OBAMA PRESIDENCY & 114TH CONGRESS:
President Obama’s first press conference of the Trump era
Source: WaPo, 11-14-16
OBAMA: Hello, everybody. In a couple hours, I’ll be departing on my final foreign trip as president and while we’re abroad I’ll have a chance to take a few of your questions but I figured why wait? I know there’s a lot of domestic issues that people are thinking about so I wanted to see if I could clear out some of the underbrush so that when we’re overseas and people are asking about foreign policy questions, people don’t feel obliged to tack on three other questions to them. Let me – I know you still will, yes.
That I’m aware, but I’m trying something out here. First of all, let me mention three brief topics. First of all, as I discussed with the president-elect on Thursday, my team stands ready to accelerate in the next steps that are required to ensure a smooth transition and we are going to be staying in touch as we travel. I remember what it was like when I came in eight years ago. It is a big challenge. This office is bigger than any one person and that’s why ensuring a smooth transition is so important. It’s not something that the constitution explicitly requires but it is one of those norms that are vital to a functioning democracy, similar to norms of civility and tolerance and a commitment to reason and facts and analysis.
It’s part of what makes this country work and as long as I’m president, we are going to uphold those norms and cherish and uphold those ideals. As I told my staff, we should be very proud that their work has already ensured that when we turn over the keys, the car’s in pretty good shape. We are indisputably in a stronger position today than we were when I came in eight years ago. Jobs have been growing for 73 straight months, incomes are rising, poverty is falling, the uninsured rate is at the lowest level on record, carbon emissions have come down without impinging on our growth, and so my instructions to my team are that we run through the tape, we make sure that we finish what we started, that we don’t let up in these last couple of months because my goal is on January 21, America’s in the strongest position possible and hopefully there’s an opportunity for the next president to build on that.
Number two, our work has also helped to stabilize the global economy and because there is one president at a time, I’ll spend this week reinforcing America’s support for the approaches that we’ve taken to promote economic growth and global security on a range of issues. I look forward to my first visit in Greece and then in Germany I’ll visit with Chancellor Merkel who’s probably been my closest international partner these past eight years. I’ll also signal our solidarity with our closest allies and express our support for a strong, integrated, and united Europe.
It is essential to our national security and it’s essential to global stability and that’s why the trans-atlantic alliance and the NATO alliance have endured for decades under Democratic and Republican administrations. Finally, in Peru, I’ll meet with leaders of countries that have been the focus of our foreign policy through our rebalance in the Asia-Pacific. This is a time of great change in the world but America’s always been a pillar of strength and a beacon of hope to peoples around the globe and that’s what it must continue to be.
Finally, on a personal note, Michelle and I want to offer our deepest condolences to Gwen Ifill’s family and all of you, her colleagues, on her passing. Gwen was a friend of ours, she was an extraordinary journalist, she always kept faith with the fundamental responsibilities of her profession, asking tough questions, holding people in power accountable, and defending a strong and free press that makes our democracy work. I always appreciated Gwen’s reporting even when I was at the receiving end of one of her tough and thorough interviews.
OBAMA: Whether she reported from a convention floor or from the field, whether she sat at the debate moderator’s table or at the anchor’s desk, she not only informed today’s citizens but she also inspired tomorrow’s journalists. She was an especially powerful role model for young women and girls who admired her integrity, her tenacity and her intellect. And for whom she blazed a trail, as one half of the first all-female anchor team on network news. So Gwen did her country a great service. Michelle and I join her family and her colleagues and everybody else who loved her in remembering her fondly today.
So with that, I’m going to take some questions, and because Josh Earnest has some pull around here, he just happens to put at the top of the list, Colleen Nelson, of the Wall Street Journal, my understanding is, Colleen, that this is wrapping up your stint here and you are going to Kansas City. Josh just happens to be from Kansas City.
SO I didn’t know if there was any coincidence there, but we wish you the very best of luck in your new endeavor.
