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Inside a stunned White House, the President considers his legacy and America’s future.

And that was going to create, given the dynamics of this race, some challenges. At around P. By then, it was clear that the models were wrong and that Clinton was going to lose North Carolina and Florida—and that the difficulties she was having in the South were showing up in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Obama is hardly as cool and bloodless as advertised, but he will not perform, or even recount, his emotions on command.

When I kept prodding him for a reaction beyond sheer fact and discernment, he stayed in that calm zone he likes to inhabit, the analyst of even his own gut. His story was ending in calamity, and yet he watched it from the outside in. This is part of politics. In New Hampshire, when I lost, it was only the second election in what proved to be an interminable primary season. We had a fund-raiser and I had to speak to a bunch of supporters down there the next day. And Axelrod was surprised.

Obama Birth Certificate Issue Causing Needless Distractions

I think this is how it should be. But he seemed to catch up with the disjunction. And obviously my feelings about the country and where these election results might lead the country are more serious. My longest recent conversation with Obama came the day after he first met with President-elect Donald Trump, in the Oval Office. I arrived at the West Wing waiting area at around nine-thirty.

There was a copy of USA Today on the table. Obama had steeled himself for the meeting, determined to act with high courtesy and without condescension.

White House Releases Obama's Original Birth Certificate - The Atlantic

His task was to impress upon Trump the gravity of the office. He seemed to take pains not to offend the always-offendable Trump, lest he lose what influence he might still have on the political future of the country and the new Administration. This is not the apocalypse. And yet even in the West Wing few could put up the same front. That much was clear when, the morning after the election, Obama and Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, had met with groups of staffers. Obama seized on that.

But the older people here, we have known loss. And this stings. This hurts. General Assembly, a defense of the liberal order that was willfully optimistic at a moment when illiberal currents were coursing all over the world. Now, in his own home, Obama sought to buck his people up and get them into a professional frame of mind.

But there was little that could soften the blow, either inside the White House or in the great world beyond. And this was before Trump appointed Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, as his senior counsellor. The outcome of the election was also a blow to those who anticipated major advances for the Democratic Party: it wrested over-all control of just one additional state legislature, and remains a minority in both houses of Congress, having gained only a handful of new seats in the House of Representatives, and only two in the Senate.

Democrats saw a net loss of two governorships, leaving fewer than a third of the states with Democratic governors. The party of F. But Putin may also think of himself as the chief ideologist of the illiberal world, a counter to what he sees as the hypocritical and blundering West. He has always shown support for nativist leaders such as Marine Le Pen, in France; now he had a potential ally in the White House. And even she faced a strong nativist challenge, for the sin of admitting thousands of Syrian refugees into the country.

There was inevitable talk about Joe Biden, who might have done better precisely where Clinton came up short: in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio. The official line at the White House was that the hour-and-a-half meeting with Trump went well and that Trump was solicitous. Trump, despite his habitual bluster, seemed awed by what he was being told and about to encounter.

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Denis McDonough strolled by with some friends and family. The day before, the person Trump sent to debrief him about how to staff and run a White House was his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. They had taken a walk on the South Lawn. I asked McDonough how it was going, and he gave me a death-skull grin.

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He clenched his teeth and grinned harder in self-mockery. McDonough is the picture of rectitude: the ramrod posture, the trimmed white hair, the ashen mien of a bishop who has missed two meals in a row. It was a matter of amour-propre, but—again—also of tactics. To have any chance to influence Trump, they had to avoid any trace of the contempt that had once been so pronounced.

Perhaps the more acute personal sadness for White House staffers was the vision of Obama and Trump sitting side by side in the Oval Office. In the Oval Office, the President was quick to comfort the young members of his staff, but he was, an aide told me, even more concerned about the wounding effect the election would have on the categories of Americans who had been routinely insulted and humiliated by the President-elect.

At a social occasion earlier this year, someone asked Michelle Obama how it was possible for her husband to maintain his equipoise amid so much hatred. His practiced calm is beyond reckoning. Those closest to Obama at the White House say that he copes by quietly, sarcastically deflating the attacks—like letting the air out of a balloon slowly, one said, the better not to make too much noise.

