rah, rah, rah!” we often see in those types of features. Great job. Take care. Appreciate it.

INSKEEP: Well, thanks, Luke. It’s always an honor to be here.

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