QUESTION: As it turns out it’s a really great place (inaudible).
OBAMA: There you go.
QUESTION: You’re about to embark on a foreign trip. What will you say to other world leaders about your successor? They may press opinions(?) assuming you have about Donald Trump. Should they be worried about the future of U.S. foreign policy. And separately, as Democrats scramble to regroup after a pretty shocking upset, what is your advice about where the party goes now and who should lead you party?
OBAMA: One of the great things about the United States is that when it comes to world affairs, the president obviously is the leader of the Executive Branch, the Commander-in-Chief, the spokesperson for the nation, but the influence and the work that we have is the result not just of the president, it is the result of countless interactions and arrangements and relationships between our military and other militaries, and our diplomats and other diplomats, the intelligence officers and development workers. And there is enormous continuity beneath the day-to-day news that makes us that indispensable nation when it comes to maintaining order and promoting prosperity around the world. That will continue. In my conversation with the president-elect he expressed a great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships, and so one of the messages I will be able to deliver is his commitment to NATO and the Trans Atlantic Alliance. I think that’s 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 and a recognition that those alliances aren’t just good for Europe. They are good for the United States and they are vital for the world.
With respect to the Democratic Party. As I said in the Rose Garden right after the election, “When your team loses, everybody gets deflated. And it’s hard, and it’s challenging. And I think it’s a healthy thing for the Democratic Party to go through some reflection. I think it’s important for me not to be big-footing that conversation. I think we want to see new voices and new ideas emerge – that’s part of the reason why term limits are a really useful thing.
The Democrats should not waiver on our core beliefs and principles. The belief that we should have an economy that works for everybody, not just a few. The belief that America at its best is inclusive and not exclusive. That we insist on the dignity and God- given potential and work of every child, regardless of race or gender or sexual orientation or what zip code they were born in. That we are committed to a world in which we keep America safe, but we recognize that our power doesn’t just flow from our extraordinary military but also flows from the strength in our ideals and our principles and our values.
So there are gonna be a core set of values that shouldn’t be up for debate. Should be our north star. But how we organize politically, I think is something that we should spend some time thinking about.
I believe that we have better ideas. But I also believe that good ideas don’t matter if people don’t hear them. And one of the issues the Democrats have to be clear on is the given population distribution across the country. We have to compete everywhere. We have to show up everywhere. We have to work at a grassroots level, something that’s been a running thread in my career.
I won Iowa not because the demographics dictated that I would win Iowa. It was because I spent 87 days going to every small town and fair and fish fry and BFW Hall, and there were some counties where I might have lost, but maybe I lost by 20 points instead of 50 points. There’s some counties maybe I won, that people didn’t expect, because people had a chance to see you and listen to you and get a sense of who you stood for and who you were fighting for.
And the challenge for a national party is how do you dig in there and create those kinds of structures so that people have a sense of what it is that you stand for. And that increasingly is difficult to do just through a national press strategy. It’s increasingly difficult to do because of the splintering of the press (ph). And so I think the discussions that have been taking place about, how do you build more grassroots organizing, how do you build state parties and local parties and school board elections you’re paying attention to, state rep races and city council races, that all, I think, will contribute to stronger outcomes in the future. And I’m optimistic that will happen.
For Democrats who are feeling completely discouraged, I’ve been trying to remind them, everybody remembers my Boston speech in 2004. They may not remember me showing up here in 2005 when John Kerry had lost a close election, Tom Daschle, the leader of the Senate, had been beaten in an upset. Ken Salazar and I were the only two Democrats that won nationally. Republicans controlled the Senate and the House, and two years later, Democrats were winning back Congress, and four years later I was President of the United States.
Things change pretty rapidly. But they don’t change inevitably. They change because you work for it. Nobody said Democracy’s supposed to be easy. It’s hard. And in a big country like this, it probably should be hard.
