President Obama gave his last press conference of the year on Friday, and some liberals were disappointed with what he had to say. Many on the left had hoped that he’d take a combative attitude toward President-elect Donald Trump, but the president instead affirmed the results of the election, and urged Americans to do the same. Some seemed to perceive this as the president “giving up,” but that’s not quite right. Obama knows he can’t save the country from Trump, but make no mistake: He’s clearly still optimistic about America’s future.
“The transition from election season to governance season is not always smooth,” Obama said at the presser. “You know, it’s bumpy. There are still feelings that are raw out there. There are people who are still thinking about how things unfolded, and I get all that. But when Donald Trump takes the oath of office and is sworn in as the 45th president of the United State, he’s got a different set of responsibilities. ... I think there is a sobering process when you walk into the Oval Office.”
When asked if the results of the election were legitimate — that is, if the voters were counted and reported properly — Obama responded that yes, they were.
“I can assure the public that there was not the kind of tampering with the voting process that was our concern — that the votes that were cast were counted, that they were counted appropriately,” the president said. “We have not seen evidence of machines being tampered with, so that assurance I can provide.”
On the question of Trump’s cabinet appointments, Obama said:
It is his prerogative, as I have said, for him to appoint who he thinks can best carry out his foreign policy or his domestic policy. It is up to the Senate to advise and consent. There will be plenty of time for members of the Senate to go through the record of all his appointees and determine whether or not they are appropriate for the job.
Judging by the reaction on Twitter, it seems as if some liberals had expected Obama to declare that Trump’s victory was illegitimate, that Russian hackers had subverted the will of the people, and that the electors should revolt and install Hillary Clinton in the White House instead. But that’s not Obama’s style. It never has been, and the fact that he didn't adopt that tone is wholly consistent with the president we've observed for the last eight years.
This is a man who is, by all indications, a true believer in America and its system of governance and elections. Obama has made it very clear that he's deeply optimistic about the country’s ability to triumph over adversity and perpetually improve itself as a nation. Although this belief has sometimes hampered his own ability to affect policy — I’ve lost track of how many times he expressed misplaced hope that Republicans in Congress would support his agenda — there’s no indication that this attitude of his has changed just because Trump won the Electoral College in November.
Of course, the majority of voters did not vote for Trump. The real estate tycoon will become the next president solely because of the Electoral College, which is a fundamentally anti-democratic institution. But democratic or not, the Electoral College is an American institution nonetheless, one that the country has relied on since its inception. Had Obama cast doubt on Trump’s legitimacy solely because he didn’t win the popular vote, he’d cast doubt on the American political system itself. Obama wouldn’t do that — he clearly believes in the American political system. Furthermore, he believes that the election itself was carried out fairly, Russian interference notwithstanding.
You can disagree with Obama’s thinking here. One could credibly argue that the election of Trump, a fascist demagogue, to the U.S. presidency poses an immediate threat to the country, and thus that it’s Obama’s responsibility to oppose his inauguration by any means necessary. That may be the case — but Obama’s refusal to see things this way in no way indicates that he’s “given up.” Quite the opposite: By expressing optimism about America's future in spite of Trump’s election, Obama has shown that he’s more confident in American resilience than ever. At the very least, he's far more confident than many of his supporters.