Sometimes a friend pops up where least expected, and that’s the role President Obama has chosen to play as he speaks in the most generous terms about President-elect Donald Trump despite all the discord he has sown at home and abroad.
As Obama embarks on his final foreign trip as president to Greece, Germany, and Peru, he said he is carrying a message from Trump that there is “enormous continuity” between the outgoing and incoming administrations, and there is “no weakening of resolve” for NATO and the Transatlantic Alliance.
“They’re not just good for Europe but good for the United States,” Obama said at a press conference Monday before leaving the country for a week. Maybe all this positive talk is wishful thinking on Obama’s part, or perhaps the president will be proven correct when he says, “This office has a way of waking you up… Reality has a way of inserting itself.”
The hour and a half Obama spent with Trump last week offered the two men a chance to size each other up, and Obama has been selectively sharing parts of their conversation to reassure Trump’s critics they should not despair, that the same political gifts that allowed Trump to pull off the biggest upset in modern times could be put to good use if he chooses well. The strong bond Trump established with the voters, “That’s powerful stuff,” Obama said.
Asked to comment on Trump’s selection of Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon as a top counselor in the White House, Obama begged off on the grounds that it would violate his pledge to work with Trump for a smooth transition if he commented on every appointment. “The people have spoken,” he said. “Donald Trump will be the next president, and it will be up to him to set up a team that he thinks will serve him well and reflect his policies.”
Given several opportunities by reporters to say something negative about Trump, the direction he might be going, or his temperament, Obama took the high road, urging that Trump be given “time and space” to figure out the team he wants and how to balance what he said in the campaign with the more complex reality that now confronts him.
“Campaigning is different from governing. I think he recognizes that and that he is sincere in wanting to be a good president. He’s going to try as best he can to make certain he delivers,” Obama said. “There are certain things that make for good sound bites but don’t always translate into good policies.” He said he told Trump that because of the bitter nature of the campaign, it’s important to send “signals of unity” to minorities, to women, to groups that opposed him.
The Constitution does not require an orderly transition, but it is one of those “norms” that Obama said he respects and intends to uphold. Aside from the message it sends the world about the peaceful transfer of power, Obama also has a vested interest in getting Trump’s ear as much as possible as the new president finds his footing on policies.
“With international agreements, the tradition has been you carry them forward across administrations,” Obama said, making his pitch for the Iran deal, the Paris climate agreement, and the EPA’s Clean Power Plant initiative, which undergirds the goals of the Paris agreement. All three have been on the GOP’s chopping block.
A questioner asked about Guantanamo—Trump’s declaration that he will keep it open and Obama’s failure to keep his pledge to shut it down. “I haven’t been able to close the darn thing,” he said to a ripple of sympathetic laughter. But he had greatly reduced the population, he said, and he used the question to offer one additional piece of advice to the incoming administration.
“There are all these rules and laws and norms, and you got to pay attention to them,” he said, even when their existence frustrates your intentions. “Take that part of the job seriously,” he said. “We listened to the lawyers.”
The press conference was a chance for Obama to tote up the accomplishments of his eight years and his belief that he is leaving a national security structure and an economy to his successor that are stronger than the ones he inherited. He did acknowledge that there are “people out there who are deeply disaffected, or otherwise we wouldn’t have had the result we had.” But he contrasted the economic collapse of 2008 into 2009 with the much rosier picture of today, despite the dark picture Trump painted on the campaign trail. “He will have time and space to make judicious decisions,” Obama said.
The president seems to be putting his faith into Trump rising to the occasion, that someone who pulled so many rabbits out of the hat might just pull it off again.
As for the Democratic Party, Obama was never much of a party builder, and he signaled that he’s not going to be playing a role as the Democrats fight among themselves over which direction they should go. “It’s important for me not to be big-footing,” he said. But he noted that he won Iowa in 2008 not because of demographics—Iowa is one of the whitest states in the country—but because he spent 87 days visiting small towns, county fairs, fish fries, and VFW halls. And while he lost some counties, he lost them by 20 percent, not 50 percent.
And when he appeared in Washington in 2005 after winning a Senate race, Democrats were demoralized. Republicans controlled the Senate and House. John Kerry had just lost the presidency, and Obama and one other Democrat (Ken Salazar of Colorado) were the only two national winners. Two years later, Democrats took the House. “Things can change pretty rapidly, but they don’t change inevitably,” he said.
That same thinking can be seen in the stance Obama has taken toward Trump. While declining to believe the worst, Obama is doing his best to influence a new president who had no idea he would win and has little idea of what to do now that he’s done it.