As President-elect Donald Trump’s transition unfolds, with new twists and turns every morning, the waning days of the Obama administration have played out in curious parallel, a sort of melancholy off-Broadway production to the gaudy, bizarre spectacle of Trump Tower. President Obama’s farewell conversation with the Daily Show host Trevor Noah Monday night focused on many of his administration’s accomplishments, and was framed by the obvious respect that Noah, a biracial African comedian raised by his mother and grandmother, has for them. But the discussion had the same tinge of genuine fear that has characterized other recent interviews with the president, related specifically to one looming question: What happens now?
The president’s historic legacy is in so many ways secure. But over the course of their 20-minute conversation, he and Noah touched on signature pieces that now seem under threat, specifically Obamacare, progress on race relations, and the country’s geopolitical standing in the world. It was a sober meeting, reflective of Noah’s clear desire not to imitate the more skeptical, jabbing style of his predecessor Jon Stewart, but to instead position himself as a late-night host who will often choose to swerve away from an easy laugh in favor of a more even-handed dialogue.
As it stood, there was barely time for Noah to crack a joke, considering that he had actual breaking news to ask the president about: the CIA’s confirmation that Russia-backed hackers had worked to sway the election in Trump’s favor. There, as he did time and time again throughout the interview, Obama reassured viewers that the next four years might not be what they imagine. The Russian efforts to disrupt the U.S. election are nothing new, he noted. “What they did here, hacking some emails and releasing them, is not a particularly fancy brand of espionage,” he said, saying the media’s “obsession” with the leaked emails was more troubling, especially since they “didn’t have any explosive information in them.” Noah, nodding quietly, tried to interject with a joke—“The risotto was interesting,” referencing John Podesta’s widely reported cooking skills—but Obama blew right past his comment without a smile.
The rest of the conversation was similarly glum and focused on the present. Rather than merely championing the benefits of healthcare reform, the president turned to the camera and urged people to sign up, assuring them that they will get at the very least one year of coverage before whatever happens next. The implicit threat of a Trump presidency to the work of the Obama administration lurked in every exchange on the segment, from healthcare to climate change policies to general respect for the country’s intelligence agencies.
There’s something fascinating in the tight line Obama has decided to walk in addressing the incoming administration, never resorting to charged language and instead repeating the measured advice he reportedly offered the president-elect in their first meeting. “If you’re not getting [the intelligence agencies’] perspective, their detailed perspective, then you are flying blind,” he said of the daily briefings that Trump has publicly declined to receive. “We’ve seen in the past where there was political spin on intelligence ... and you end up making bad mistakes.”
Before the election, Obama’s faith in his legacy seemed partly rooted in his faith in the American electorate that delivered him to office, as he told Ta-Nehisi Coates and repeated on the campaign trail. Now, that faith seems more rooted in the simple fact that Washington’s bureaucracy is difficult to cut through. He repeated the “Federal government is an aircraft carrier, not a speedboat, turning it is hard” line to Noah that he’s floated in other interviews when asked about any repeal of Obamacare. When asked about climate change, he reminded Noah that no matter what the change in policy, “that’s still happening ... if some streets in Miami that are a mile or two from where the President-elect has a golf course are seeing flooding on sunny days ... that’s still going to have to be dealt with one way or another.”
It’s a powerful refrain: “Reality doesn’t go away,” Obama told Noah. “I’ve said to [Trump], look, if you can find different approaches to the problems, I don’t pretend I was the repository of all wisdom. What you can’t do is pretend they’re not problems.” That simple belief in common sense is something that seems to be lacking from some corners of the media (and the late-night comedy world) since November 8, but Obama continues to express it.
Perhaps Noah’s most pressing question about what happens next is what Obama will do as a private citizen, but it’s the thing that remains most elusive (he’s promised himself a vacation, but little else). There’s plenty to parse, though, from Obama’s even-handed attitude throughout the interview, especially when Noah asked him about his approach to speaking about issues of systemic racism without “alienating” people. Obama’s conviction in the power of clear, empathetic communication remains resolute, even after an electoral campaign that failed at times in that regard.
“My general theory is that if I was clear in my own mind about who I was, comfortable in my own skin, and had clarity about the way in which race continues to be this powerful factor in so many elements of our lives ... I always felt that if I really knew that and just communicated that as clearly as I could, I’d be okay,” he said. “How do I say this diplomatically? How do I say this in a way that it’s received?” It’s a question that’s obviously pressing for both Obama and Noah going forward, and it’s one the interview leaves dangling. There’ll be plenty of time to ask it in the days ahead.