As President Barack Obama traveled to Greece, Germany and Peru last week, he left a trail of words for Donald Trump that amounts to a how-to manual for the presidency.
Obama has offered to break decades of precedent and provide the president-elect with more face time than departing presidents customarily give. Even Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., has gotten in on the act, telling the man who will replace him, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, he will be “available” to act as a “senior staff for him.” Biden signaled his successor is looking for guidance, saying of Pence: “I think he’ll listen.”
Obama’s public comments since Election Day have seemed aimed as much at Trump as at world leaders, concerned citizens and immigrants.
“Once you’re in the Oval Office, once you begin interacting with world leaders, once you see the complexities of the issues, that has a way of shaping your thinking and, in some cases, modifying your thinking,” Obama said Sunday in Peru. “Because you recognize this solemn responsibility, not only to the American people, but the solemn responsibility that America has as the largest, most powerful country in the world.”
During the press conference, Obama tried to drive home a “simple point,” perhaps to Trump himself: “You can’t assume that the language of campaigning matches up with the specifics of governing, legislation, regulations and foreign policy.”
Obama suggested a change is almost inevitable when he said, “What I can guarantee is … that reality will force him to adjust how he approaches many of these issues — that’s just the way this office works.” (Though he acknowledged during his final stop in South America that he “can’t guarantee that the president-elect won’t pursue some of the positions that he’s taken.“)
Just hours before the 44th president boarded Air Force One for his final trip abroad, Obama began his public tutorial in the White House briefing room.
He discussed, mostly in broad strokes, his meeting with Trump two days after the election. Obama said he “emphasized to him that, look, in an election like this that was so hotly contested and so divided, gestures matter.”
He told the bombastic developer and reality show star that it would matter “how he reaches out to groups that may not have supported him, how he signals his interest in their issues or concerns.” That’s how Trump, who had harsh things to say about minorities, immigrants, women and U.S. allies on the campaign trail, “can set a tone that will help move things forward once he’s actually taken office,” Obama said.
In Greece last Wednesday, Obama tried to assure European leaders that Trump would reverse himself and continue to honor its commitments to NATO — including treaty obligations to defend all other member countries. (Candidate Trump called the alliance “obsolete” and said if other members fail to “reasonably reimburse” Washington his administration would not defend them.)
Obama also seemed to take aim at Trump’s campaign vow to bring manufacturing jobs back to hard-hit areas, saying, “So we can’t look backwards for answers, we have to look forward.”
A day later, in Berlin, the president advised Trump to be “willing to stand up to Russia,” reminding his successor that many foreign policy experts, as well as himself, believe Russian President Vladimir Putin possesses views and strategic goals “deviating from our values and international norms.”
Flanked by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama advised Trump against taking a “realpolitik approach” to Russia by cutting deals that are merely “convenient at the time.”
Notably, Obama’s remarks have also taken up temperament — something Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton charged was his Achilles heel.
“I think what will happen with the president-elect is there are going to be certain elements of his temperament that will not serve him well unless he recognizes them and corrects them,” Obama said during one of his final briefing room appearances.
“When you’re a candidate and you say something that is inaccurate or controversial, it has less impact than it does when you’re president of the United States,” he said. “Everybody around the world is paying attention.”
The comment seemed odd in context because the journalists he was addressing know that. Obama seemed to be counseling Trump from the podium.
So why the extended lesson? Obama addressed one reason while still on U.S. soil: “Markets move” when the U.S. president speaks, and “national security issues require a level of precision in order to make sure that you don’t make mistakes.”