Obama: Oval Office Will Be Wake-Up Call for Trump

Obama: Oval Office Will Be Wake-Up Call for Trump
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Donald Trump will find it harder than he may imagine to fulfill some of his campaign pledges, and in other instances the president-elect’s pragmatism will force him to revise positions he staked out before winning the White House, President Obama predicted Monday.

“He is coming to this office with fewer set hard-and-fast policy prescriptions than a lot of other presidents might be arriving with,” Obama said during an hour-long White House news conference before departing for the final international trip of his presidency.

Obama left Monday for a week’s business planned in Greece, Germany and Peru.

 “I don't think he is ideological. I think ultimately he is … pragmatic in that way. And that can serve him well as long as he has got good people around him and he has a clear sense of direction,” the president added about his successor.

Obama’s assessment of Trump (he mentioned his name just four times) was respectful and full of offers of assistance. But the president referred again and again to governing realities and surprises he believes are in store for the president-elect, despite the lock Republicans will enjoy in Washington in January at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

"This office has a way of waking you up. Those aspects of his positions or his predispositions that don't match up with reality, he will find shaken up pretty quick because reality has a way of asserting itself,” he said of Trump.

The president also defended achievements he said were undeniable during his two terms, arguing that Trump’s administration may be more of a continuation of Obama policies than the president-elect’s supporters banked on.

From the Affordable Care Act to the Iran nuclear deal, to a global climate change agreement, Obama predicted that what was accomplished on his watch – and what is working both domestically and internationally – comes with satisfied constituencies, committed allies and embedded processes that can stymie the will of even the most determined Oval Office inhabitant.

During his 90-minute meeting with Trump Thursday, the president said he reminded the businessman, who had never held elective office before his improbable ascension to the presidency, that governing means there are always hurdles and handcuffs.

“One of the things you discover about being president is that there are all these rules and norms and laws, and you’ve got to pay attention to them. And the people who work for you are also subject to those rules and norms,” Obama said. “That’s a piece of advice that I gave to the incoming president.”

Obama’s post-election crystal ball seemed to blend a lame duck’s mixture of pride and hubris with flashes of candor and concession. Obama never mentioned Hillary Clinton. While he commended Trump for cannily tapping into the anxieties and hopes of nearly half the electorate, he offered no evidence that he perceived his policies or performance in office as contributors to Clinton’s defeat. 

“It becomes more difficult, I think, to undo something that's working than undo something that isn't working,” Obama said of policies he will bequeath to the new administration. “And when you're not responsible for it, I think you can call it a terrible deal. When you are responsible for the deal and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, you're more likely to look at the facts,” he added.

Obama forecast that Trump was unlikely to eliminate some of the accomplishments about which the 44th president is proudest. Just 10 days ago, Obama campaigned on Clinton’s behalf telling voters the opposite – pleading that a long list of accomplishments would be decimated if Trump won. On other issues Trump has criticized – the Affordable Care Act and the deferred deportation program known as DACA, benefiting undocumented migrants brought to the United States as children – Obama said he would continue to try to influence Trump’s thinking. 

Trump told voters during his campaign that he would pull out of the Iran deal. Obama said as president, Trump, backed by Republican allies, will have to explain to the world why a pact that he said Tehran is currently fulfilling should be scuttled, if doing so would allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon faster.

“That is going to be true in other circumstances,” Obama continued, referring the global pact reached in Paris to reduce carbon emissions. “You've got 200 countries that have signed up for this thing, and the good news is that what we've been able to show over the last five, six, eight years is that it's possible to grow the economy really fast and possible to bring down carbon emissions as well. It's not just a bunch of rules that we've set up. You have got utilities that are putting in solar panels and creating jobs. You've got the big three automakers, who have seen record sales and are overachieving on the fuel efficiency standards that we set. Turns out that people like not having to fill up as often and then save money at the pump, even if it's good for the environment.”

Asked about the plight of the Democratic Party, clearly in shock after Trump’s victory and agitated about Democrats’ defeats at every level of government during the Obama years, the president offered encouragement. But he also set himself apart.

Obama bragged that as an African-American contender for the presidency, he won Iowa twice – one of the states with primarily white electorates that Trump captured on Election Day. He said, without mentioning Clinton or assuming any blame himself, that Democratic candidates know how to improve Americans’ lives, but have to compete beyond the two coasts and outside reliably liberal cities for every vote, and revamp communications in an era of changing news and information consumption among voters.

“I believe that we have better ideas,” he said. “But I also believe that good ideas don't matter if people don't hear them. And one of the issues the Democrats have to be clear on is the given population distribution across the country. We have to compete everywhere. We have to show up everywhere. We have to work at a grassroots level, something that's been a running thread in my career.” 

Obama said it is a “healthy thing” for the Democratic Party to “go through some reflection.” Yet, even as he weighed in Monday, he suggested the navel-gazing would need to come from others.

“I think it's important for me not to be big-footing that conversation,” the president said. “I think we want to see new voices and new ideas emerge. That's part of the reason why term limits are a really useful thing."

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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