President Obama said Americans had to "reconcile themselves" to the Trump presidency, and — in a surprising turnabout from his pre-election rhetoric — spoke optimistically about the president-elect's ability to govern.
Answering questions from reporters for the first time since voters handed the White House over to a candidate who promised to dismantle his agenda, Obama also pledged Monday to give President-elect Donald Trump the space he needs to put together a new government. He declined to comment on the appointment of alt-right firebrand Stephen Bannon to a top role in his White House, and steered clear of his campaign remarks that Trump was unfit for the presidency.
"Look, the people have spoken. Donald Trump will be the next president, the 45th president of the United States. And it will be up to him to set up a team that he thinks will serve him well and reflect his policies. And those who didn't vote for him have to recognize that that's how democracy works. That's how this system operates," he said. "Whenever you have got an incoming president of the other side, particularly after a bitter election like this, it takes a while for people to reconcile themselves with that new reality. Hopefully, it's a reminder that elections matter and voting counts."
He did give Trump plenty of presidential advice — on staffing, on reaching out to women and minorities, and even on his temperament. He said an offhand remark from the president can move markets and impact national security.
"There are going to be certain aspects of his temperament that will not serve him well unless he recognizes them and corrects them," Obama said.
But on the whole, Obama spoke almost admiringly of Trump's political skills. "What's clear is that he was able to tap into — yes, the anxieties, but also the enthusiasm of his voters in a way that was impressive," he said. And that connection with his supporters made him "impervious to events that might have sunk another candidate.
"That's powerful stuff," he said.
Trump "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. "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 news conference provided a way for Obama to get domestic politics out of the way before he departs Monday night for a weeklong, three-country foreign trip that's expected to be the last of his presidency. "I figure, why wait?" he told reporters.
That trip — to Greece, Germany and Peru — will give Obama a chance to reassure allies that bipartisan commitments are more enduring than any one administration. He's scheduled three news conferences during the trip, one on each leg, adding up to an extraordinary one-week stretch in which he'll face the press four times.
At the Monday news conference, Obama addressed:
► The future of the Affordable Care Act: "Obviously, this has been a holy grail for Republicans over the past six, seven years: 'We’ve got to kill Obamacare.' That's been taken as an article of faith. 'It’s terrible. It doesn't work, and we have to undo it," Obama said.
But he argued that the GOP now has the challenge of how to improve on something that, Obama contends, is already doing well. "On a lot of issues, now comes the hard part," he said.
► His Oval Office meeting with Trump: "We had a very cordial conversation and that didn't surprise me," he said. "I think that he is obviously a gregarious person. He's somebody who I think likes to mix it up and to have a vigorous debate."
Obama gave Trump some practical advice on staffing. "Probably the most important point that I made was that how you staff, particularly the chief of staff, the national security adviser, the White House counsel ... that's something that has to be attended to right away," he said. "I think it's important to give him the room and the space to do that."
Obama said he told Trump he was encouraged by his more conciliatory tone since the election, but said he needs to reach out to women and minority groups to assure them he can be their president, too. "Gestures matter," he said. "And how he reaches out to groups that may not have supported him, how he signals his interest in their issues or concerns, I think those are the kinds of things that can set a tone that will help move things forward once he has actually taken office."
► The future of the Democratic Party: "It’s a healthy thing for the Democratic party to go through some reflection. I think it's important for me not to be bigfooting that conversation. We want to see new voices and new ideas emerge," he said.
He defended the Democratic platform on economic and social issues. "I believe we have better ideas, but I also believe that good ideas won't happen if people don't hear them," he said. "Given the population distribution across the country, we have to compete everywhere. we have to show up everywhere."
► The closing of Guantanamo Bay prison: "It is true that I have not been able to close the darned thing, because of the congressional restrictions that have been placed on us," he said of the Cuban naval base that houses detainees from the war on terror. "What is also true is that we’ve significantly reduced the population." There are now just 60 detainees, down from a peak of about 770.
He said there remains a "group of very dangerous people" who cannot be tried in civilian courts, often because of the sensitive nature of the evidence against them, but that they could be housed more efficiently in facilities on U.S. soil. "Congress disagrees with me, and I gather the president-elect does as well," he said.
► His legacy: Obama said his White House team should be proud of what they've accomplished. "We've already ensured that when we turn over the keys, the car is in pretty good shape. We are indisputably in a better position now than we were when I came in eight years ago," Obama said, running through his usual litany of accomplishments including the auto bailout, job growth and health care costs.
But he also added one that he doesn't often boast of: "I am very proud of the fact that we will, knock on wood, exit this administration without significant scandal." While he admitted that there have been "screw ups" in the federal government, he said the federal government acts more ethically than in the past.
"The reason is, frankly, we listen to the lawyers," he said. "You wouldn’t know this if you were listening to some news outlets, or some members of oversight committees in Congress. But if you actually look at the facts, it works."