President Barack Obama still has “concerns” about Donald Trump but believes the president-elect’s pragmatism could help him get some things done.
On the campaign trail, Obama repeatedly portrayed the billionaire as unfit to be commander in chief and said the entire world was “teetering” on Trump’s possible election. He hammered the former reality television star’s temperament and felt that some of Trump’s words and actions amounted to sexual assault.
During his first press conference since the election, Obama repeated on Monday that he hopes Trump succeeds as president. But, in a return to his campaign-trail practice, Obama mentioned Trump’s name just once, referring to him over and over as “the president-elect.”
“Look, the people have spoken,” Obama told reporters in a packed White House briefing room. “Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States.”
But six days after he, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and the rest of their party suffered a stinging defeat, Obama acknowledged that Trump as president still worries him.
“Do I have concerns? Absolutely,” the president said, four days after meeting privately with Trump in the Oval Office for around 90 minutes. “He and I differ on a whole bunch of issues.”
Obama offered several telling insights while avoiding direct criticism.
“I think he’s coming to this office with fewer set hard and fast policy prescriptions than other presidents might arrive with,” Obama said.
“I don’t think he’s ideological,” the president continued. “I think he’s pragmatic in that way.” (Notably, Obama thinks that quality “can serve him well as long as he’s got good people around him.”)
Obama also warned that “certain elements” of the bombastic, sometimes angry, demeanor that Trump often flashed while campaigning or debating “won’t serve him well unless he realizes them and corrects them.” That’s because there is a different reaction around the world, with far greater ramifications, if the kind of rhetoric Trump used comes from a sitting president.
“Markets move,” Obama said. “I think he recognizes that this is different.”
Obama said he came away from the Thursday meeting believing Trump wants to be a “successful president.” Amid protests from Trump’s opponents and fears in minority communities of violence, oppression or deportation, Obama said he believes Trump wants to be president “not just for the people who voted for him but for the people at large.”
“This office has a way of waking you up. And 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,” Obama said.
During that Thursday conversation, Obama said he told Trump that the way information moves so speedily around the world and how his team will respond is one of the most important things the incoming commander in chief should be thinking about.
Obama was also in legacy mode, pointing to lower unemployment, an overall stronger country and a more efficient federal apparatus than when he first took office. He said he will hand Trump a country in better shape across the board than the one he inherited.
“If things get better” under a Trump administration, “more power to him, and I’ll be the first to congratulate him,” the outgoing president said.
Obama’s most recent solo press conference at the White House was last December, just before he departed on his annual holiday vacation in Hawaii. Monday’s event was also his first anywhere since holding one in September in Laos.
On policy matters, Obama told reporters he would urge Trump and his team to “think long and hard” before nixing his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA for short. The immigration program, installed through an executive action, gives protections against deportation to individuals brought to the United States as children and who remained in the country illegally.
“These are kids who … have done nothing wrong,” he said. “They are solid, wonderful young people. … It is my strong belief that a majority of the American people wouldn’t want to see those kids start hiding again,” the president said.
Obama also made a pitch for keeping more components of his signature health law, one day after Trump told CBS ’ “60 Minutes” that he would keep two major provisions.
“We’re going to have a problem,” Obama said, if whatever Trump and congressional Republicans put in place to replace Obamacare fails to insure more people than his law has. “I don’t think that’s unique to me,” he said, adding that the American people will likely come to the same conclusion — and insinuating that they will take out their frustrations at the ballot box.
“If they can come up with something that works better,” he said, “I’ll be the first to say, ‘Congratulations.’”