President Obama accused Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump in an interview aired Monday of "exploiting" anger and fear over economic insecurities among working class men to propel his presidential campaign.
In an interview with NPR, the president said that structural changes to the American economy through technology and the 2008 financial crisis have meant stagnant wages for some sectors, especially blue-collar workers.
Those workers are "no longer getting the same bargain of going to a factory and being able to support a family on a single paycheck," Obama told Steve Inskeep, in the interview that was recorded last week at the White House. "There's going to be the potential for anger, frustration, fear--some of it justified but just misdirected. I think somebody like Mr. Trump’s taking advantage of that. That’s what he’s been exploiting during the course of his campaign."
Obama has mostly refrained from weighing in directly on the 2016 campaign as he focuses on his policy agenda, but his aides have disparaged Trump. White House press secretary Josh Earnest called him a "carnival barker" whose proposal to ban all Muslims from immigrating into the United States disqualifies him from being president.
Obama's interview with NPR came as the president has struggled to calm public fears over terrorism in the wake of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. Asked about the public debate over whether to allow Muslim refugees from war-torn Syria into the country, Obama said the larger question of what kind of nation the United States wants to be "never went away."
"That's part of the American experience," Obama said. "Pick any decade and this question's been wrestled with. This has been true since the founding."
Later in the interview, Inskeep asked the president whether he believed he understood the anxieties of ordinary Americans who fear the direction he is attempting to steer the United States. Obama interpreted the question to be about whether racial fears of him as the nation's first African American president had produced unique opposition to his presidency, but Inskeep suggested he meant broader anxieties.
"If you what you are suggesting is is that, you know, somebody questioning whether I was born in the United States or not, how do I think about that," Obama said, "I would say that that's something that is actively promoted and may gain traction because of my unique demographic. I don't think that that's a big stretch."
Inskeep replied that the president had been criticized during his 2008 campaign after a recording of remarks he made at a private fundraiser, in which he said some working-class Americans were bitter and were "clinging to guns and religion," was made public.
Obama noted he was elected twice by sizable majorities, and added: "If you are referring to specific strains in the Republican Party that suggest that somehow I'm different, I'm Muslim, I'm disloyal to the country, etc., which unfortunately is pretty far out there and gets some traction in certain pockets of the Republican Party, and that have been articulated by some of their elected officials, what I'd say there is that 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."
Obama is in Hawaii for a two-week vacation with his family.