ATHENS — Before the election, President Obama was so confident that Donald Trump wouldn’t be elected to succeed him that he scoffed at questions about whether he was partly responsible for the Trump backlash.
“You know, talk to me if he wins. Then we’ll have a conversation about how responsible I feel about it,” Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer in January.
Trump did win, and Obama still isn’t sure what he would have done differently.
“I think it’s fair to say that I was surprised by the election results, and I’ve said so,” Obama said Tuesday after being reminded of the quote by NBC reporter Chris Jansing at a news conference in Athens. “I still don’t feel responsible for what the president-elect says or does. But I do feel a responsibility as president of the United States to make sure that I facilitate a good transition and I present to him as well, as the American people my best thinking, my best ideas about how you move the country forward.”
Obama attributed Trump’s victory to a vague yearning for change amid unease about globalization. And he warned against a “crude sort of nationalism” that threatens Western nations where people are anxious about growing income inequality and job loss.
“Globalization combined with technology, combined with social media and constant information, have disrupted people’s lives sometimes in very concrete ways,” he said. “But also psychologically, people are less certain of their national identities or their place in the world. It starts looking different and disorienting. And there is no doubt that that has produced populist movements both from the left and from the right in many countries in Europe.”
But Obama said he still believes his policies were the right ones.
“Last I checked, a pretty healthy majority of the American people agree with my worldview on a lot of things,” he said. “And I know that that begs the question, well, how is it that somebody who appears to have a very different world view just got elected? As I said, sometimes people just feel as if we want to try something to see if we can shake things up.”
Obama has been largely deferential to the president-elect since the election — a remarkable turnaround from his campaign rhetoric in which he called Trump “dangerous” and “unfit for the presidency.”
But on Tuesday, he seemed to differentiate between the Trump presidency — which he’s constitutionally obligated to accede to — and Trump’s rhetoric, which he called “pretty troubling and not necessarily connected to facts.”
Obama promised that he would speak out when he believes the Republican Party is wrong, even as he pledged to work with them “on things that I think will advance the causes of justice and prosperity and inclusiveness in America.”
Obama spoke at a press conference in Athens, where he began a three-city foreign tour the week after Trump’s upset victory. And he used the European experiment as an example, even as he engaged in a mission to try to reassure European leaders that Trump’s election would not alter the U.S. commitment to economic and political cooperation.
“We know what happens when Europeans start dividing themselves up and emphasizing their differences,” Obama said. “The 20th century was a bloodbath. And for all the frustrations and failures of the project to unify Europe, the last five decades have been a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity in Europe.”
“History doesn’t move in a straight line,” Obama said. “It zigs and zags.”