President Obama said Americans had to "reconcile themselves" to the Trump presidency, but maintained that he was optimistic about the future of the country and his Democratic party.
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 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 pre-election contention that Trump would make a dangerous president.
"Look, the people have spoken. Donald Trump will be the next president, the 45th president of the United States. Those who didn't vote for him have to understand, that's how the system works. That's how democracy operates," he said. "Whenever you have an incoming president on the other side, particularly after a contentious election like we've had, it takes a while for people to reconcile themselves to that new reality. Hopefully it's a reminder that elections matter."
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 issue,s now comes the hard part," he said.
His Oval Office meeting with Trump: "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. "Gestures matter, and how he reaches out to groups that may not have supported him ... those are the kinds of things that can set the tone to move forward once he takes 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 views 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."
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."
He also made clear that he has things he wants to accomplish before he leaves office. "We're going to make sure that we finish what we started, that we don’t let up in these last two months," he said.