President Obama inserted himself deeply into the election season from this remote locale on Monday, blasting the political rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates and what he called a culture of "outrageous attacks" tolerated by the GOP.
He singled out the weekend charge from White House hopeful and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who said that through the proposed international nuclear deal with Iran, Obama "will take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven." The president called Huckabee's stark comparison to the Holocaust "part of a general pattern that would be considered ridiculous if it weren't so sad.
"We've had a sitting senator call John Kerry 'Pontius Pilate.' We've had a sitting senator who also happens to be running for president suggest that I'm the leading state sponsor of terrorism," Obama said, referring to Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ted Cruz of Texas, respectively. "These are leaders in the Republican Party."
Obama has remained tight-lipped about the back-and-forth within the Republican presidential field until now, but the question about Huckabee during a news conference here unleashed a flood of sentiment that made clear he has been closely following this early stage of next year's election.
With his indictment of candidates and party leaders in the middle of his five-day trip to Africa, he waded into the campaign conversation and suggested that he is doing so out of concern about who will succeed him.
Republican leaders are "shocked," Obama said, when tycoon Donald Trump, who's leading the GOP field in polls, questions the heroism of Republican Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "Yet that arises out of a culture where those kinds of outrageous attacks have become far too commonplace and get circulated nonstop through the Internet and talk radio and news outlets," the president said.
But, the president said, when he is attacked, the people who were outraged on McCain's behalf "are pretty quiet."
Huckabee may have simply been trying to push Trump out of the headlines, Obama said, adding that that doesn't reflect positively on his leadership.
The rumination was part of an Obama pattern of late. He has shown more comfort in speaking frankly, whether it be reflections on his own performance in office, or the controversy surrounding Bill Cosby as dozens of women have come forward with rape accusations.
Just a week ago, at a news conference to discuss the Iran deal, Obama flatly refused to respond to a question about Trump. The uptick in rhetoric from the crowded Republican field of 16 candidates, who have in recent days sought to draw attention through viral videos and other stunts, perhaps prompted a change of heart.
Huckabee seized on Obama's comments, replying in a statement from his campaign that Obama underestimates Iran.
"What's 'ridiculous and sad' is that President Obama does not take Iran's repeated threats seriously," Huckabee said.
Personal attacks don't help voters, Obama said at the news conference.
Part of what has made America great, he said, is a "recognition that these issues are too serious, that issues of war and peace are of such grave concern and consequence ... that we don't play fast and loose that way. ... We have robust debates ... but we just don't fling out ad hominem attacks that way, because it doesn't help inform the American people."
In 18 months, he said, "I'm turning over the keys," and would like to "make sure I'm turning over the keys to somebody who is serious."
"That requires on both sides, Democratic and Republican, a sense of seriousness and decorum and honesty."
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