President Obama signing a letter in the Oval Office earlier this year. (Flickr / CC 2.0)
“This is not the apocalypse.” President Obama delivered these words to his staffers the morning after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, and reporter David Remnick was on hand to capture Obama’s remarks. In a new piece published by The New Yorker, Remnick follows Obama in the days leading up to and following Election Day.
Like many Democrats, Obama was fairly confident that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election. Obama spent the days leading up to Nov. 8 attending rallies and making speeches in support of Clinton’s campaign.
Remnick writes that Obama said he was “having fun” on the campaign trail, but last-minute developments incited by FBI Director James Comey did concern Obama and his staff. Remnick writes:
[T]hanks in part to James Comey, the F.B.I. director, and his letter to Congress announcing that he would investigate Clinton’s e-mails again, the race tightened considerably in its final week. When Obama wandered down the aisle of Air Force One, I asked him, “Do you feel confident about Tuesday?”
“Nope,” he said.
But then, in Obamian fashion, he delved into a methodical discussion of polling models and, finally, landed on a more tempered and upbeat version of “nope.” He was “cautiously optimistic.”
On election night, however, Obama’s cautious optimism was quickly derailed. Remnick explains that Obama avoided any television coverage of the results and kept any increasing anxiety hidden:
[I]t 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.
Obama, Remnick continues, expressed “deep disappointment” and labeled the situation as “terminal.”
“You can’t recover from the election,” Obama said. “And obviously my feelings about the country and where these election results might lead the country are more serious. And in some ways it’s also more frustrating, because it wasn’t my campaign, so it’s a little bit like a parent watching a kid in a sporting match, and you don’t feel like you have as much control over it.”
However, the president needed to put on a braver face when speaking with his staff—many of whom were mourning Clinton’s loss. In classic fashion, Obama centered his message around the theme of hope.
Obama understands the risks of a Trump presidency, telling Remnick his fears about the Affordable Care Act and the Iran nuclear agreement. However, he also understands Trump’s appeal to American voters—ahead of Trump’s win, Obama reflected on Trump’s ascension:
“We’ve seen this coming,” [Obama] said. “Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years. What surprised me was the degree to which those tactics and rhetoric completely jumped the rails. There were no governing principles, there was no one to say, ‘No, this is going too far, this isn’t what we stand for.’ But we’ve seen it for eight years, even with reasonable people like John Boehner, who, when push came to shove, wouldn’t push back against these currents.”
I asked about Trump’s capacity to eliminate serially a long string of Republican contenders. “Donald Trump beating fifteen people said less about his skills and more about the lack of skills of the people he beat,” Obama said. “But, obviously, he tapped into something. He’s able to distill the anger and resentment and the sense of aggrievement. And he is skillful at challenging the conventions in a way that makes people feel something and that gives them some satisfaction.”
Although Obama has clearly been hesitant to be anything but diplomatic since Trump’s astonishing victory, Remnick provides a glimpse into the mind of the president during his final days in office. Read the entire piece here.
—Posted by Emma Niles