Get serious or get played, President Barack Obama told President-elect Donald Trump here Thursday warning his successor that he’ll lose elections and people will die if he doesn’t shape up.
As impressive as the campaign he ran was, that won’t translate to governing, Obama said he told Trump in their long private post-election Oval Office meeting last week.
He insisted that Trump had agreed, though that’s not something Trump has told the public. On the contrary, he’s said he doesn’t think his rhetoric went too far, telling The Wall Street Journal last week, “I won.”
Obama’s not the only skeptic. The outgoing president’s last European stop on his last foreign trip was to see German Chancellor Angela Merkel, his closest international partner. Among the things the current U.S.-German alliance agrees on is not being overly impressed with the man who’ll be president in five weeks.
Obama said he told Trump in their private meeting that “what may work in generating enthusiasm or passion during elections may be different in terms of what will work in terms of unifying the country and gaining the trust of even those who don’t support him.”
“I think the president-elect is going to see fairly quickly that the demands and responsibilities of a U.S. president are not ones that you can treat casually,” Obama said.
Then a warning shot: “If you’re not serious about the job, then you probably won’t be there very long, because it will expose problems.”
Merkel, who’ll have to work with Trump at least through her own elections next fall, took a softer approach. But her affection and admiration for Obama were apparent, as was her skepticism about what’s coming — “I am absolutely certain that one day we will come back to what we achieved and build on it,” she said to the president in her opening remarks, while pledging to work with the incoming administration.
“There are a lot of people who are looking for simplistic solutions, who are preaching unfriendly policies,” she warned at one point, while acknowledging, “We have to find new ways of addressing people.”
That mirrored a thought Obama had just voiced. “It’s easier to make negative attacks and simplistic slogans than it is to communicate complex policies — but we’ll figure it out,” he said.
Obama said he’s “cautiously optimistic” Trump will learn that there will be a “shift from campaign mode to governance [because] there’s something about the solemn responsibilities of that office.” But he’s clearly far from confident.
And, Obama argued, a lot more than just politics is at stake, when going up against someone like Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose praise Trump said on the campaign trail he appreciated and whose Kremlin gave an account of a very cozy congratulatory conversation that the president-elect’s transition team made no effort to dispute.
“I don’t expect that the president-elect will follow exactly our blueprint or our approach, but my hope is that he does not simply take a realpolitik approach and suggest that, you know, if we just cut some deals with Russia, even if it hurts people or even if it violates international norms, or even if it leaves smaller countries vulnerable or creates long-term problems in regions like Syria, that we just do whatever is convenient at the time,” Obama said. “And that will be something that I think we’ll learn more about as the president-elect puts his team together.”
This trip was conceived under very different circumstances and an assumption that Hillary Clinton — whom Merkel had expressed hope that she’d get to work with — would be the president-elect. It was to be a nostalgic farewell to Merkel that might even have included a stop at the site where Obama gave his 2008 speech here to more than 100,000 Germans at the height of his campaign, and of the promise he held for many Americans and Europeans about movement to a new era.
After years of tension with the George W. Bush administration over the Iraq War, Germans were early believers in Obama and his message of hope and change.
Instead, Obama’s had to spend his farewell tour, first in Greece and now here, explaining to the world what happened back home. He’s been arguing, without any public affirmation from Trump, that the president-elect isn’t sticking to any of his rhetoric about NATO or rethinking other international partnerships.
And Obama’s been pushing back on the idea presented to him on Thursday by a German reporter: that Trump represents his failing as a president and world leader.
Merkel and Obama didn’t hit it off immediately. Their early encounters were awkward, the conversation stilted. To Merkel and her entourage, Obama seemed cool and uninterested in Europe. He and his aides made no secret of their conviction that the U.S. needed to devote more attention to Asia and less to Europe.
A confluence of international crises, including the civil war in Syria and Russia’s incursion into Ukraine forced a change in Washington’s calculus. And then the crisis in relations over the spying, including the tapping of Merkel’s cellphone, revealed by some of the documents released by Edward Snowden, led Obama to commit to rebuilding trust, including in giving her the lead in negotiations with Moscow and the European Union over the invasion of Crimea and subsequent joint sanctions.
For many in Berlin, Obama’s description of Merkel as his “closest international partner” this week hit home just how important the relationship had become for both sides.
The German public has also rediscovered its affection for Obama. According to a poll by one German daily, Obama is now as popular in Germany as John F. Kennedy, whose “Berliner” speech in June 1963 — though it sounded to Germans like he was saying, “I am a jelly donut” — won him icon status in the country. The German media Thursday was full of nostalgic, even wistful reports on Obama’s tenure.
That’s because for Germany, Obama’s farewell also offered a reminder what many fear will be turbulent times ahead.
On central questions of international policy, whether global warming, free trade or Russia, Berlin worries it could find itself in conflict with a President Trump.
Meanwhile, Merkel’s got to deal with negotiating the Brexit, along with the rise of nationalism in other European countries and in her own elections, coming up in less than a year.
Pressed to formally declare her candidacy on Thursday, Merkel deflected.
Obama wasn’t nearly as shy when asked whether he’d endorse her, though the lessons of the 2016 election, and his all-out campaign for Clinton, were obviously on his mind.
“If I were here, and I were German, I had a vote, I might support her,” Obama said. “I don’t know whether that hurts or helps.”
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