As he prepares to turn over the keys to Republican Donald Trump, President Obama said Wednesday that he is leaving the nation in good shape and believes “we’re going to be OK.”
In his final news conference at the White House, Mr. Obama defended his commutation of transgender military-secrets leaker Chelsea Manning and warned that he won’t stay silent if he believes the next administration is threatening “core values” of America.
“I believe in this country. There is a core decency in this country. We just have to fight for it and work for it,” Mr. Obama said.
After eight years, the nation’s first black president will leave office at noon on Friday, when Mr. Trump is inaugurated at the Capitol. The Republican’s victory has sparked protests and a boycott of the ceremony by about one-fourth of House Democrats, many of whom say the next president isn’t legitimate.
Mr. Obama, who has had an increasingly tense transition period with Mr. Trump over Russian hacking in the election and the Republican’s plans to roll back his agenda, said he is not encouraging the Democrats’ boycott of the ceremony.
“I’m not going to comment on those issues,” the president said. “All I know is I’m going to be there.”
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The president and first lady Michelle Obama will welcome Mr. Trump and incoming first lady Melania Trump to the White House on Friday morning for coffee before taking a motorcade to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony.
The Obama family will then take a military helicopter flight to Joint Base Andrews, say goodbye to staffers and fly on the presidential aircraft to Palm Springs, California, for a vacation.
“I want to be quiet a little bit, not hear myself talk so darned much,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s important for me to take some time to process this amazing experience that we’ve gone through. I want to do some writing. I want to spend precious time with my girls. Those are my priorities this year.”
While he said he was looking forward to some rest and relaxation, Mr. Obama warned that he won’t necessarily stay silent.
“There’s a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake,” he said. “I put in that category if I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion. I put in that category explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise. I put in that category institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press. And for me, at least, I would put in that category efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids and send them somewhere else, when they love this country.”
Mr. Obama is leaving office as a uniquely popular second-term president, with an approval rating of nearly 60 percent — higher than Mr. Trump. But he has been unable to translate his personal popularity into a legislative agenda in Congress, especially in his second term, as Republicans gained control of the Senate and built up their majority in the House.
Mr. Obama acknowledged that he doesn’t expect “enormous overlap” with the policies of Mr. Trump, who has vowed to repeal Obamacare, withdraw the U.S. from a global climate change agreement, renegotiate the Iranian nuclear deal and rescind a multitude of Mr. Obama’s eleventh-hour business regulations.
“It is appropriate for him to go forward with his vision and his values,” Mr. Obama said.
Asked what advice he has given the president-elect, Mr. Obama said he told Mr. Trump that “this is a job of such magnitude you cannot do it by yourself. You are enormously reliant on a team.”
The president is leaving the country in better economic condition than when he took office, although most Americans still say the nation is on the wrong track and express concern about the future. The unemployment rate has dropped from 10 percent during Mr. Obama’s first year in office to 4.7 percent last month.
On his way out the door, Mr. Obama is issuing a flurry of executive actions, including grants of clemency for federal inmates. The commutation on Tuesday for Manning drew furious criticism from Republicans and came over the objections of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
The president said the commutation of Manning’s sentence “made sense.”
“Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence,” Mr. Obama said. “I felt that in light of all the circumstances that commuting her sentence was entirely appropriate.”
Mr. Obama ordered Manning to be released on May 17, rather than serving the rest of her term until 2045. Republican lawmakers and others said the commutation would encourage others to leak classified national security information.
The president rejected that argument, saying Manning had served about seven years.
“The notion that the average person who was thinking about disclosing vital classified information would think that it goes unpunished — I don’t think [people] would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served,” he said. “Due process was carried out. She took responsibility for her crime. The sentence she received was very disproportional relative to what other leakers had received. I feel very comfortable that justice has been served and that a message has still been sent.”
Mr. Obama is expected to issue a final round of commutations and pardons on Thursday, adding to his record-breaking total with more clemency for drug offenders who have been serving life sentences imposed during the 1980s.
In the wide-ranging news conference, the president also expressed concern that any hope for a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians is slipping away. He also said he has warned the incoming administration against moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem because the action would have “enormous consequences” on Middle East tensions.
The president said he told Trump officials to “pay attention to this. This is volatile stuff.”
“People feel deeply and passionately about this,” Mr. Obama said. “The actions we take have enormous consequences and ramifications. We’re the biggest kid on the block.”
He said it’s “right and appropriate for a new president to test old assumptions” about such matters.
“But if you’re going to make big shifts in policy, just make sure you’ve thought it through,” Mr. Obama said. “You want to be intentional about it. You don’t want to do things off the cuff.”
Trump officials renewed their talk of moving the embassy after the Obama administration angered Israel and its supporters last month by refusing to veto a U.N. Security Council measure that condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Mr. Obama also panned the Trump team’s proposal to move reporters out of the West Wing of the White House. Trump officials say they are seeking a larger space to accommodate more journalists.
“Having you in this building has made this place work better, it keeps us honest … it makes us work harder,” the president said.
It was Mr. Obama’s 165th press conference with White House reporters, according to the American Presidency Project. George W. Bush held 210 press conferences in two terms, although Mr. Obama significantly expanded his reach on social media and more one-on-one interviews with reporters.
Asked to reflect on his status as the first black president and whether others would follow him, Mr. Obama predicted voters will someday elect a woman as president and choose a greater diversity of leaders.
“If we keep opening up opportunity, we’re going to have a woman president, a Latino president, a Jewish president, a Hindu president,” Mr. Obama said. “I suspect we’ll have a whole bunch of mixed-up presidents. I think we’re going to see people of merit rise up from every race. … That’s America’s strength.”
Hillary Clinton was the first female major-party nominee for president but lost the election to Mr. Trump.