President Obama spent the better part of a year trying to convince the nation that Donald Trump was not fit to hold the Oval Office. Now, determined to smooth the transfer of power, the president has launched a persuasion campaign aimed at an audience of one: the president-elect himself.
At his first postelection news conference Monday, Obama appeared to be trying to publicly educate his successor, via television news, a medium that Trump was especially attuned to during the campaign.
Obama offered admiration, instruction and even outright flattery, praising the manner in which Trump tapped into voters’ anxiety and enthusiasm for change to score a historic political upset.
"He is obviously a gregarious person," Obama said.
Where he once said Trump lacked the temperament to serve as commander in chief, Obama focused on qualities that he said would serve Trump well as president.
"I don't think he is ideological," Obama said. "I think, ultimately, he is pragmatic."
He gently offered a warning: “This office is bigger than any one person. And that’s why ensuring a smooth transition is so important.”
The turnabout came four days after Obama’s first face-to-face meeting with Trump, after which several senior White House officials expressed surprise at the extent to which Trump and his aides seemed unprepared for the task ahead.
Given that apparent gulf between Trump’s current state and preparedness to take the oath of office, Obama stepped in.
He balanced compliments with the counsel Trump himself has said he hoped to draw from Obama in the weeks and months ahead, laying out in great detail some of his most significant policy achievements.
Obama acknowledged the shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act but reminded Trump that if he and Republicans fail to deliver an alternative that delivers better results, “then we are going to have a problem.”
He mentioned the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, including the U.S., as an example where campaign rhetoric falls short of the obligations of governing. To unravel a deal that is preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program “would be hard to explain,” Obama cautioned.
“Now comes the hard part. Now is governance,” Obama said, abandoning the pretense of the news conference to speak directly to Trump.
Obama’s approach reflected the extent to which Trump’s election imperils his most prized accomplishments. Just as Obama made full use of executive power to advance his goals on the climate, the economy and international affairs, Trump can act swiftly to reverse them.
The effort may already be working. After assailing Obama throughout the campaign as incompetent, Trump said in a “60 Minutes” interview recorded after their meeting that he found the president to be “terrific,” and that they had great chemistry.
Yet Obama’s welcoming tone was at odds with Democrats still struggling with the shock of electoral defeat. Many doubled down on their warnings about what they see as an incoming administration that is hostile to large swaths of Americans, particularly minorities, fears they say are justified giving Trump’s hiring of Steve Bannon to a senior role in the West Wing.
Bannon took a leave from Breitbart News, a right-wing site that’s also a platform for the so-called alt-right to espouse racist and anti-Semitic views, to run Trump’s campaign. Obama opted against commenting on Bannon’s new appointment, saying that to opine on personnel moves would be inconsistent with his promise to “facilitate a smooth transition” to the Trump administration.
Separately, intelligence officials said they were surprised by a request to give high security clearance to some members of Trump’s family. Trump’s campaign denied that he made the request.
Obama said simply that the presidency is “like no other job on Earth” and that the learning curve “always continues.”
Trump may even benefit from taking office with “fewer set hard-and-fast policy prescriptions” than most politicians have, he said.
“This office has a way of waking you up…. Reality has a way of asserting itself,” Obama said.
He also shared advice he said he offered to Trump days earlier: It’s important to “try to send some signals of unity,” particularly to women and minorities, after the bitter campaign.
“That's something that he will want to do. But this is all happening real fast,” Obama said. “He's got commitments to supporters that helped to get him here, and he's going to have to balance those. And over the coming weeks and months and years, my hope is, is that those impulses ultimately win out.”
Shortly after his news conference, Obama departed for Athens, the first stop on his final scheduled international trip as president. In Greece, then Germany and Peru, he will meet with more than a dozen world leaders and confront the unenviable task of trying to explain Trump’s win, which threatens initiatives they had worked on, including the Iran agreement and the global climate accord reached in Paris last year.
While speaking to reporters, Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO, noting it has endured through both Democratic and Republican administrations. He said he could deliver to U.S. allies Trump’s stated commitment to continue that, despite his suggestions during the campaign that he would leave behind countries that do not pay their share of dues and his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. NATO was a crucial component of the Western response to Putin’s incursions into Eastern Europe.
“One of the most important functions I can serve at this stage, during this trip, is to let them know that there is no weakening of resolve when it comes to America's commitment to maintaining a strong and robust NATO relationship,” Obama said.
Just moments before, Trump’s transition team announced he had spoken with Putin and shared how he was looking forward to “having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia and the people of Russia.”
Times staff writer Christi Parsons in Athens contributed to this report.
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