Susan Walsh/AP

Yes, President Obama Is Going to Watch the Debate

Presidents often like to say they're ignoring the polls and the elections to succeed them. Don't believe it.

The White House wants you to know that Pres­id­ent Obama is not watch­ing every step taken by those who want his job.

“He feels like he’s got bet­ter things to do,” ex­plained press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est when asked why the pres­id­ent didn’t watch the early GOP can­did­ate de­bates. While Earn­est on Tues­day grudgingly ac­know­ledged that Obama might watch “parts” of the first Demo­crat­ic de­bate, he said the com­pet­i­tion from “some pretty good play­off base­ball” is just too much to keep the pres­id­ent riv­eted on the de­bate stage.

Don’t be­lieve it. In­cum­bent dis­in­terest in polit­ics is one of those fibs every White House tells, right up there with the as­ser­tions that the pres­id­ent doesn’t fol­low his own poll num­bers and doesn’t really think about his leg­acy.

The truth is that this pres­id­ent—like all pres­id­ents—is a politi­cian and a com­pet­it­or. He is in­tensely proud of his re­cord in of­fice, doesn’t deny that he’d be temp­ted to stick around longer if not barred by the Con­sti­tu­tion, and is peeved by the cri­ti­cism be­ing tossed around by the Re­pub­lic­an wan­nabes. That much was clear from his week­end fun­drais­ing trip to the West Coast and his in­ter­view aired Sunday on 60 Minutes.

He knows that he can’t count on the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates to de­fend his re­cord. He un­der­stands they can’t be seen as run­ning for his third term. So he has star­ted us­ing his speeches and in­ter­views to mount his own de­fense and at­tack the Re­pub­lic­ans who cast him as a fail­ure. On Fri­day and Sat­urday, in four speeches in Seattle, San Fran­cisco, and Los Angeles, he let Re­pub­lic­ans have it as grumpy, de­press­ing, pess­im­ist­ic, short-sighted can­did­ates who want to take the county back­wards.

“What we see most prom­in­ently in the pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns … is that polit­ics of fear be­ing fanned and ex­pand­ing,” he said in Los Angeles. “And it can ex­press it­self in anti-im­mig­ra­tion rhet­or­ic. It can ex­press it­self in hunk­er­ing back on the need to take care of folks who are vul­ner­able, or to provide more op­por­tun­ity for people who’ve been locked out of the Amer­ic­an Dream. It can ex­press it­self in sort of cheap jin­go­ism and mil­it­ar­ism and na­tion­al­ism that’s not groun­ded in our na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests. But it’s a dan­ger­ous path.”

In Seattle, he drew laughter when he mocked the Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates. “Why are all these Re­pub­lic­an politi­cians so down on Amer­ica? I mean, I know it’s polit­ic­al sea­son, but listen­ing to them is really de­press­ing.”

He ad­ded, “It kind of doesn’t match up with the truth. In the real­ity they cre­ate, everything was ter­rif­ic in 2008—in the middle of the worst re­ces­sion in our life­times. Un­em­ploy­ment, un­in­sured rates go­ing up; we were in two wars, hope­lessly ad­dicted to for­eign oil, bin Laden still at large. To hear them tell it, those were the good old days.” He ac­cused the can­did­ates of “spend­ing all their time try­ing to scare people and try­ing to tap in­to fear, par­tic­u­larly fear of oth­er people.”

In San Fran­cisco, he urged people to “listen to them a little bit just to hear what they’re say­ing.” He cred­ited them with great “chutzpah” for their at­tacks on him, adding, “The fact-check­ers can’t even keep up.”

His cri­ti­cism is more spe­cif­ic when it comes to na­tion­al se­cur­ity policies es­poused by the Re­pub­lic­an con­tenders. In little-no­ticed re­marks dur­ing a White House meet­ing closed to the press on Sept. 10, the pres­id­ent said if he took the ad­vice of Re­pub­lic­ans “we’d be in, like, sev­en wars right now.” The re­marks to a small group of vet­er­ans and Gold Star moth­ers of Amer­ic­an troops killed over­seas were un­covered by Olivi­er Knox of Ya­hoo News, who found a video of the pres­id­ent’s present­a­tion. In the video, Obama said, “I’m not ex­ag­ger­at­ing. I’ve been count­ing. We’d be in mil­it­ary ac­tions in sev­en places around the world.” The pres­id­ent did not spe­cify the sev­en places. The vari­ous Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates have at dif­fer­ent points called for a stronger U.S. mil­it­ary re­sponse in Ir­an, Ir­aq, Afgh­anistan, Ukraine, Syr­ia, Ye­men, and the South China Sea.

In his 60 Minutes in­ter­view, the pres­id­ent re­buffed ef­forts to han­di­cap Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign bey­ond call­ing him “a great pub­li­city seeker” who he doesn’t think will ever be pres­id­ent. Bey­ond that, Obama de­murred, stat­ing, “I’ll leave it up to the pun­dits.”

He also danced a little bit around re­port­er Steve Kroft’s ques­tion on his feel­ings about be­ing barred from run­ning for an­oth­er term. “I think it’s bit­ter­sweet,” he said. “On the one hand, I am very proud of what we’ve ac­com­plished and it makes me think, I’d love to do some more. But by the time I’m fin­ished, I think it will be time for me to go.”