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Here's what Obama said in last presser as US Prez

By Lalit K Jha
Last updated on: January 19, 2017 16:29 IST
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Outgoing United States President Barack Obama offered a parting message of hope for a country governed by Donald Trump, assuring Americans that ‘we’re going to be OK’, even as he vowed to speak up if the country’s core values are threatened.

"At my core I think we’re going to be OK," Obama said as he concluded his final news conference at the White House.

"We just have to fight for it, work for it, and not take it for granted," he said.

‘Have offered best advice to Trump’

Obama said that he has given his best advice to his successor Trump to whom he would pass on his baton on January 20.

"I have offered my best advice, counsel about certain issues both foreign and domestic," Obama said, describing his conversations with the president-elect.

"And my working assumption is, is that having won an election opposed to a number of my initiatives and certain aspects of my vision for where the country needs to go, it is appropriate for him to go forward with his vision and his values. I don't expect that there’s going to be enormous overlap," Obama said.

However, he said any effort to enforce systematic discrimination, erode voting rights, muzzle the press or round up young immigrants, would cause him to speak out.

"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."

During the campaign, Trump vowed to ban Muslims from entering the United States and deport millions of illegal immigrants.

After Trump’s victory in the November 8 presidential elections, Obama has met his successor only once, but the two leaders have spoken over phone quite frequently with the last one being reported to be on Monday.

"I won't go into details of my conversations with President-elect Trump. They are cordial. At times they’ve been fairly lengthy and they’ve been substantive. I can’t tell you how convincing I’ve been. I think you’d had to ask him whether I’ve been convincing or not," he said when asked about the details of his conversations.

Obama said it may be that on certain issues, once Trump comes into office and he looks at the complexities of how to, in fact, provide healthcare for everybody -- something he says he wants to do or wants to make sure that he is encouraging job creation and wage growth in this country, that may lead him to some of the same conclusions that I arrived at once I got here.

"But I don't think we’ll know until he has an actual chance to get sworn in and sit behind that desk. I think a lot of his views are going to be shaped by his advisors, the people around him -- which is why it's important to pay attention to these confirmation hearings," he said.

"I can tell you that -- this is something I have told him -- this is a job of such magnitude that you can't do it by yourself. You are enormously reliant on a team. Your cabinet, your senior White House staff, all the way to fairly junior folks in their 20s and 30s, but who are executing on significant responsibilities," he said.

‘Constructive relationship with Russia in our interest’

On Russia, Obama said having a constructive relationship with Kremlin is in the interest of America and that of the world, but at the same time he justified his decision on imposing sanctions.

"I think it is in America's interest and the world’s interest that we have a constructive relationship with Russia. That’s been my approach throughout my presidency. Where our interests have overlapped, we’ve worked together," Obama told reporters.

At the beginning of his term, Obama said, he encouraged Russia to be a constructive member of the international community, and tried to work with the government of Russia in helping them diversify their economy, improve their economy, and use the incredible talents of the Russian people in more constructive ways. 

He noted that his own overtures to Russia were frustrated by an ‘adversarial spirit’ when Vladimir Putin regained the presidency.

He said the US imposed sanctions on Russia not because of nuclear weapons issues.

"It was because the independence and sovereignty of a country, Ukraine, had been encroached upon, by force, by Russia. That wasn't our judgement; that was the judgement of the entire international community," he said. 

"What I’ve said to the Russians is, as soon as you’ve stop doing that the sanctions will be removed. I think it would probably best serve not only American interest but also the interest of preserving international norms if we made sure that we don’t confuse why these sanctions have been imposed with a whole set of other issues,” Obama said in response to a question.

He warned Trump to think through foreign policy decisions that may be domestically popular, like his vow to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

"It’s a volatile environment. What we have seen in the past is when some unilateral moves are made that speak to some of the core issues and sensitivities of either side, that can be explosive,” he said.

Refraining from reacting to the decision of several Democratic lawmakers to boycott Trump's inauguration, Obama said, “All I know is I’m going to be there. So is Michelle. And I have been checking the weather, and I'm heartened by the fact that it won't be as cold as my first inauguration because that was cold.”

‘You’re supposed to ask me tough questions’

Speaking on media, Obama told reporters that ‘they are supposed to be skeptics and not sycophants’.

"I have enjoyed working with all of you. That does not, of course, mean that I’ve enjoyed every story that you have filed. That’s the point of this relationship. You’re not supposed to be sycophants, you’re supposed to be sceptics,” Obama told members of the White House Press Corps at his last news conference.

"You’re supposed to ask me tough questions. You’re not supposed to be complimentary, but you’re supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people who sent us here,” he said.

His remarks gains significance given that there is talk among the incoming Trump Administration on moving the press corps out of the White House to the OldExecutiveOfficeBuilding next door.

‘Will spend time with my girls’

Obama said his two daughters Sasha and Malia surprise, enchant and impress him more and more every single day as they grow up.

"You know, every parent brags on their daughters or their sons. If your mom and dad don’t brag on you, you know you got problems. But, man, my daughters are something, and they just surprise and enchant and impress me more and more every single day as they grow up,” Obama siad.

"And so these days, when we talk, we talk as parent to child, but also we learn from them,” he said.

Obama said he thinks it was really interesting to see how Malia and Sasha reacted to the US election results.

"They were disappointed. They paid attention to what their mom said during the campaign and believed it because it’s consistent with what we've tried to teach them in our household, and what I’ve tried to model as a father with their mom, and what we’ve asked them to expect from future boyfriends or spouses,” he said.

