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Opinion

Opinion: Obama leaves Athens without a lasting message

Outgoing US President Barack Obama spoke of debt relief for Greece, made a plea for democracy and recited a few quotes in Greek. It wasn't enough to inspire, writes DW's Max Hoffman.

In his second term, the outgoing US president has grown fond of fundamental considerations. Now, at press conferences, his responses are long and philosophical. His speech in Athens, perhaps the last he will make as US president on European soil, fit the pattern perfectly. All in all, it was about democracy and his steadfast belief in the democratic political order. The problem is that its present form is doomed to failure, as some of its most important traits, achievements and outgrowths are now attacking their own foundations.

1.   Free Press

Almost like a schoolteacher, Barack Obama explained to his audience why free press is so important for democracy. He told them that the press exposes wrongdoing and makes politicians accountable - basically, he explained what the fourth estate does.

The problem in today's media landscape is that opinion sites, like "Breitbart", for example, acting under the guise of free press, no longer serve this purpose. Actually, the opposite holds true: They are contributing to the fall of democracy, as they do not foster the formation of democratic opinions, but instead, torpedo democracy with falsehoods and agitation.

Now, more than ever, free press must follow the principles of quality journalism (balance, maintaining objectivity, truth, and the separation of facts and fiction). If social media outlets like Facebook, where Breitbart and others are active, do not actively pursue these principles, then the democratic state must force them to. Is this Obama's way of dealing with digital demons? Wrong!

2.   Globalization

The US president briefly outlined one of the greatest problems of our times: Many people have the feeling that only "those in high positions" benefit from globalization. Just recently, this tendency was strikingly clear when the Belgian state of Wallonia protested against the European-Canadian free trade agreement CETA. Obama suggests that "people have to know that they're being heard." With all due respect, collective psychotherapy won't get us anywhere.

We are at the beginning of a new era. In the coming years, millions of people worldwide will lose their jobs because of digitalization, automation and artificial intelligence. Globalization will intensify this development. People are afraid and react by taking to nationalism. What is really needed now is a discussion about a new social order: How do we ensure that human beings remain at the heart of developments, even if they can no longer compete with robots? How will people make a living, if it is not a given that they can support themselves simply because there are not enough jobs to go around? A few more thoughts on the president's part would have been very welcome.

3.   It'll be OK with Trump

That is not what Obama actually said but it was his message. "American democracy is better than one person," he said. He also told his audience, "There is no weakening of resolve when it comes to maintaining a strong and robust NATO relationship."

The problem is that Obama does not speak for Trump, who is not at all interested in providing reassurance. The outgoing president missed the opportunity to give Europeans a kick in the behind. It's all well and good that Obama continues to view European integration as one of the greatest "achievements of human history," but at the moment, this achievement is on the path to self-destruction. The message could have been, for example, "Do something Europe! Believe in your strength; invest in your own security." He would not have contradicted his successor, who will probably not hesitate to make such demands.

Ultimately, like almost all politicians in the West, Barack Obama has failed to explain the advantages of our current democratic order in a simple and comprehensible manner. For many people, the world with its multinational organizations, unclear free trade treaties and unstoppable digital development has become too complex. People withdraw back into their comfort zones and listen to simple populist explanations about the world. Obama did not manage to counter this development, or offer a lasting message in his last major European appearance.

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