On Monday, reporters inundated president Obama with invitations to condemn Donald Trump in the same terms he’d used throughout the 2016 campaign. But the president demurred. Asked whether he still believes the president-elect lacks the temperament for the Oval Office, Obama replied, “This office has a way of waking you up.”
Asked about what message Trump sent by naming the former president of Breitbart as his chief strategist, Obama insisted, “It would not be appropriate for me to comment on every appointment the president-elect starts making.”
These gestures of deference to his successor can be attributed to the Obama’s desire to facilitate the peaceful transfer of power. But remarks towards the end of the president’s news conference suggested a second motivation behind his tactfulness — Obama wishes to retain access to Donald Trump’s left ear.
Last week, Trump and Obama had a 90-minute discussion in the Oval Office. The erstwhile leader of the birther movement emerged from that discussion singing Obama’s praises — and then told 60 Minutes that he was sympathetic to some parts of Obamacare and would consider amending the law, as opposed to repealing and replacing it.
Obama, for his part, left the meeting planning “to spend more time with his successor than presidents typically do.” It makes sense that the president would want to help educate the political novice who is set to take the reins of his office. But it’s hard not to suspect that part of Obama’s motivation derives from a desire to encourage the onetime Democrat to embrace his more moderate streak.
On Monday, Obama made this intention nearly explicit.
“I don’t think he is ideological, I think ultimately he is pragmatic,” Obama said of Trump. “That can serve him well. As long as he’s got good people around him and he has a clear sense of direction.”
The president then shared the direction he encouraged Trump to go down when considering the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
“One of the things I advised him to do was to make sure that, before he commits to certain courses of action, he’s really dug in and thought through how various issues play themselves out,” Obama said. “I’ll use an obvious example where we have a difference — but it will be interesting to see what happens in the coming year — which is the Affordable Care Act.”
“It’s one thing to characterize this thing as not working when its just an abstraction. Now suddenly you’re in charge and you’re going to repeal it. Okay, well what’s going to happen to those 20 million people who have health insurance? Are you going to just kick ’em off and suddenly they don’t have health insurance?” he continued. “Are you gonna repeal the provision that ensures that if you do have health insurance on your job — or you lose your job, or you start a small business — that you’re not discriminated against for having a preexisting condition? That’s really popular. How are you going to replace it?”
No doubt Trump has a well-thought out answer to this question — we just haven’t heard it yet.