Russia President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a warning that world democracy has gotten “flabby and confused and feckless” at a time of growing boldness and misguided support for authoritarianism, former President Barack Obama told a Chicago audience Wednesday.
“Putin represented a very particular reaction to the ideals of democracy but also globalization, the collision of cultures, the ability to harness anger and resentment around an ethno-nationalist mythology,” Obama said.
“What we’re seeing is the consequences of that kind of toxic mix in the hands of an autocratic government that doesn’t have a lot of checks and balances,” he said.
Obama appeared in his adopted hometown at a seminar titled “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy,” hosted by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics and The Atlantic.
Obama said Putin’s authoritarian control of news in Russia, especially in light of Ukraine’s resistance, was another example of the increased proliferation of disinformation on a worldwide basis.
“This speaks to a much more bumpy, difficult, violent, challenging future for the coming generation if we don’t get some things right — here at home, in Europe, in Asia and Latin America because what’s happening there is not isolated,” the former president said.
“What we’re seeing is a reversion back to the old ways of thinking about power, place and identity,” he said, citing a complacency among democracies that began after the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall that led to the end of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine “is a bracing reminder for democracies that had gotten flabby and confused and feckless around the stakes of things that we tended to take for granted in our democracy: rule of law, freedom of press and conscience,” he said. “We have gotten complacent and I think I cannot guarantee that as a consequence of what’s happened, we are shaking off that complacency.”
Obama said he was not sure the Putin he knew as president “is the same as the person who is now leading the charge, though “he was always ruthless.” But he said he believed the Ukraine response was “more remarkable and less predictable” that Putin had expected.
“I also think the thing he did not fully anticipate is that the degree to which the nature of war has changed, where everybody is seeing exactly what is happening on a real-time basis,” he said.
As for the future of the conflict, Obama said he believed it was “too early to tell what an endgame looks like.”
“I would not only try not to predict what’s in the mind of Putin, but how the Ukrainians perceive of this struggle, because we are sitting her comfortably and they are going through heck,” he said.
In speaking with Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, Obama said he “underestimated the degree” in which democracies were vulnerable to disinformation.
Noting how easily available unfiltered information is in the United States, Obama noted “roughly 40% of the country appears convinced that the current president was elected fraudulently” and a similar percentage disavowed the value of vaccines to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If that’s true in our society, imagine how any of us would process information if we are not getting, seeing, anything else?” Obama asked rhetorically. “It is difficult for me to see how we can win the contest of ideas if, in fact, we are not able to agree on a baseline of facts that allow the marketplace of ideas to work.”
Obama said it was important to restore democracy at home to prevent Putin and authoritarians from trying to take advantage.
“For all the times we didn’t live up to our ideals, for all the times we’ve made mistakes on the international stage or been hypocritical in terms of how we apply our faith and democracy, if we get democracy right, democracy is stronger around the globe,” he said. “And when we don’t get it right or look like we don’t care about it, others fill that gap.”
Obama also bemoaned the current state of journalism, noting a decline in local media while tech companies and social media have “exacerbated making democracy more difficult” through a product design that monetizes itself by exploiting divisions.
It was the second time in two months that Obama appeared publicly in Chicago, the site of his future presidential library, following an appearance at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs.
His latest Chicago appearance also marked another step in what Democrats hope is increased public visibility and activism leading up to the midterm elections in November, with Democrats facing headwinds in keeping control of the U.S. House and Senate amid President Joe Biden’s sagging approval ratings.
A day earlier, Obama made his first visit to the White House since Republican Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration in 2020. He joined Biden, who was his vice president, in commemorating the 12th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Biden announced an expansion of health care coverage under the act.
In speaking of its passage and Republican attempts to repeal the healthcare law, Obama said he believed debates over the act had been clouded by misinformation and that the Affordable Care Act has become more popular as millions of people obtained healthcare coverage.
Obama acknowledged criticism over his proclamation that people would be able to keep their doctor under the plan — even though that was not always the case. But he denied it was misinformation, saying that under Obamacare, “systemically we are not forcing you out of existing employer-based health care.”
“I believe to this day what I said was accurate,” he said.