LIMA, Peru — On the surface, President Barack Obama was cool-headed, cerebral and confident, doling out parting reassurances to world leaders on his final global jaunt. Behind the scenes, his aides and Democrats back at home were a deflated and weary bunch, grimly ending Obama’s tenure in a way they never imagined.
The jarring gap between Obama’s public face and the prevailing Democratic sentiment about Donald Trump’s election was an unexpected element to Obama’s final presidential trip, which included visits to Greece, Germany and Peru. Time after time, Obama opted for optimism over any sense of foreboding, and diplomatic dodges over criticism. The man whose legacy risks being devastated by Trump’s election appeared to be the one Democrat who wouldn’t publicly fret about its impact.
As Obama hopped from capital to capital, news of the emerging Trump administration followed him, dominating news conferences and private meetings with leaders. The president answered nearly every question about Trump, his new hires and his plan to dismantle Obama’s legacy, with a version of the same answer.
“Reality will force him to adjust how he approaches many of these issues,” Obama said Sunday as he closed out his trip in Lima. “That’s just how this office works.”
It was far from clear that other Democrats shared that optimism.
Each time Air Force One landed in another foreign capital, cellphones buzzed and White House officials’ faces fell as the latest news came in about Trump’s team-in-waiting: First, Steve Bannon, former head of the far-right outlet Breitbart News, as chief White House strategist, then retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has said Islam is a “cancer,” to be national security adviser.
And as Obama was somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, flying to Lima, Trump picked immigration hard-liner Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general and national security hawk Rep. Mike Pompeo for CIA chief.
Taken together, the selections deflated the hopes in the White House that Trump, faced with the awesome duty of running the nation, might tone it down after the campaign
Of all the Trump’s choices, White House officials said it was the selection of Flynn that felt like the most devastating blow, given the immense authority the national security adviser has over matters of war and peace.
By the time Obama arrived in Peru, the creeping sense of despair among his aides was palpable.
Even still, Obama told a young student from Peru the next day that she shouldn’t assume the worst. When she asked whether anxiety about Trump was media-driven “global paranoia,” Obama’s advice was to “wait until the administration is in place.”
Though he acknowledged that Trump’s vehement opposition to free trade deals would create tensions, he stood firm that Trump, despite his campaign rhetoric, was committed to NATO, echoing his message to leaders in Berlin and Athens. He didn’t dwell on Trump’s tough talk about immigration, a key concern in Latin America.
“With respect to Latin America, I don’t anticipate major changes in policy from the new administration,” Obama said.
If Obama seems more assured than fellow Democrats about how Trump will govern, that’s because he is, said individuals familiar with his thinking.
In their Oval Office meeting after Trump’s victory, Obama discussed his upcoming trip and said he’d be quizzed on what to expect from Trump. Informed by their conversation, Obama felt confident enough to tell foreign leaders that Trump, for example, would stand behind NATO and wouldn’t cut ties to Latin America, said the individuals, who weren’t authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.
Whether world leaders are taking Obama — and therefore, Trump — at his word remains to be seen. After all, there may be a credibility gap for Obama, who spent the last year reassuring anxious allies that Trump would never win.
Since Election Day, Obama has refused to entertain any wallowing in despair, nor has he engaged in the kind of warts-and-all diagnosis of what went wrong that many Democrats crave, in hopes of ensuring their devastating loss isn’t repeated. Instead, his message has been to buck up and keep calm.
It started within hours of Trump’s victory, when Obama called shell-shocked aides in for a morning meeting and told them, essentially, to get it together, keep their heads up, and go about their work, aides said. This is politics, stuff happens, and this is how the game is played, the president told his team.
For Obama’s aides, many of whom sobbed openly in the Rose Garden hours later when he addressed the nation, it was the slap in the face needed to be able to focus on a task they never imagined having to perform: preparing to hand over the White House to Donald Trump.
That process started immediately — before the nation had a chance to truly grasp what happened — and by the next day Trump was there, in the Oval Office, sitting down with Obama while his aides toured the West Wing.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Josh Lederman has covered the White House and national politics for The Associated Press since 2012.
Associated Press writer Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.
Peace and Freedom Commentary: Many Americans see their democracy sometimes as a giant pendulum that swings to the left in some years and also swings back to the right. The people get to decide the timing and pace of the change. After every election, especially when voting brings us a surprise or “upset” election result, we often hear about the beauty of our democracy, its checks and balances and how one man or woman can have a profound impact yet is often held to less extreme ideas and implementation as the people express their will in elections. People in Latin America and everywhere else need to know we Americans are interested in men and women of substance that can make America vital, prosperous, strong and a player on the world stage that is useful and helpful. That has been happening for over two hundred years, without resulting in dictatorship or tyranny. There should be no doubt as to the strength and vitality of our American democracy — and the confidence we have in our elected leaders to carry out their duties consistently with the will of the American people; our laws, international treaties and the rules they must live by — in a way that brings prosperity, freedom and human rights as much as possible. We are watching the drama of American democracy unfolding — Barack Obama is not at home weeping and Donald Trump is interviewing people and building his administration’s team. We should wait and see it unfold a little further before we wait and pass judgment — which is really up to the people called voters.
“Obama was hoping to end his presidency on a high note, but with Trump’s stunning upset and widespread uncertainty about what’s to come, the mood will be far from celebratory,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “Some of Obama’s [Latin American] legacy, including the thaw with Cuba, could be at risk.”
If the legacy is so fragile that it might be reversed even before the end of Mr. Obama’s term it must not be made of very lasting stuff….
Tags: America's Democracy is Working, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, CIA, corruption, Democratic sentiment about Donald Trump, Democrats, dismantle Obama's legacy, Donald Trump's election, global paranoia, Hillary Clinton, immigration, Michael Flynn, Mike Pompeo, NATO, Obama Legacy, Obama's legacy, obamacare, Oval Office, President Barack Obama, Steve Bannon, Trump, U.S.