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Obama: Not Even the President Can Undo American Leadership

At his first post-election press conference, President Obama assured the press and public alike that Trump will find there is a difference between campaigning and governing.


President Barack Obama had a message Monday at his first post-election press conference for the media, the American people, and, in all likelihood, his successor: There is a difference between campaigning and governing.

Obama also sought to assure the public that “when we turn over the keys, the car’s in pretty good shape.” In other words, Obama wanted to tout his administration’s choices to both strengthen and stabilize the United States and the rest of the world — decisions he would urge President-elect Donald Trump to continue.

Of his upcoming trip to Greece and Germany, Obama said he wants to signal solidarity with America’s closest allies, particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has “probably been my closest international partner these past eight years.” He said the trans-Atlantic alliance and NATO have endured for decades under Democratic and Republican parties alike — and those are partnerships that no one president could undo.

Alliances among U.S. and foreign militaries, diplomats, intelligence officers, and development workers are all part of the “enormous continuity beneath the day to day news that makes us that indispensable nation,” Obama said. He said Trump expressed great interest during their meeting last week in maintaining what have traditionally been America’s core strategic partnerships.

But just as there will surely be differences between Candidate Trump and President Trump, so, too, may there be disparities between the incoming leader who met with Obama last Thursday and the one who takes office in January.

A Kremlin readout published Monday of a phone call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin said the two discussed how to normalize U.S.-Russia relations, including by way of the economy and trade. The men also agreed to work together to defeat their “shared No. 1 enemy — international terrorism and extremism.” It is unclear what this cooperation means for Western sanctions, or NATO, or Europe.

Nevertheless, Obama (who was not asked about, and did not address, the Putin call) stressed that Trump will find out for himself that campaigning will prove different from governing.

On issues of trade, Obama noted “you’re not going to put that [globalization] genie back in the bottle” and said the American people “still support trade,” but simply want to make sure it is fair. Obama called immigration “good for the country,” adding that he does not believe U.S. citizens want to see undocumented children who are American, for all intents and purposes, rounded up or forced to hide. He said international accords like the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement are working, and underscored the difficulty of tearing up those or other treaties once they are moving forward.

Aside from any political considerations, jettisoning such mandates are difficult of practical limitations placed on the president, Obama said. Take the terror detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, for example: Obama promised on his first full day in office in 2009 to close it; now, with 10 weeks before he leaves, it remains open.

“It is true that I have not been able to close the darn thing because of the congressional restrictions that have been placed on us,” Obama said, noting he at least reduced the detainees population to about 60 now from the estimated 250 when he took office. “My strong belief and preference is that we would be much better off, moving them to a different facility that was clearly under U.S. jurisdiction.”

But, he noted, “Congress disagrees with me … It’s not just a matter of what I’m willing to do.”

There are rules, laws, and norms that govern the office of the president, from both within the country and the wider world, Obama said. And the new president, he assured his audience, will learn that for himself, too.

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin