President Barack Obama normalized Donald Trump on Monday.
After a year of warning that Trump was uniquely unqualified for office, temperamentally unfit for the job, a challenge to democracy, a man who shouldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes, and who should not, could not and must not win, Obama spent an hour standing in front of the White House seal acting like he didn’t mean any of it, and the president-elect didn’t mean any of what he said, and not much is going to change on Jan. 20 or anytime after.
Obama’s asserted optimism boiled down to: “reality has a way of asserting itself.”
Obamacare might stay, the president said, and the Iran deal and Paris climate treaty, too. Undocumented children that he let stay in this country could be fine under a Trump presidency, he added. Trump’s probably going to hold to the same position on Syria, and on NATO, Obama added, because the president-elect is more of a pragmatist than an ideologue in his telling now, and once he sees the facts that Obama’s seen and thinks seriously about the office the way Obama has, he’ll come around to his point of view.
This is precisely the kind of argument that Republicans in Congress have felt so patronized by over the last eight years, and one that is completely out of whack with the shake to the system delivered by Trump’s campaign, which racked up few political debts to anyone as he claimed victory.
Either Trump flaked on everything in his 90-minute conversation with Obama in the Oval Office last week, or Obama is A) just trying to put on a good face, B) uninformed about what Trump said along the way, or C) still not accepting what’s coming when the president-elect is sworn in.
That’s not to say that Obama didn’t get in a few digs. He opened the news conference by holding up the sanctity of certain societal norms, including “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,” Obama said.
But he is obviously trying to avoid sparking the panic in the country and the economy that would likely come if the sitting president actively resisted the president-elect. He takes his institutional responsibilities, including the transfer of power, very seriously, and he’s leaned into that constantly in public and private in the last week.
Unfortunately for Obama, that means accepting a man he said could not be accepted, and treating Trump not as the threat to the republic that Obama was casting him as all of six days ago, and instead as an opposition candidate who might slowly shift a few little things about American policy. He’s impressed with Trump’s political skills, Obama said. He finds the president-elect “gregarious.” He has concerns about a Trump presidency, but the federal government is like an ocean liner, and takes a long time to change, he insisted, no matter what the president-elect promised or represents. He compared the existential concerns he’d raised about having Trump’s finger on the button to his haplessness keeping track of paper without a good filing system.
“Regardless of what assumptions he brought to the office, this office has a way of waking you up,” Obama said.
“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,” Obama explained, noting that he’s encouraged Trump to reach out to some of the groups alarmed by his win. “My hope is that those impulses ultimately win out, but it’s a little too early to start making judgments on that.”
Citing a need to give Trump space to staff his White House, Obama declined to comment on the president-elect’s controversial appointment of former Breitbart head Steve Bannon, who’s been accused of domestic abuse and white nationalism, as his chief strategist for the West Wing.
Many in Washington and beyond have quickly shifted into assuming that Trump, for everything that he said and did during the campaign, will govern as a pretty conventional conservative. Obama went farther, arguing that Trump, now that he’s being brought up to speed on the many things he criticized but didn’t understand, will govern as a right-leaning guardian of the status quo, changing up his personality and demeanor along the way.
“Whatever you bring to this office, this office has a habit of magnifying and pointing out and hopefully then you correct for,” Obama said Monday.
Contrast that to how Obama framed it on the campaign trail.
“Who you are, what you are does not change once you become president,” Obama told a crowd in North Carolina the weekend before the election. “It will magnify who you are. You have more power, so, as a consequence, folks will enable you to be more who you are. It will shine a spotlight on who you are.”
That meant, according to Obama a week and a half ago, that a President Trump would disrespect women more, refuse to denounce Klan supporters and treat the Constitution so dismissively that he might be able to violate it—not that a President Trump would sit down behind the Resolute Desk and start changing his mind.
What Obama didn’t do at any point in the hour he spent at his press conference was explain his year of dismissiveness toward Trump and what Trump might represent about him.
Asked in January if he’d helped create the environment for Trump to run in, Obama said he was sure it wouldn’t happen.
“Talk to me if he wins, then we’ll have a conversation about how responsible I feel about it,” Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer in an interview ahead of the State of the Union last January.
Asked in July to explain the Republican nominee’s appeal, Obama said the candidacy was about the “the frustrations and the fear that a Trump [is] tapping into, you know, that’s an earlier generation that feels unsettled.”
Be sympathetic to that, Obama said then, “but also recognize that, you know, if we get the decisions that need to be made right, then 10 years from now, 20 years from now, we may look back at something like the Trump campaign as the last vestige of — a kind of politics of us versus them that really doesn’t apply to — to today.”
Trump won. That politics applied to today. And now it’s going to define at least the next four years in the White House and Washington. Obama still hasn’t explained what that says about him or the political future, except to say that Democrats are going to need to work harder to get their message out (this included a little bit of side-eye at Hillary Clinton for not being enough of a presence in non-traditionally friendly territory).
But after the press conference, he got on a call for Organizing for Action, the group that grew out of his presidential campaigns and never emerged outside of the context of electing him as the major force promoting his agenda on the ground that he and his supporters wanted.
Already, Obama had been planning to focus on state legislature races post-presidency as part of a campaign to change redistricting across the country in what’s now an existential moment for the Democratic Party that a week ago believed it was moving into permanent majority: only four states go into 2018 having both Democratic governors and Democratic-controlled legislatures, setting up for gerrymandering that could further decimate what’s left.
Obama told the people on the call he has ideas of what he wants to do politically in response to Trump’s election, but can’t share them yet.
“I’m going to be constrained with what I do with all of you until I am again a private citizen. But that’s not so far off,” Obama told the activists who have worked on his campaigns and to promote his agenda on an Organizing for America conference call. “You’re going to see me early next year and we’re going to be in a position where we can start cooking up all kinds of great stuff to do.”
Sarah Wheaton contributed to this report.
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