Mark Knoller (ph) —
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
OBAMA: Good to see you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Good to see you. Mr. President, what can you tell us about the learning curve on becoming president? Can you tell us how long it took you before you were fully at ease in the job, if that ever happened? And did you discuss this matter with the president elect, Trump?
OBAMA: About a week ago, I started feeling pretty good.
But no. Look, the — I think the learning curve always continues. This is a remarkable job. It is like no other job on earth. And it is a constant flow of information and challenges and issues. That is truer now than it has ever been, partly because of the nature of information and the interconnection between regions of the world. If you were president 50 years ago, the tragedy in Syria might not even penetrate what the American people were thinking about on a day to day basis. Today, they’re seeing vivid images of a child in the aftermath of a bombing.
There was a time when if you had a financial crisis in Southeast Asia somewhere, it had no impact on our markets. Today it does.
So the amount of information, the amount of incoming that any administration has to deal with today and respond to much more rapidly than ever before, that makes it different.
I was watching a documentary that during the Bay of Pigs crisis JFK had about two weeks before anybody reported on it. Imagine that. I think it’s fair to say that if something like that happens under a current president, they’ve got to figure out in about an hour what their response is.
So these are the kinds of points that I shared with the president-elect. It was a free-flowing and I think useful conversation. I hope it was. I tried to be as honest as I could about the things I think any president coming in needs to think about.
And probably the most important point that I made was that how you staff, particularly the chief of staff, the national security adviser, your White House counsel, how you set up a process in the system to surface information and generate options for a president, understanding that ultimately the president is going to be the final decision-maker. That that’s something that has to be attended to right away.
I have been blessed by having, and I admittedly am biased, some of the smartest, hardest-working, and good people in my administration that I think any president has ever had.
And as a consequence of that team, I have been able to make good decisions. And if you don’t have that around you, then you will get swamped. So I hope that he appreciated that advice.
What I also discussed was the fact that I had been encouraged by his statements on election night about the need for unity and his interest in being the president for all people. And that how he staffs, the first steps he takes, the first impressions he makes, the reset that can happen after an election, all those things are important and should be thought about.
And I think it’s important to give him the room and the space to do that. It takes time to put that together. But I emphasized to him that, look, in an election like this that was so hotly contest and so divided, gestures matter.
And how he reaches out to groups that may not have supported him, how he signals his interest in their issues or concerns, I think those are the kinds of things that can set a tone that will help move things forward once he has actually taken office.
QUESTION: How long did it take before you were at ease in the job?
OBAMA: Well, I didn’t really have time to worry about being at ease because, you will recall, we were losing about 800,000 jobs a month. So the good news is that in some ways my experience is atypical. It’s hard to find an analogous situation.
By the time FDR came into office, the Depression had been going on for a couple of years. We were in the midst of a free fall, financial system was locking up, the auto industry was about to go belly up, the housing market had entirely collapsed.
So one of the advantages that I had is that that I was too busy to worry about how acclimated I was feeling in the job. We just had to make a bunch of decisions.
In this situation, we are turning over a country that has challenges, has problems, and obviously there are people out there who are feeling deeply disaffected, otherwise we wouldn’t have had the results that we had in the election.
On the other hand, if you look at the basic indicators of where the country is right now, the unemployment rate is low as it has been in eight-nine years, incomes and wages have both gone up over the last year faster than they have in a decade or two. We’ve got historically low uninsured rates. The financial systems are stable. The stock market is hovering around its all-time high and 401(k)s have been restored. The housing market has recovered.
We have challenges internationally but our most immediate challenge with respect to ISIL, we are seeing significant progress in Iraq. And Mosul is now increasingly being retaken by Iraqi security forces, supported by us.
Our alliances are in strong shape. Our — the progress we’ve made with respect to carbon emissions has been greater than any country on Earth. And gas is 2 bucks a gallon.
So he will have time and space, I think, to make judicious decisions. The incoming administration doesn’t have to put out a huge number of fires. They may want to take the country in a significantly different direction. But they have got time to consider what exactly they want to achieve.
