With his worldview rooted in that faith in the American project, Obama projected equanimity about Trump’s approach. In the first days of his presidency, Obama offended Republicans when, in the midst of negotiations on policy, he reminded them, “I won.” But the president on Wednesday offered the same courtesy to his successor that he had invoked for himself, asserting again that elections have consequences.
“The president-elect will have his own policy,” he said, answering a question about Israeli-Palestinian policy. “The candidate for the ambassadorship [to Israel] obviously has very different views than I do. That is their prerogative. That is part of what happens in elections.” At another point, he said, “Having won an election opposed to many of my initiatives, it is appropriate for him to go forward with his vision and his values.”
But while he described his conversations with Trump as “cordial” and “substantive,” he offered warnings that were both explicit and implicit.
In an interview with The Times of London, Trump suggested he would cut a deal with Russia, offering to undo sanctions levied after the illegal annexation of Crimea in exchange for nuclear-arms reductions. Obama criticized that, saying the United States had to stand up for sovereignty of nations like Ukraine: “This is a good example of the vital role that America has to continue to play around the world in protecting basic values.”
As a word of advice to Trump, he emphasized the importance of hearing, and considering, good advice, and then acting upon it deliberately. “If you’re going to make big shifts in policy, make sure you’ve thought it through. Actions typically create reactions. You want to be intentional about things.”
Obama also asserted the importance of “treating people with basic respect.” That could be read as a shot across the prickly president-elect’s bow, though it came during a riff in which he was discussing the importance of fighting economic inequality. As he did last week, Obama advocated a class-based approach, cutting across racial barriers to include the struggling poor in both inner cities and struggling rural communities.
But the president also offered a list of the issues on which he would feel compelled to speak out. It is customary for former commanders in chief to absent themselves from politics for a time and give their successors area to maneuver, but Obama has said he would not sit quietly while some of what he sees as core American values were undermined. He sketched out those bright lines on Wednesday: “systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion”; any attempt to stifle dissent or the press; any effort to undermine the right to vote; or movement to deport undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
The first two of those are somewhat abstract, but the second two are not. There are already, and have been for years, efforts to make voting more difficult, generally justified as an anti-fraud measure. Obama pointedly dismissed claims of voter fraud as “fake news,” nodding to the many studies that have failed to come up with any evidence of major fraud. The second was a cornerstone of Trump’s campaign promise to deport illegal immigrants, which would seem to set up a collision between the two men, though Trump has since backed off on the question of children somewhat.