President Barack Obama Warns Against 'Us and Them' Nationalism

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks at a press conference with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Athens, Greece, November 15. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Updated | Away from the confines of Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama has issued what could be interpreted as a warning about President-elect Donald Trump.

Speaking during an hour-long news conference in the Greek capital of Athens, Obama told reporters: "We are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an 'us' and a 'them.'"

His comments came two days after Trump appointed Stephen Bannon, the executive chairman of the far-right Breitbart News Network, as his chief White House strategist.

Under Bannon's leadership Breitbart has routinely published racist, sexist and anti-Semitic stories and was described by civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center as a "white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill," The New York Times reported.

Though Obama said his comments were "separate and apart from any particular election or movement," he stated that: "In the United States, we know what happens when we start dividing ourselves along lines of race or religion or ethnicity. We don't realize our potential as a country when we're preventing blacks or Latinos or Asians or gays or women from fully participating in the project of building American life."

The first U.S. president to visit Greece since Bill Clinton in 1999, Obama was in Athens to discuss the country's financial problems and the possibility of further debt relief from Europe, but he seemed preoccupied by events back home.

Obama tried to reassure the international community before his trip, promising Trump would honor the U.S.' international alliances, particularly with NATO. He refused, however, to comment on Bannon's appointment, which several members of Congress have criticized.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that Bannon's new role "is an alarming signal that President-elect Trump remains committed to the hateful and divisive vision that defined his campaign.

"There must be no sugarcoating the reality that a white nationalist has been named chief strategist for the Trump administration."

Speaking alongside Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Obama said that he remained committed to his record of inclusiveness, though "it may not always win the day in the short-term in any particular political circumstance."

Obama said that part of Trump's success was down to the public's "natural desires for change" after eight years of the same president.

He added that globalization, and the struggles faced by working people, had also led to a suspicion of elites and governing institutions, contributing to the rise of "populist movements" worldwide.

"Sometimes [that] gets wrapped up in issues of ethnic identity or religious identity or cultural identity and that can be a volatile mix," he said.

Obama also cited the U.K.'s decision to leave the EU as an example of many people feeling "less certain of their national identities and place in the world."

Obama will fly to the German capital of Berlin on Wednesday for a two-day meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel. He will then meet with the leaders of France, Spain and the U.K.

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly stated that Barack Obama appointed Stephen Bannon as his chief White House strategist. Donald Trump appointed Bannon to that position.