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.