At a White House press conference Monday, the president took questions on his meeting last Thursday with the president-elect and the transition of power already underway. His remarks were striking for what they didn’t include: neither explicit criticism of Trump, nor any comment on Trump’s appointment of white nationalist Steve Bannon as his chief strategist.
What Obama did say seemed equally strategic. He called Trump “a gregarious person” and said Trump’s connection with American voters as “impressive.” He went on to describe “the Trump phenomenon” as “powerful stuff.”
The president also said the office “has a way of waking you up” and that “reality has a way of asserting itself.”
“I don’t think he’s ideological,” Obama said. “I think ultimately, he is pragmatic.”
Has Obama changed his mind about Trump’s fitness for office? More likely, the president is betting that Trump can be persuaded to change—and there’s no better way to get Trump’s attention than appealing to his ego. By praising Trump’s least horrible qualities, Obama just might nudge him in a less frightening direction.
It’s probably wishful thinking. But it’s not like the lame-duck Obama has many other levers to pull at this point.