And that’s a testament to the tremendous work that my team has done over the last eight years. I am very proud of them for it.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.
You said more than once that you did not believe that Donald trump would ever be elected president and that you thought he was unfit for the office.
Now that you’ve spent time with him (INAUDIBLE) for an hour and a half in the Oval Office, do you now think that President-Elect Trump is qualified to be president?
And if I can do a compound question, the other one, as you mentioned, staffing and tone.
What do you say to those Americans who may not doubt that there will be a peaceful transition but that are concerned about some of the policies and sentiments either expressed by President-Elect Trump himself or (INAUDIBLE) that may seem hostile to minorities and others?
Specifically I’m talking about the announcement that Steve Bannon, who is a proponent of the so-called alt-right movement, what many call the white nationalist movement, is going to have a prominent role in the White House under a President Trump as his key strategist and senior adviser.
What message does that send to the country and to the world?
OBAMA: Athena, without copping out, I think it’s fair to say that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on every appointment that the president-elect starts making if I want to be consistent with the notion that we are going to try to facilitate a smooth transition.
But the people have spoken. Donald Trump will be the next president, the 45th President of the United States. And it will be up to him to set up a team that he thinks will serve him well and reflect his policies. And those who didn’t vote for him have to recognize that that’s how democracy works. That’s how this system operates.
When I won — and there were a number of people who didn’t like me and didn’t like what I stood for. And, you know, I think that whenever you have got an incoming president of the other side, particularly in a bitter election like this, it takes a while for people to reconcile themselves with that new reality.
Hopefully, it’s a reminder that elections matter and voting counts. And so, you know, I don’t know how many times we have to relearn this lesson because we ended up having 43 percent of the country not voting who were eligible to vote. But it makes a difference.
OBAMA: So given that President-Elect Trump is now trying to balance what he said in the campaign and the commitments he made to his supporters with working with those who disagreed with him and members of Congress and reaching out to constituencies that didn’t vote for him, I think it’s important for us to let him make his decisions.
And I think the American people will judge, over the course of the next couple of years, whether they like what they see and whether these are the kinds of policies and this is the direction that they want to see the country going. And my role is to make sure that when I hand off this White House that it is in the best possible shape and that I’ve been as helpful as I can to him in going forward and building on the progress that we’ve made.
And my advice, as I said to the president-elect when we had our discussions, was that campaigning is different from governing. I think he recognizes that. I think he’s sincere in wanting to be a successful president and moving this country forward and I don’t think any president ever comes in saying to himself “I want to figure out how to make people angry or alienate half the country.” I think he’s going to try as best he can to make sure that he delivers not only to the people who voted for him but for the people at large and the good thing is that there are going to be elections coming up so there’s a built-in incentive for him to try to do that.
But, you know, it’s only been six days and I think it’ll be important for him to have the room to staff up to figure out what his priorities are, to be able to distinguish between what he was campaigning on and what is practical, what he can actually achieve. You know, there are certain things that make for good sound bites but don’t always translate into good policy. And that’s something that he and his team I think will wrestle with in the same way that every president wrestles with. I did say to him, as I’ve said publicly, that because of the nature of the campaigns and the bitterness and ferocity of the campaigns that it’s really important to try to send some signals of unity and to reach out to minority groups or women or others that were concerned about the tenor of the campaign.
And I think that’s something that he will – he will want to do but this is all happening real fast. He’s got commitments to supporters that helped to get him here and he’s going to have to balance those over the coming weeks and months and years. My hope is that those impulses ultimately win out but it’s a little too early to start making judgments on that.
QUESTION: You’d like qualifications (ph), has that changed after meeting with him?
OBAMA: You know, I think that he successfully mobilized a big chunk of the country to vote for him and he’s going to win. He has won. He’s going to be the next president and regardless of what experience or assumptions he brought to the office, this office has a way of waking you up and those – those aspects of his positions or predispositions that don’t match up with reality, he will find shaken up pretty quick because reality has a way of asserting itself. And some of his gifts that obviously allowed him to execute one of the biggest political upsets in history, those are ones that hopefully he will put to good use on behalf of all the American people.
