Former President Barack Obama delivered a stinging rebuke of President Trump's refusal to concede the 2020 election, warning of the real-world harm that can stem from any delay in the peaceful transfer of power, but saying Trump will fail in "denying reality."
In an interview with NPR that airs Monday, Obama provided some of his most wide-ranging remarks about the election since Joe Biden's victory over Trump. Obama said that he took Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the election seriously and described the president's unwillingness to cooperate with the transition as "yet one more example of how Donald Trump's breach of basic democratic norms is hurting the American people."
Obama's remarks come as Trump continues to falsely maintain that he won the election and as he pursues a Hail Mary legal strategy to challenge the outcome based on unproven and baseless allegations of fraud. With near-universal consent from Republicans in Congress, the president has formed a united front that has blocked the incoming Biden administration from millions in federal dollars set aside to fund the transition, as well as access to information and agency officials across the government.
"I'm distressed that you haven't seen more Republican leadership make this clear, because the amount of time that's being lost in this transition process has real-world effects," Obama told All Things Considered host Michel Martin. "Look, we're in the middle of a pandemic. We're in the middle of an economic crisis. We have serious national security issues."
Obama said Trump's behavior marks a total departure from how he and his staff were treated by the last Republican president to exit the White House, George W. Bush, following Obama's victory in the 2008 election.
"For all the differences that I had with George W. Bush, he and his administration could not have been more gracious and effective in working with us to facilitate a smooth transition," Obama said. He said his ability to get "immediately briefed" by top administration officials on everything from the financial crisis to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq "meant we hit the ground running and allowed us to be more effective in our responses."
Republicans have defended the president's rights to exercise all legal options, but within Democratic ranks, Trump's refusal to concede has been roundly criticized as an attempt to cast a permanent cloud over Biden's victory. Democrats have denounced it as a replay of Trump's attempts to delegitimize Obama's presidency by stoking the birther conspiracy movement. Many in the Democratic Party now say that by going along with the president, Republicans are signaling that Biden's calls for bipartisan cooperation are already a lost cause.
Asked whether bipartisanship is a fool's errand, Obama said that absent a supermajority in the Senate to break filibusters, "Joe Biden is going to have to work with some Republican colleagues."
"There is a way to reach out and not be a sap," he said. "There's a way of consistently offering the possibility of cooperation but recognizing that if Mitch McConnell or others are refusing to cooperate, at some point you've got to take it to the court of public opinion."
Obama said that what he failed to recognize, particularly at the start of his presidency, is that "an obstructionist strategy oftentimes is not punished by voters in the polls." He said his advice, "not just for Democrats, but anybody who just wants to see a functioning, effective government, is you're going to have to stay involved."
Reflections on race
Obama spoke ahead of the Tuesday release of his new memoir, A Promised Land, which traces his ascent to the White House and concludes with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011. A second volume covering the remaining years of his presidency is scheduled to follow.
Among the issues he writes about is his record on race. While Obama's victory in 2008 was celebrated as a high point in America's long and troubled history on race, the backlash to the first Black president in U.S. history has also been credited with helping to fuel the rise of Donald Trump.
"I think that what did happen during my presidency was, yes, a backlash among some people who felt that somehow I symbolized the possibility that they or their group were losing status — not because of anything I did but just by virtue of the fact that I didn't look like all the other presidents previously," Obama told NPR. At the same time, he said, "You had a whole generation of kids who grew up not thinking it was weird or exceptional that the person who occupied the highest office in the land was Black."
That doesn't mean there is not still progress to be made. Obama's tenure in office was repeatedly beset by lingering tensions brought to the surface by the deaths of young Black males such as Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown two years later in Ferguson, Mo.
Those tensions only intensified following the death of George Floyd this past May while in the custody of Minneapolis police. Obama said he understood people are discouraged by the pace of progress and admitted that he too feels frustration.
"There are times where I am sad, where I'm angry, where I'm hurting, where I feel obliged to buck up my wife or my daughters when we see not just the kinds of shocking injustices as we saw with George Floyd, but also when you see elected officials — people in positions of responsibility — not simply ignore or dismiss these things, but actually seem to suggest that it's OK," Obama said. "I think it is completely understandable to feel discouraged and hurt and upset."
But he said the progress that has been made on race in just his lifetime is what keeps him from a "plunge into despair."
Obama also said he draws inspiration from a younger generation that is more open when it comes to attitudes on not just race, but also gender and sexual orientation.
He said this is the generation he wrote the book for — to show that there are two competing visions for the world: one where "we are a collection of tribes and we are inevitably at war and it's a zero-sum game" and another that says "for all our differences, there is a common humanity and it is possible for us in a multiracial, multiethnic, highly diverse country and world, it is possible for us to see each other, understand each other, respect each other and work together."
