Vouching for the successor he never imagined having, President Barack Obama on Monday sought to reassure an anxious nation and world that Donald Trump would maintain America’s alliances and its status as the “indispensable nation.” He credited the president-elect for tapping into American voters’ anxiety and enthusiasm.
“Do I have concerns?” Obama added. “Absolutely.”
Speaking at a White House news conference before a three-nation trip that was supposed to be his grand valedictory tour, Obama pointedly refused to criticize Trump, who only a week ago Obama said was “woefully unprepared for the job” and couldn’t “handle the nuclear codes.”
Instead, Obama did his best to soothe the pangs of uncertainty at home and abroad after a divisive campaign that included charges of racism, sexism and other offensive rhetoric, and questions from Trump about the validity of the United States’ security relationships in Europe and Asia.
“There is enormous continuity … that makes us that indispensable nation when it comes to maintaining order around the world,” Obama said. Relationships and policies go beyond presidents, he said, adding that military officials, diplomats and intelligence officers would cooperate with their foreign counterparts as before.
In his White House meeting with Trump last week, Obama said the Republican “expressed a great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships,” including “strong and robust NATO” partnerships.
It was a sharp change in tone for Obama, who regularly mocked Trump’s candidacy in the last days before the election, even accusing the billionaire businessman and former reality television star of helping the Islamic State group with his rhetoric about Muslims and undermining U.S. democracy through his claims of a “rigged” election. At the time, almost all polls showed Democrat Hillary Clinton leading Trump.
Asked about one of Trump’s most contentious moves since his triumph, appointing Steve Bannon as chief strategist and senior adviser, Obama said it was up to the president-elect to appoint a team that will serve him well.
“It takes a while for people to reconcile themselves with that new reality,” Obama said of the choice of Bannon, a man celebrated by the white nationalist movement. Of Trump, Obama said “it’s important for us to let him make his decisions.” But adding a hint of worry, Obama said he counseled Trump during their White House meeting: “It’s really important to send some signals of unity.”
Whereas Obama hailed Trump’s “impressive” ability to speak to voters, he also delivered a subtle critique of Clinton’s campaign.
He said Democrats must broaden their focus beyond just swing states after an election that left the Senate and House in Republican hands, as well as most of the nation’s governor’s mansions. He rejected the idea that demographic advantages would lead to all-but-assured victories for the party, saying it must rebuild at the local, state and national levels.
“We’re going to have to compete everywhere,” he said, reflecting on his own 2008 win in Iowa, a state that went for Trump this time. “We’re going to have to show up everywhere.”
Clinton kept a relatively light campaign schedule until the final weeks of her campaign, mostly attending smaller events in battleground states. Her campaign focused heavily on motivating the Democratic base of women and minority voters, rather than swaying independents. “Good ideas don’t matter if people don’t hear them,” Obama said.
While Obama is in Germany, Greece and Peru, he said his team would accelerate efforts to ensure a smooth transition to the Trump administration.
He stressed that he would try to strengthen the American economy over his final two months, so that “when we turn over the keys, the car’s in pretty good shape.”