QUESTION: You’re off to Europe which is facing some of the same populist pressures we’ve seen work in this country. When you spoke at the U.N., you talked about the choices being made (ph) between immigration and building walls. What choice do you think the American people made last week and is there still a chance for what you called a course correction before Europeans make some of their choices?
OBAMA: I think the American people recognize that the world has shrunk. That it’s interconnected. That you’re not going to put that genie back in the bottle. The American people recognize that their careers or their kids’ careers are going to have to be more dynamic. That they might not be working at a single plant for 30 years. That they might have to change careers. They might have to get more education. They might have to retool or retrain. And I think the American people are game for that.
They want to make sure that the rules of the game are fair. And what that means is that if you look at surveys around Americans’ attitudes on trade, the majority of the American people still support trade. But they’re concerned about whether or not trade is fair, and whether we get the same access to other countries’ markets that they have with us. Is there just a race to the bottom when it comes to wages, and so forth.
Now, I made an argument, thus far unsuccessfully, that the trade deal we had organized, TPP, did exactly that. That it strengthened worker’s rights and environmental rights, leveled the playing field, and as a consequence, would be good for American workers and American businesses. But that’s a complex argument to make when people remember plants closing and jobs being offshore. So part of what I think this election reflected was people wanting that course correction that you described, and the message around stopping surges of immigration, not creating new trade deals that may be unfair. I think those were themes that played a prominent role in the campaign.
As we now shift to government, my argument is that we do need to make sure that we have an orderly, lawful immigration process, but that if it is orderly and lawful, immigration is good for our economy. It keeps this country young, it keeps it dynamic, we have entrepreneurs and strivers (ph) who come here and are willing to take risks, and that’s part of the reason why America historically has been successful. It’s part of the reason why our economy is stronger and better positioned than most of our other competitors, is because we’ve got a younger population that’s more dynamic when it comes to trade. I think when you’re governing, it will become increasingly apparent that if you were to just eliminate trade deals with Mexico, for example, well, you’ve got a global supply chain. The parts that are allowing auto plants that were about to shut down to now employ double shifts is because they’re bringing in some of those parts to assemble out of Mexico. And so it’s not as simple as it might have seemed.
OBAMA: And the key for us — when I say us, I mean Americans, but I think particularly for progressives, is to say, your concerns are real, your anxieties are real. Here’s how we fix it. Higher minimum wage. Stronger worker protection so workers have more leverage to get a bigger piece of the pie. Stronger financial regulations, not weaker ones. Yes to trade, but trade that ensures that these other countries that trade with us aren’t engaging in child labor, for example. Being attentive to inequality and not tone deaf to it. But offering prescriptions that are actually going to help folks in communities that feel forgotten. That’s going to be our most important strategy. And I think we can successfully do that.
People will still be looking to the United States. Our example will still carry great weight. And it continues to be my strong belief that the way we are going to make sure that everybody feels a part of this global economy is not by shutting ourselves off from each other, even if we could, but rather by working together more effectively than we have in the past.
QUESTION: Thanks, Mr. President. (INAUDIBLE) some of the harsh words you had about Mr. Trump, calling him temperamentally unfit to be commander in chief, did anything surprise you about President-Elect Trump when you met with him in your office?
And also I want to know, does anything concern you about a Trump presidency?
OBAMA: Well, we had a very cordial conversation and that didn’t surprise me, to some degree because I think that he is obviously a gregarious person. He’s somebody who I think likes to mix it up and to have a vigorous debate.
And you know, what’s clear is that he was able to tap into, yes, the anxieties but also the enthusiasm of his voters in a way that was impressive. And I said so to him because I think that to the extent that there were a lot of folks who missed the Trump phenomenon, I think that connection that he was able to make with his supporters, that was impervious to events that might have sunk another candidate. That’s powerful stuff.
