Obama’s final press conference didn’t sound like the farewell of someone retiring permanently from the public sphere.
Barack Obama’s final press conference as President, which took place on Wednesday afternoon in the White House briefing room, was a curious affair. On the face of things, it was a low-key event, in which Obama seemed to go out of his way to avoid criticizing Donald Trump or getting drawn into the many controversies that have recently enveloped his successor. But that wasn’t the full story. The press conference was also a not-too-subtle rebuke of Trump, a warning about the dangers that his Presidency presents, and a signal that we haven’t heard the last of Obama.
Referring to his conversations with Trump since Election Day, the President said, “They were cordial. At times, they’ve been fairly lengthy and they’ve been substantive.” Asked whether he supported plans by a number of congressional Democrats to boycott Trump’s Inauguration, Obama declined to comment. “All I know is I’m going to be there,” he said. “So is Michelle.”
These answers were in line with the stance that Obama adopted immediately after November 8th, when he said it was important to respect the result of the election and to have an orderly transfer of power. As Trump’s transition has turned into a pitched brawl with his opponents, Obama has remained above the partisan fray—a position he largely maintained on Wednesday.
But even as he did this, Obama expanded upon the farewell address he delivered in Chicago, last week, when he talked about the fragility of democracy and the need to defend democratic institutions and values. After offering prayers from himself and the First Lady to former President George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, who have both been hospitalized in Houston, Texas, he saluted his interlocutors and delivered a little homily about the importance of a free press.
“Having you in this building has made this place work better,” he said. “It keeps us honest. It makes us work harder.” Was that a little jibe at Trump, some of whose staff members have suggested that they might move the press out of the White House building? If it was, Obama didn’t linger on it. Instead, he went on: the “grand experiment of self-government” doesn’t “work if we don’t have a well-informed citizenry, and you are the conduit through which they receive the information about what’s taking place in the halls of power. . . . So America needs you and our democracy needs you.”
Obama, of course, has had his issues with the press, especially when his Administration has gone after reporters who received leaked information, and has prosecuted some of their sources. But those rifts are nothing compared to the enmity between the media and Trump, who has repeatedly trashed journalists as some of most dishonest and mendacious people in the country. Trump also has advocated warmer relations with Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian government, which has persecuted journalists who have been critical of him. Just a few days ago, Trump suggested that the sanctions Obama imposed on Russia could be lifted if the Kremlin agrees to reduce its stockpile of nuclear weapons.
When the reporters asked Obama what he thought of this idea, he again avoided criticizing Trump directly. But he did point out that the President-elect was conflating two very different issues. “The reason we imposed the sanctions, recall, was not because of nuclear-weapons issues,” Obama said. “It was because the independence and sovereignty of a country, Ukraine, had been encroached upon by force, by Russia. . . . And, Russia continues to occupy Ukrainian territory and meddle in Ukrainian affairs and support military surrogates who have violated basic international laws and international norms.”
Of course, one of Trump’s favorite pastimes is violating norms and tearing up precedents. In describing his talks with Trump, Obama didn’t pretend to believe that his words would have much of a restraining influence on the new President after Friday—to do so would have been to invite ridicule. But Obama did suggest that the realities of being the nation’s chief executive might have some effect on Trump. “Once he comes into office,” the President said, “and he looks at the complexities of how to, in fact, provide health care for everybody—something he says he wants to do—or wants to make sure that he is encouraging job creation and wage growth in this country, that may lead him to some of the same conclusions that I arrived at once I got here.”
Obama has said something very similar to this before. But the last time he said it, soon after the election, he didn’t use the qualifier “may.” He originally said that occupying the Oval Office would force Trump to come to terms with reality. Evidently, Obama’s hopes have been tempered. Finishing up his thoughts on how Trump would adapt to the White House, he said, “But I don’t think we’ll know until he has an actual chance to get sworn in and sit behind that desk.”
The President expressed more certainty about the need for his successor to surround himself with an able staff of diverse views. “You are enormously reliant on a team,” he said. “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.”
Trump is hardly known for his willingness to take advice or seek out contrary views. Insofar as his senior staff contains any political diversity, it ranges from moderate conservative (Jared Kushner) to conservative conservative (Mike Pence and Reince Priebus) to alt-right (Steve Bannon). Far from coming around to see things Obama’s way, Trump and his crew seem determined to make a bonfire of the outgoing President’s accomplishments. Next week, the new President will sign a series of executive orders rolling back environmental regulations and many other initiatives that Obama pushed through during the last eight years.
On some of these issues, Obama indicated that he wouldn’t get involved in the public debate. He’s got a book to write, he said, and he wants to spend more time with his family. In any case, he said, “We’ve got a new President and a Congress that are going to make their same determinations.”
But Obama didn’t leave it there. He also identified four developments that could threaten “our core values” and prompt him to intervene. If he saw “systematic discrimination being ratified”; “institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press”; the erection of “explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote”; or “efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids, and send them someplace else.” If he saw any of these things, the President said, he would speak out publicly—although he also added, “It doesn’t mean I would get on the ballot anywhere.”
This didn’t sound like the farewell of someone retiring permanently from the public sphere. And that, surely, is for the good. Obama is only fifty-five, he won successive Presidential elections (one of only two Democratic Presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt to accomplish that feat) and he is leaving office with an approval rating is in the high fifties. At the same time, however, his entire policy legacy is now under determined attack, and many of his supporters are despairing. Given the grave danger a Trump Presidency presents to the liberal values Obama embodies, it will surely only be a matter of time before he deems it necessary, once again, to make his eloquent voice heard.