"But what we’ve also tried to teach them is resilience, and we’ve tried to teach them hope, and that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world. So you get knocked down, you get up, brush yourself off, and you get back to work. That tended to be their attitude,” he said.

Obama said neither of them intends to pursue a future of politics.

He said now his priorities would be to do some writing, spend some time with his two daughters and Michelle.

"I want to do some writing, I want to be quiet a little bit and not hear myself talk so darn much. I want to spend precious time with my girls," he said.

‘Want to see a woman, a Hindu, a Jew, a Latino as Prez one day’

Pitching for racial diversity in the United States, President Obama hoped to see a woman, a Hindu, a Jewish or a Latino president in the future, asserting that deserving people rising up from race and faith define America’s strength.

"If, in fact, we continue to keep the opportunity open to everybody, then yes, we’re going to have a woman president, we’re going to have a Latino president, and we’ll have a Jewish president, a Hindu president," Obama said.

"Who knows who we’re going to have? I suspect we’ll have a whole bunch of mixed-up presidents at some point that nobody really knows what to call them. And that’s fine,” he said in an apparent reference to the racial, ethnic and religious mix of people in America.

He was responding to a question if he expects another black president.

In 2008, Obama created history after being elected as the first black president of the United States in a landslide victory. He was re-elected for second term in 2012.

Obama will be succeeded by Donald Trump of the Republican Party at the inauguration on Friday.

"I think we’re going to see people of merit rise up from every race, faith, corner of this country, because that’s America’s strength. When we have everybody getting a chance and everybody is on the field, we end up being better,” Obama said.

Referring to the fact that more than half of American medals at Olympics came from women, Obama said the reason is because the US had the foresight several decades ago, with something called Title 9, to make sure that women get opportunities in sports.

This is why women compete better, because they have more opportunities than folks in other countries, he said.

However, Obama said he worries about inequality because he thinks that if the country is not investing in making sure everybody plays a role in this economy, the economy will not grow as fast.

"I think it will also lead to further and further separation between us as Americans, not just along racial lines," he said.

"There are a whole bunch of folks who voted for the President-elect because they feel forgotten and disenfranchised. They feel as if they’re being looked down on. They feel as if their kids aren't going to have the same opportunities as they did," he said.

Obama said that the people don't want to have an America in which a very small sliver of people are doing really well and everybody else is fighting for scraps.

"Because that’s often times when racial divisions get magnified, because people think, well, the only way I’m going to get ahead is if I make sure somebody else gets less, somebody who doesn't look like me or doesn’t worship at the same place I do. That’s not a good recipe for our democracy,” he said.

‘Commuting Manning’s sentence was entirely appropriate’

President Obama defended his decision to commute the 35-year sentence of Chelsea Manning, a transgender solider convicted of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, arguing that she has served a tough jail term.

"Let’s be clear, Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence. So the notion that the average person who was thinking about disclosing vital, classified information would think that it goes unpunished I don’t think would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served,” Obama told reporters.

"It has been my view that given she went to trial, that due process was carried out, that she took responsibility for her crime, that the sentence that she received was very disproportional, disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received, and that she had served a significant amount of time, that it made it sense to commute and not pardon her sentence,” he said.

He said that the justice has been served and he feels very comfortable.

"A message has been sent that when it comes to our national security, that wherever possible, we need folks who may have legitimate concerns about the actions of government or their superiors or the agencies in which that they try to work through the established channels and avail themselves of the whistleblower protections that had been put in place,” he added.

"...with respect to Chelsea Manning, I looked at the particulars of this case the same way I have for the other commutations and pardons that I've done, and I felt that in light of all the circumstances that commuting her sentence was entirely appropriate,” he said.

‘No alternative to two-state solution in Israel-Palestine issue’

Obama said that he continues to be ‘significantly worried’ about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the status quo is unsustainable, and dangerous for the people in the region as well as for America's national security.

"I continue to be significantly worried about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And I’m worried about it both because I think the status quo is unsustainable, that it is dangerous for Israel, that it is bad for Palestinians, it is bad for the region, and it’s bad for America’s national security,” Obama said.

He said when he came to office wanting to do everything he could to encourage serious peace talks between Israel and Palestine and that his administration invested a lot of energy, time and effort in these eight years.

"Ultimately, what has always been clear is that we cannot force the parties to arrive at peace. What we can do is facilitate, provide a platform, encourage. But we can't force them to do it,” he said.

Stressing that there is no alternative to a two-state solution, the outgoing US President said that he has said this to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"I’ve said it inside of Israel. I’ve said it to Palestinians, as well,” he added.

"I don’t see how this issues gets resolved in a way that maintains Israel as both Jewish and a democracy, because if you do not have two states, then in some form or fashion you are extending an occupation, functionally you end up having one state in which millions of people are disenfranchised and operate as second-class residents. You can’t even call them citizens, necessarily,” Obama said.

Talking about Donald Trump's stand on the issue, Obama said, “So the President-elect will have his own policy. The ambassador, or the candidate for the ambassadorship obviously has very different views than I do. That is their prerogative.”

“That’s part of what happens after elections. And I think my views are clear. We’ll see how their approach plays itself out,” he said while responding to a question on the Israeli policy of the incoming Trump Administration.

In an apparent reference to Trump's plan to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Obama said that sudden unilateral moves could be explosive.

Noting that the United States is the biggest kid on the block, Obama said it is right and appropriate for a new President to test old assumptions and re-examine the old ways of doing things.

All photographs: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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