I also think that he is coming to this office with fewer set hard-and-fast policy prescriptions than a lot of other presidents might be arriving with. I don’t think he is ideological. I think ultimately is, he is pragmatic in that way. And that can serve him well as long as he has got good people around him and he has a clear sense of direction.
Do I have concerns?
Absolutely. Of course I have got concerns. You know, he and I differ on a whole bunch of issues. But you know, the federal government and our democracy is not a speedboat. It’s an oceanliner, as I discovered when I came into office. It took a lot of really hard work for us to make significant policy changes, even in our first two years, when we had larger majorities than Mr. Trump will enjoy when he comes into office.
And you know, one of the things I advised him to do was to make sure that, before he commits to certain courses of action, he has really dug in and thought through how various issues play themselves out.
I will use a obvious example, where we have a difference but it will be interesting to see what happens in the coming year. And that’s the Affordable Care Act. You know, obviously this has been the Holy Grail for Republicans over the last 6-7 years, was we got to kill ObamaCare.
Now that has been taken as an article of faith, that this is terrible, it doesn’t work and we have to undo it.
OBAMA: But now that Republicans are in charge, they got to take a look and say, let’s see. We got 20 million people who have health insurance who didn’t have it before. Health care costs generally have gone up at a significantly slower rate since ObamaCare was passed than they did before, which has saved the federal Treasury hundreds of billions of dollars.
People who have health insurance are benefiting in all sorts of ways that they may not be aware of, everything from no longer having lifetime limits on the claims that they can make to seniors getting prescription drug discounts under Medicare to free mammograms.
Now it’s one thing to characterize this thing as not working when it’s just an abstraction. Now suddenly you are in charge and you are going to repeal it. OK, well, what happens to those 20 million people who have health insurance? Are you going to just kick them off and suddenly they don’t have health insurance?
In what ways are their lives better because of that? Are you going to repeal the provision that ensures that if you do have health insurance on your job and you lose your job or you change jobs or you start a small business that you are not discriminated against because you have got a preexisting condition? That’s really popular.
How are you going to replace it? Are you going to change the policy that kids can stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until they are 26? How are you going to approach all these issues?
Now, my view is that if they can come up with something better that actually works and a year or two after they have replaced the Affordable Care Act with their own plan that 25 million people have health insurance and it’s cheaper and better and running smoothly, I will be the first one to say that’s great. Congratulations.
If, on the other hand, whatever they are proposing results in millions of people losing coverage and results in people who already have health insurance losing protections that were contained in the legislation, then we are going to have a problem.
And I think that’s not going to be unique to me. I think the American people will respond that way. So I think on a lot of issues what you’re going to see is now comes the hard part. Now is governance.
Orlando Shooting Updates
News and analysis on the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
5-Minute Fix newsletter
Keeping up with politics is easy now.
Please provide a valid email address.
You’re all set!
See all newsletters
We are going to be able to present to the incoming administration a country that is stronger. A federal government that is working better and more efficiently. A national security apparatus that is both more effective and truer to our values. Energy policies that are resulting in not just less pollution, but also more jobs.
And I think the president-elect rightly would expect that he is judged on whether we improve from that baseline and on those metrics or things get worse. And if things get worse, then the American people will figure that out pretty quick. And if things get better, then more power to him. And I will be the first to congratulate him.
QUESTION: Mr. President, you had talked specifically about his temperament. Do you still have any concern about his temperament?
OBAMA: As I said, because Athena (ph) asked the question, whatever you bring to this office, this office has a habit of magnifying and pointing out and hopefully then you correct for.
This may seem like a silly example, but I know myself well enough to know I can’t keep track of paper. I am not well-organized in that way. And so pretty quickly after I’m getting stacks of briefing books coming in every night, I say to myself, I have got to figure out a system because I have bad filing, sorting, and organizing habits.