He never loses his capacity to be the scholar of his own predicament, a gently quizzical ethnographer of his own country, of its best and worst qualities.

In private, Michelle Obama gives clearer voice to the frustrations, and, not least, to a concern about the racism that is apparent to them both. He fully grasps the nature of the bigotry and the nihilism that Trump has espoused in the name of working-class empowerment.


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It is how I interact with my friends and with strangers. I was born to a white mother, raised by a white mom and grandparents who loved me deeply. I was elected twice by the majority of the American people. Every day, I interact with people of good will everywhere. Obama is a patriot and an optimist of a particular kind. He hoped to be the liberal Reagan, a progressive of consequence, but there are crucial differences. For one thing, Obama does not believe in the simplistic form of American exceptionalism which insists that Americans are more talented and virtuous than everyone else, that they are blessed by a patriotic God with a special mission.

America is a country that was established on the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers and improved upon not merely by legislation but also by social movements: this, to Obama, is the real nature of its exceptionalism. Last year, at the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, he stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, and defined American exceptionalism as embodied by its heroes, its freedom fighters: Sojourner Truth, Susan B.

Now Obama had begun the transfer of power to Donald Trump. Obama got in his car and the motorcade pulled out of the White House gates and sped south through the streets of D. I was packed into a van filled with officials from the Pentagon. They were gossiping softly about the election and its aftermath, but, once we were through the gates, passing thousands of tombstones, listening to the thud of ceremonial cannon fire, they went quiet.

After a while, someone remarked that Obama was about to leave for a weeklong foreign trip, beginning with Greece. After speaking at the Memorial Amphitheatre, Obama returned to the White House for lunch and a few meetings. I saw him in the Oval Office afterward. In shirtsleeves but with his tie knotted high, he sat down in the chair where he had met with Trump the day before and ordered some tea.

I asked him if he still believed that.

Inside a stunned White House, the President considers his legacy and America’s future.

I think that the possibility of everything being out the window exists. And, if you need any evidence of that, think about how hard we worked over the last eight years with a very clear progressive agenda, with a majority in the House and in the Senate, and we accomplished as much domestically as any President since Lyndon Johnson in those first two years. But it was really hard.

In the minds of a lot of the Republican base, it is an example of a big government program designed to take something from them and give it to someone else who is unworthy. Obama is no longer in office. This is not something that our base is hankering to undo, and we may quietly leave it in place. This kind of talk has led some to think that Obama was deluded in his quest to provide reassurance. His formulation of this thought was, of course, excruciatingly diplomatic.

‘We are all Jews’: Full text of President Obama’s Holocaust Day remarks

And, as a consequence, I think we have to wait and see how, in the face of the realities of governance, he reacts to it. Another way of putting this is that what has been true for some time is that if I proposed something that was literally word for word in the Republican Party platform, it would be immediately opposed by eighty to ninety per cent of the Republican voters.

Well, the reverse then becomes true. And so the very deliberate strategy that Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party generally employed during the course of my Presidency was effective.


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  • What they understood was that, if you embraced old-fashioned dealing, trading, horse-trading, bipartisan achievement, people feel better. Obama was convinced, accordingly, that Trump won less as a champion of working people than as an anti-establishment insurgent. And the issue is, constantly, How do we break through those barriers? I reminded Obama that, eight years ago, when I was interviewing him about race, he had been somewhat elusive throughout our official session but afterward had tracked me down in the building to remind me how complicated it was for him to talk about the subject.

    A stray word about race could be as explosive as a stray word about the financial markets. He remembered. That is an area that just triggers the deepest stereotypes and assumptions—on both sides. The biggest drop that I had in my poll numbers in my first six months had nothing to do with the economy.

    He thought back to that fateful day in August. I thought that would be viewed as a pretty common-sense proposition. It was a pretty visceral reaction.

    And, when they do, the majority of people are offended by them. And so the question for me, over the course of my Presidency, during the course of this election, has always been, How do I strengthen the better angels of our nature?

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