Obama defends role of media in final press conference

Outgoing US president calls on journalists to ‘push those in power to be their best selves’

US president Barack Obama used his final press conference to defend the role of a free press in a democracy and some of his last decisions, including commuting the sentence of Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

In a thinly veiled swipe at his successor Donald Trump and the president-elect's bitter relationship with the press, the 44th president said the press needs to "push those in power to be their best selves."

“You’re not supposed to be sycophants, you’re supposed to be sceptics, you’re supposed to ask me tough questions,” Mr Obama told reporters two days before he leaves office with Mr Trump’s inauguration.

The news conference was the final time that the outgoing president will speak in public before he travels with Mr Trump to the US Capitol where the billionaire property mogul will be sworn in as president.

Mr Obama justified his decision to reduce the 35-year sentence of Ms Manning, the US army soldier convicted of leaking large volumes of classified information to the anti-secrecy organisation Wikileaks, saying that the more than six years the 29-year-old had spent in prison was sufficient punishment.

In the face of criticism from Republicans and Democrats that the move would encourage more leaks, Mr Obama defended his action, saying that Ms Manning’s sentence was “disproportionate” to those faced by other whistleblowers and that it “made sense to commute and not pardon her sentencing”.

‘Message sent’

He felt “very comfortable” that justice has been served and that “a message has still been sent.”

“Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence,” he said.

In a wide-ranging press conference, Mr Obama reflected on the advances made in US society during his time in office, the unfinished business of his presidency and his future plans.

He warned about the dangers from the unrest in the Middle East and the risks accompanying major policy changes.

“If you’re going to make big shifts in policy, just make sure you’ve thought it through,” he said.

Mr Obama warned that the "moment may be passing" for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said that he continued to worry that the "status quo is unsustainable" in Israel.

Last month, his administration refused to veto a UN security council resolution to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the East Jerusalem - a move condemned by Mr Trump.

On advice he has given to his successor, Mr Obama said he encouraged him to “put a team to make sure that they are getting you the best information” and that he hears not just from people he agrees with.

“This is a job of such magnitude that you can’t do it by yourself,” he told the property tycoon.

Mr Obama said that after leaving office he plans to write and spend time with his wife and two daughters.

“I want to be quiet a little bit and not hear myself talk so darn much,” he said.

Presidential election

Reflecting personally on the November presidential election, he recalled how his daughters, Malia and Sasha, were disappointed but resilient after Mr Trump’s election victory.

“We’ve tried to teach them hope,” said Mr Obama. “The only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.”

It was a theme he closed his final press conference on, striking an upbeat note about the future.

“This is not just a matter of no-drama Obama. It is true that behind closed doors I curse more than I do publicly. And sometimes I get mad and frustrated like everyone else does,” he said.

“But at my core, I think we’re going to be okay.”