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Obama’s not-so-subtle wake-up call to Trump: “reality has a way of asserting itself”

President Obama Meets With President-Elect Donald Trump In The Oval Office Of White House
Trump’s “cordial” meeting with Obama
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Barack Obama wants to make it very clear to Donald Trump that the White House is no presidential campaign.

The White House has a “way of waking you up,” Obama said at a press conference Monday. “Campaigning is different than governing.”

It’s been less than a week since Trump won the presidential election in an impressive upset, and only four days since he visited the White House for the first time as president-elect for a 90-minute “cordial conversation,” according to Obama.

But after an election during which the president repeatedly questioned Trump’s temperament, called him unfit to lead, and lambasted his divisive rhetoric, Obama was more tight-lipped on Monday on Trump’s qualifications. Instead, his message was more general.

“Regardless of what experience or assumptions he brought to the office, this office has a way of waking you up,” Obama said of Trump’s campaign promises. “And those aspects of his positions or predispositions that don’t match up with reality he will find shaken up pretty quick. Because reality has a way of asserting itself.”

He continued:

Whatever you bring to this office, this office has a habit of magnifying and pointing out and hopefully you correct for it. There are going to be certain elements to his temperament that are not going to serve him well unless he recognizes them and corrects for them. ... When you are a candidate that says something that is inaccurate or controversial it has less impact than when you are president of the United States.

Obama said he wants to give Trump space and allow him to select a staff — and noted that he thinks Trump “recognizes” the job at hand will be challenging. Although he “absolutely” is concerned, Obama said.

Obama is setting a high bar — and he is pretty pleased about it

But it seems Obama’s solace is in his belief that the country is better off now than it was eight years ago — that Trump will not be entering the White House during crisis, as Obama did in 2008.

“He will have time and space to make judicious decisions,” Obama said. “The incoming administration doesn’t have to put out a huge number of fires.”

And Obama is right to tout his presidency. He has been experiencing extraordinarily high approval ratings, wages have hit an all-time high, unemployment claims have slowed, and, as my colleague Dylan Matthews has written, Obama has proven to be one of the most consequential presidents in history, striking a nuclear deal with Iran, signing on to a climate change agreement in Paris, and passing universal health care reform.

He also knows that he sets a clear bar for Trump.

“I think the president-elect knows that he is judged on whether we improve on that baseline or if things et worse — and if things get worse the American people will figure that out pretty quick,” Obama said.

Trump doesn’t seem to know a lot about what it means to actually be president

Throughout the campaign, Trump repeatedly made claims that not only questioned the international order but also implied lawless actions.

He advocated for increased torture, killing the civilian families of terrorists, called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States (which he changed to more legally acceptable language of banning immigration from certain target countries), and suggested that the government shut down mosques.

It’s not the only thing Trump will have to learn about being president, however. As Vox’s Libby Nelson explained, Trump’s visit to the White House illuminated just how in the dark Trump is about running a presidential administration:

In the five days following his victory at the polls, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s team didn’t understand they would have to hire a new West Wing policy staff. Trump, according to the New York Times, apparently hopes to commute from the White House to New York or Mar-a-Lago on weekends. Trump said he expected a quick getting-to-know-you meeting with President Obama on Thursday, even though it was scheduled to last an hour.

And while all of that might have just been campaign rhetoric, and Trump’s team will no doubt have to learn what it takes to run a White House, Obama seemed to be speaking directly to the president-elect Monday when he said: “There are rules and norms and laws, and the people who work for you are also subject to those rules.”


Watch: Trump and Obama met in the Oval Office