President Obama’s final press conference was one of both reflection and subtle rebuke toward incoming President-elect Donald Trump, defending voting rights and a free press, all while reassuring the American people that “at my core, I think we’re going to be OK.”
Obama did show some deference toward Trump — sidestepping a question about the more than five dozen Democrats in Congress who are boycotting the inauguration on Friday. “All I know is I’m going to be there, and so is Michelle,” he said.
And striking an upbeat tone at the end, Obama maintained that despite being disappointed that Democrat Hillary Clinton hadn’t won, there shouldn’t be dread ahead.
“The only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world,” Obama said, quoting advice he’d given his own daughters after the election.
“I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad,” Obama said.
But he did have some advice for his successor, warning Trump not to become isolated in the Oval Office and to rely on his advisers.
“This is a job of such magnitude that you can’t do it by yourself,” the president said. “You are enormously reliant on a team.”
And Obama said that while it was appropriate for the incoming Republican administration to make shifts in policy, he also warned that, “if you’re going to make big shifts in policy, just make sure you’ve thought it through.”
Obama said his post-presidential plans including wanting “to be quiet a little bit and not hear myself talk so darn much.”
But he did say there would be issues he wouldn’t hesitate to speak out on after he leaves office, if he believes the country’s “core values may be at stake.” Obama said that would include “systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion,” an assault on voting rights, “institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press” and “efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and, for all practical purposes, are American kids, and send them someplace else.”
Obama greatly defended the rights of a free press, seeming to be directly addressing tensions between the press corps and the incoming administration, which has floated moving reporters out of the White House and denying credentials to some reporters or publications.
Obama acknowledged that at times he hasn’t been pleased with some of his coverage, but told reporters that “America needs you, and our democracy needs you.”
“You’re not supposed to be sycophants,” Obama said. “You’re supposed to be skeptics; you’re supposed to ask me tough questions.”
But the area where Obama grew most passionate and the most defensive was on the issue of voting rights.
“This whole notion of voting fraud is something that has been constantly disproved,” the president said forcefully. “This is fake news.”
He argued there was a racial component to such efforts — “The reason that we’re the only country that makes it harder to vote is that it traces exactly back to Jim Crow” — but did also argue that while racial issues have gotten better during his presidency, “we’ve got more work to do on race.”
Obama also expressed hope that there would be more diverse chief executives to follow him in the White House, along with another black president.
“I think we’re going to see people of merit rise up from every race, faith & corner of the country,” he said. “We’re going to have a woman president, a Latino president, a Jewish president, a Hindu president.”
And he praised the “transformation” that’s taken place over LGBT rights over the past decade, and said he was proud that his administration in some place ” provided a good block downfield to help the movement advance.”
While Obama said he knew there would be challenges, the president said he was hopeful those advancements weren’t “reversible because American society has changed, the attitudes of young people in particular have changed.”
Obama also defended some of his final controversial moves in office, including a controversial decision on Tuesday to commute Chelsea Manning’s 35-year prison sentence.
The president said that the Army private who was convicted of leaking secret military information to WikiLeaks had served a “tough prison sentence” of 35 years which was “very disproportionate” to sentences given to individuals in other similar cases.
And on the U.S.’s decision last month to abstain on a U.N. Security Council vote that eventually passed condemning Israeli settlements on the West Bank, Obama said that the status quo in the region was “unacceptable.”
“I don’t see how this issue gets resolved in a way that maintains Israel as both Jewish and a democracy,” the president said. “Because if you do not have two states, then in some form or fashion you are extending an occupation, functionally you end up having one state in which millions of people are disenfranchised and operate as second class residents.”