Wrapping up the final press conference of his consequential eight years in office, President Obama delivered a personal message on Wednesday to any Americans distraught over Donald Trump’s victory: “We’re going to be OK.”
“It is true that behind closed doors, I curse more than I do publicly, and sometimes I get mad and frustrated like everybody else does, but at my core, I think we’re going to be OK,” the president said. “We just have to fight for it, we have to work for it and not take it for granted.”
In the hourlong question-and-answer session, Obama also defended the news media, which Trump likes to bash, and listed the political and social issues that would lead him to speak out after he leaves the White House to his successor. He denounced stories about in-person voter fraud as “fake news,” and traced voter suppression back to the legacy of slavery. He mused that advances in gay rights on his watch won’t prove “reversible.” He suggested that Trump build a strong team, saying the presidency “is a job of such magnitude that you can’t do it by yourself.” Obama warned him to think through any sudden changes to Middle East policy, like moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. And the president defended his handling of the United States’ relationship with Russia and his decision to show clemency to convicted national security leaker Chelsea Manning.
Obama was not asked, and did not volunteer anything, about any misgivings or mistakes he may have made, beyond a joking reference to Michelle Obama talking him out of wearing a tan suit to the press conference (he was mocked for wearing a tan suit to an August 2014 session with reporters). There were no questions about Syria, North Korea or the Iran nuclear deal.
The final question, from a White House reporter who has known him since his days in the Illinois statehouse, was about how he explained Trump’s election to his daughters Sasha and Malia, given first lady Michelle Obama’s impassioned denunciation of Trump in a mid-October speech.
“They paid attention to what their mom said during the campaign,” he said. “But what we’ve also tried to teach them is resilience, and we’ve tried to teach them hope and that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.”
So while his daughters were “disappointed” on Nov. 8, Obama continued, they know that “You get knocked down, you get up, brush yourself off and you get back to work. And that tended to be their attitude. I think neither of them intend to pursue a future of politics, and in that, too, I think their mother’s influence shows.”
Asked whether the country would someday again elect a black president, Obama predicted growing diversity in the Oval Office. “If, in fact, we continue to keep opportunity open to everybody, then yeah, we’re going to have a woman president. We’re going to have a Latino president. And we’ll have a Jewish president, a Hindu president. You know, who knows who we’re going to have,” he said. “I suspect we’ll have a whole bunch of mixed-up presidents at some point that nobody really knows what to call them.”
Obama did not offer much detail about his telephone conversations with Trump, but disclosed that he had urged the president-elect to take particular care in choosing his advisers.
“That’s probably the most useful constructive advice and the most constructive advice that I’ve been able to give him: That if you find yourself isolated because the process breaks down, or if you’re only hearing from people who agree with you on everything, or if you haven’t created a process that is fact-checking and probing and asking hard questions about policies or promises that you’ve made, that’s when you start making mistakes,” the president said. “Reality has a way of biting back if you’re not paying attention to it.”
Asked about the U.S. relationship with the Arab world, and about Trump’s vows to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Obama cautioned the incoming team that “this is volatile stuff.”
While “it is right and appropriate for a new president to test old assumptions and re-examine the old ways of doing things,” Obama said, “just make sure you’ve thought it through.”
Before taking questions, Obama said he had reached out to the Bush family upon hearing word that former President George H.W. Bush and his wife had been hospitalized.
“They have been a constant source of friendship and support and good counsel for Michelle and me over the years. They are as fine a couple as we know, and so we want to send our prayers and our love to them,” he said.
And he delivered a strong defense of the news media, which Trump has repeatedly denounced as dishonest, corrupt and even “scum.”
“America needs you and our democracy needs you,” Obama said. “My hope is that you will continue with the same tenacity that you showed us, to do the hard work of getting to the bottom of stories and getting them right and to push those of us in power to be the best version of ourselves and to push this country to be the best version of itself.”
Obama’s relationship with the news media has been complex, and sometimes deeply adversarial. He has pursued more leak prosecutions than all of his predecessors combined. His Justice Department spied extensively on reporter James Rosen of Fox News, an outlet that the White House at one point declared was not a legitimate news organization. He has overseen the construction of a highly sophisticated digital communications operation that, like a virtual state-run news organization, competes with traditional media. Members of the media have butted heads with the White House over the practice of excluding reporters and photographers from events that were then “covered” by official photographers or video makers.
“I have enjoyed working with all of you. That does not, of course, mean that I’ve enjoyed every story that you have filed,” Obama said. “But that’s the point of this relationship: You’re not supposed to be sycophants, you’re supposed to be skeptics, you’re supposed to ask me tough questions.”
And, amid questions about whether Trump will boot the press corps out of the space in the West Wing where it has worked for decades, Obama said, “Having you in this building has made this place work better. It keeps us honest, it makes us work harder.
“You have made us think about how we are doing what we do and whether or not we’re able to deliver on what’s been requested by our constituents. And for example, every time you’ve asked, ‘Why haven’t you cured Ebola yet?’ or, ‘Why is there still that hole in the Gulf?’, it has given me the ability to go back and say, ‘Will you get this solved before the next press conference?’”
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