The choice, he said, is up to them.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Former President Barack Obama has a lot to say about the state of our democracy. He said some of it on the campaign trail with Joe Biden, but with the release of his new memoir, he's getting into the details. Our colleague Michel Martin, the weekend host of All Things Considered, sat down with President Obama to talk about the book, which is titled "A Promised Land." During their conversation, the president had some words of advice for his former vice president, Joe Biden, as he anticipates taking office. He also offered his thoughts on the dangers posed by a leader refusing to accept the results of an election. President Obama started by reflecting on the country he sees right now.
BARACK OBAMA: I think there's no doubt that the country is deeply divided right now. And, you know, when I think back even to my own first presidential election in 2008, the country didn't feel this divided, what some people have called the great sort in which you have a combination of a political, cultural, ideological, in some cases religious and geographical divide that seems to be deeper than just differences in policy. A lot of that, I think, has to do with changes in how people get information. If you watch Fox News, you perceive a different reality than if you read The New York Times. And that didn't used to be as stark. And I think that, you know, until we can start having a common baseline of facts from which to discuss the direction of the country, we're going to continue to have some of these issues. I am thrilled that Joe and Kamala have won. I believe that they will restore a bunch of norms - respect for science, respect for facts, respect for rule of law - that I think have been breached over the last four years. But some of the bigger challenges in bringing the country together, that's going to be a project that goes beyond just one election.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: As we are speaking now, President Trump is refusing to concede, and he's refusing even to cooperate with the transition. How do you understand that? What do you think that is? Some people are calling it a tantrum. Other people take it a lot more seriously. How do you understand it?
OBAMA: Well, I take it seriously. I don't think he'll be successful in denying reality. And you're starting to see a few Republican elected officials go ahead and say, look, Joe Biden has been elected, and we need to move on in the transition. I'm distressed that you haven't seen more Republican leadership make this clear because the amount of time that's being lost in this transition process has real-world effects. Look, we're in the middle of a pandemic. We are in the middle of an economic crisis. We have serious national security issues. And as I describe, when I was elected, for all the differences that I had with George W. Bush, he and his administration could not have been more gracious and effective in working with us to facilitate a smooth transition. And my ability to get fully briefed on what was happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, that meant we hit the ground running and allowed us to be more effective in our responses. And so it is yet one more example of how Donald Trump's breach of basic democratic norms is hurting the American people.
M MARTIN: I was struck in reading the book by the parallels of this moment with when you took office. Your first months in office were spent focusing on economic recovery, H1N1, remember that, developing the Affordable Care Act. And President-elect Biden starts with a similar set of challenges - a global health crisis, an economic crisis that flows from sort of that health crisis. He also has a similar commitment to being bipartisan. And as with your presidency, it does seem that there is an effort to deny him legitimacy, as with your presidency. And I think that the lesson that some people are going to draw from your experience is don't do it. This idea of being bipartisan is a fool's errand and that the only thing that really works is expanding your base, keeping it fired up and trying to take it all. I mean, how do you respond to that?
OBAMA: I think it's fair to conclude from my experience in '08, '09, 2010, that we should always reach out to try to get bipartisan cooperation because the Democrats are not going to have a supermajority in the Senate. And so if you want to get some stuff done, Joe Biden is going to have to work with some Republican colleagues in the Senate. If you start getting a sense that it is just a pure power play, then you don't want to be Lucy and Charlie Brown where you just keep on kicking the football and not learning from experience that it's going to be pulled out from under you. But I think that there is a way to reach out and not be a sap.
M MARTIN: What is it?
OBAMA: There's a way of consistently offering the possibility of cooperation. But recognizing that if Mitch McConnell or others are refusing to cooperate, at some point, you've got to take it to the court of public opinion. The issue - the challenge that I discovered in 2009, 2010, is that an obstructionist strategy oftentimes is not punished by voters in the polls because what really hurt us was Mitch McConnell, John Boehner discovered that they could block everything, throw sand in the gears and then were rewarded in the midterms. And so their attitude was, well, we're just going to keep on doing this, and they did it throughout my presidency.
M MARTIN: Do you feel that you played some role in that? Is there something you would have done differently?
OBAMA: You know...
M MARTIN: In the success of that, not in their decision-making, but in the success of that strategy being the party of no, as was so commonly said.
OBAMA: Yeah. When I look back in my first couple of years in office, I think I had a unwarranted faith that if we did the right thing and implemented good policies, then people would know. And, you know, we didn't sell it hard enough. Now, part of it I have to cut myself and my team a little bit of slack. We had so much stuff coming at us at one time, right? We had the worst financial crisis in history. We had the banks about to go under. We had the auto industry about to go under. We had two wars. We still had a very active al-Qaida. And so as we used to call it, you know, we're drinking from a firehose. And so we didn't have time to do a bunch of victory laps or carefully stage PR campaigns around what we did. So I guess one piece of advice that I would give Joe is there is no such thing as building a better mousetrap and people will suddenly show up. You have to constantly market and explain what you are doing.
R MARTIN: Former President Barack Obama with Michel Martin. His new memoir is titled "A Promised Land." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.