How Obama is trying to allay fears at home and abroad

After campaigning forcefully against Donald Trump, the president is now offering reassurances that a transition to Trump does not have to mean disaster for America or disruption to the global order.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama tours Acropolis with Dr. Eleni Banou (l.), director of the Ephorate of Antiquities for Athens at the Ministry of Culture, on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016.

In the week since Donald Trump won the presidency, he and President Obama have lived two political lifetimes.

Mr. Trump has gone from gracious in victory, to subdued in the Oval Office, to a new version of his old self – shaking up his transition team and blasting the “failing” New York Times on Twitter.

Mr. Obama is ever-more a lame duck, with a primary goal of overseeing an orderly transition. Any hint of obstruction would only help Trump. In their Oval Office meeting last week, Obama spoke magnanimously of the man who spent years questioning his legitimacy as an American.

But Obama is spinning many plates simultaneously. He is trying to allay the fears of about half the nation. He is trying to reassure US allies abroad. And he is trying to preserve as much of his legacy as possible.

By Wednesday, speaking from the birthplace of democracy, Obama was also very much the pundit-in-chief.

“As you may have noticed, the next American president and I could not be more different," Obama said in Athens, in his last major speech abroad. "We have very different points of view, but American democracy is bigger than any one person."

And as the sitting president until noon on Jan. 20, 2017, Obama still enjoys both the formal and informal powers of office, including the bully pulpit. In the US, he remains at a high point in his popularity, and his words still carry weight, both with his supporters and around the world.

“He’s speaking to different audiences with different preconceptions and different stakes in the results,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“So from the Oval Office, he’s speaking to the American people in the wake of a tumultuous election with an outcome that he didn’t predict or hope for. So he’s saying – as he absolutely has to – ‘This will be our president, and we have to hope that he succeeds, because then the country will succeed.’”

But when talking to heads of state, with different understandings of what just happened and of their nations’ stake in it, Obama is saying, “Do the best you can, try to keep alliances healthy and alive, and we’ll all pray for each other,” says Mr. Jillson.

Obama reassures allies

In his speech Wednesday, Obama offered reassurances that a transition to Trump does not have to mean a disruption in the global order, despite statements by the president-elect during the campaign that raised questions about his commitment to NATO and its members’ requirement to protect each other. 

"I am confident that just as America's commitment to the transatlantic alliance has endured, whether under a Democratic or a Republican administration, that commitment will continue – including our pledge and our treaty obligation to defend every ally," Obama said.

In press conferences and speeches since the election, Obama has also made clear that he gets the economic frustration felt by millions of Americans – and citizens around the world – grappling with globalization, automation, growing inequality, and a sense of diminished prospects for their children.

“This impulse to pull back from a global world is understandable,” Obama said in Athens. “If people feel they are losing control of their future, they will push back.”

And he tacitly acknowledged merit in Trump’s argument on trade, calling for a “course correction” on globalization. But he warned against looking “backwards” for answers. “We have to look forward,” Obama said.

How Oval Office could change Trump

Whether a lame-duck US president can truly reassure citizens and their leaders is questionable. Fear of the unknown can seem powerful, particularly as a man with no experience in government prepares to take over.

But speaking to the press Monday, before he headed overseas, Obama offered reassurances about Trump.

"This office has a way of waking you up,” Obama said. “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."

Obama also said he felt Trump was sincere in wanting to be president of all Americans, and echoed the optimism of some that the man proud of his deal-making skills will be willing to compromise.

"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 good sense of direction," Obama said Monday.

Already, Trump has backed down from some of the absolutes of his campaign rhetoric, such as doing away completely with the Affordable Care Act – a big part of Obama’s legacy.

Trump now speaks positively, for example, about keeping popular elements of the act, such as the provision that allows adult children up to age 26 to remain on their parents’ plan and a ban on insurance companies barring people with preexisting conditions from purchasing coverage.

Whether keeping just the popular parts of the ACA is doable seems questionable, but Trump’s comments offer Obama hope. And a reason to keep the lines of communication with his successor open.

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