In a press conference on November 14, 2016, what advice did the outgoing President say he shared with the incoming President in their 90-minute meeting? President Obama and his team said they stand ready to accelerate the next steps required to ensure a smooth transition for President-elect Trump. President Obama was encouraged by Trump’s statements on election night about the need for unity and Trump’s interest in being the President for all people.
1. Put Together a Great Staff and an Effective Process: With the amount of incoming information flooding the administration, the President has about one hour to figure out their response.
How you staff—particularly your chief of staff, your national security advisor, your White House counsel—how you set up a process and a system to surface information, generate options for a President, understanding that ultimately the President is going to be the final decision-maker, that’s something to attend to right away.
How he staffs, the first steps he takes, the first impressions he makes, the reset that can happen after an election—all those things are important and should be thought about. And I think it’s important to give him the room and the space to do that. It takes time to put that together.
2. Gestures Matter: I did say to him, as I’ve said publicly, that because of the nature of the campaigns, and the bitterness and ferocity of the campaigns, that it’s really important to try to send some signals of unity, and to reach out to minority groups or women or others that were concerned about the tenor of the campaign. In an election like this that was so hotly contested and so divided, gestures matter. And how he reaches out to groups that may not have supported him, how he signals his interest in their issues or concerns, I think those are the kinds of things that can set a tone that will help move things forward once he’s actually taken office.
3. Take Time to Consider What to Achieve: The incoming administration doesn’t have to put out a huge number of fires. They may want to take the country in a significantly different direction, but they’ve got time to consider what exactly they want to achieve.
4. Campaigning Is Different from Governing. And my advice, as I said, to the President-elect when we had our discussions was that campaigning is different from governing. I think he recognizes that. I think he’s sincere in wanting to be a successful President and moving this country forward. And I don’t think any President ever comes in saying to themselves, I want to figure out how to make people angry or alienate half the country. I think he’s going to try as best he can to make sure that he delivers, not only for the people who voted for him but for the people at large. And the good thing is, is that there are going to be elections coming up, so there’s a built-in incentive for him to try to do that.
5. Good Sound Bites Don’t Translate into Good Policy. It’s only been six days. I think it will be important for him to have the room to staff up, to figure out what his priorities are, to be able to distinguish between what he was campaigning on and what is practical, what he can actually achieve. There are certain things that make for good sound bites but don’t translate into good policy. And that’s something that he and his team, I think, will wrestle with, in the same way, that every President wrestles with.
6. The Presidency Wakes You Up. Regardless of what experience or assumptions he brought to the office, this office has a way of waking you up. And those aspects of his positions or predispositions that don’t match up with reality he will find shaken up pretty quick because reality has a way of asserting itself. And some of his gifts that obviously allowed him to execute one of the biggest political upsets in history — those are ones that hopefully he will put to good use on behalf of all the American people.
7. Surround Yourself with Good People. What’s clear is that he was able to tap into, yes, the anxiety, but also the enthusiasm of his voters in a way that was impressive. And I said so to him because I think that to the extent that there were a lot of folks who missed the Trump phenomenon, I think that connection that he was able to make with his supporters that were impervious to events that might have sunk another candidate, that’s powerful stuff.
I also think that he is coming to this office with fewer set hard-and-fast policy prescriptions than a lot of other Presidents might be arriving with. I don’t think he is ideological. I think ultimately he’s pragmatic in that way. And that can serve him well, as long as he’s got good people around him and he has a clear sense of direction.
8. Think Through Issues: 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.
Now, my view is that if they can come up with something better that actually works, and a year or two after they’ve replaced the Affordable Care Act with their own plan, that 25 million people have health insurance, and it’s cheaper and better and running smoothly, I’ll be the first one to say, that’s great — congratulations.
If, on the other hand, whatever they’re proposing results in millions of people losing coverage, and results in people who already have health insurance losing protections that were contained in the legislation, then we’re going to have a problem.
9. Correct the Flaws That the Office Magnifies. Whatever you bring to this office, this office has a habit of magnifying and pointing out, and hopefully then you correct for it. I think what will happen with the President-elect is there are going to be certain elements of his temperament that will not serve him well unless he recognizes them and corrects them. Because when you’re a candidate and you say something that is inaccurate or controversial, it has less impact than it does when you’re President of the United States. Everybody around the world is paying attention. Markets move. National security issues require a level of precision in order to make sure that you don’t make mistakes. And I think he recognizes that this is different, and so do the American people.
10. Look at the Facts: Iran is a good example of the gap I think between some of the rhetoric in this town—not unique to the President-elect—and the reality. It becomes more difficult I think to undo something that’s working than undo something that isn’t working. And when you’re not responsible for it, I think you can call it a terrible deal. When you are responsible for the deal and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, you’re more likely to look at the facts.
11. Don’t Make Dreamers Hide Again. On the deferred action program that we have known as DACA that relates to DREAMers who are currently benefitting from these provisions, I will urge the President-elect and the incoming administration to think long and hard before they are endangering that status of what for all practical purposes are American kids. These are kids who were brought here by their parents. They did nothing wrong. They’ve gone to school. They have pledged allegiance to the flag. Some of them have joined the military. They’ve enrolled in school. By definition, if they’re part of this program, they are solid, wonderful young people of good character. And it is my strong belief that the majority of the American people would not want to see suddenly those kids have to start hiding again. And that’s something that I will encourage the President-elect to look at.
12. Listen to the Lawyers and Pay Attention to the Rules, Norms, and Laws: One of the things you discover about being President is that there are all these rules and norms and laws, and you got to pay attention to them. And the people who work for you are also subject to those rules and norms. And that’s a piece of advice that I gave to the incoming President.
I am very proud of the fact that we will—knock on wood—leave this administration without significant scandal. We’ve made mistakes, there have been screw-ups, but I will put the ethics of this administration and our track record in terms of just abiding by the rules and norms, and keeping trust with the American people—I will put this administration against any administration in history.
And the reason is that, frankly, we listened to the lawyers. And we had a strong White House Counsel’s Office. We had a strong Ethics Office. We had people in every agency whose job it was to remind people, this is how you’re supposed to do things. It doesn’t mean everybody always did everything exactly the way it’s supposed to because we got 2 million people working in the federal government, if you’re including the military, and so we had to just try to institutionalize this as much as we could. And that takes a lot of work. And one of my suggestions to the incoming President is, is that he take that part of the job seriously, as well. Again, you wouldn’t know this if you were listening to some news outlets or some members of oversight committees in Congress. But if you actually look at the facts, it works.
And one of the mottos I always had with my staff was, better is good. Perfect is unattainable. Better is possible. And so we will try to share the lessons that we’ve learned over these last eight years with the incoming President. And my hope is he makes things better. And if he does, we’ll all benefit from it.