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In White House Farewell, Obama Says US 'Is Going to Be OK'

  • Cindy Saine

President Barack Obama speaks during his final presidential news conference, Jan. 18, 2017, in the briefing room of the White House in Washington.

At his final news conference as president Wednesday, Barack Obama sought to reassure those Americans anxious about the change of administrations after eight years with him in charge: “I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad.”

White House reporters questioned Obama about his controversial action to shorten the prison term of former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, and other topics. The president fielded those easily, but took his time answering the final query, about how he discussed the results of the U.S. election with his two teenaged daughters, Sasha and Malia.

Obama said Malia and Sasha were disappointed by Republican Donald Trump's defeat of his preferred candidate, Democrat Hillary Clinton, just as he and first lady Michelle were, but that he is proud of them because they are resilient, patriotic and not cynical.

Watch: In White House Finale, Obama Optimistic About Future

The president admitted his public persona - calm and cheerful - is not quite the way he feels when behind closed doors.

“I curse more than I do in public, and sometimes I get mad and frustrated, like everybody else does," he said. "But at my core, I think we’re going to be okay [as a country]. We just have to fight for it, we have to work for it, and not take it for granted, and I know that you will help us do that.”

He said his daughters understand that “the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.”

With that, Obama thanked the members of White House press corps, waved, turned and left the Brady Briefing Room, packed to overflowing with reporters. Striking a quiet and at times wistful tone, the president said having reporters in the White House had made him a better president, and that a free press is essential to democracy.

President Barack Obama thanks the members of the press as he begins his final presidential news conference, Jan. 18, 2017, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. Obama said having reporters in the White House made him better, and that a free press is essential to democracy.
President Barack Obama thanks the members of the press as he begins his final presidential news conference, Jan. 18, 2017, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. Obama said having reporters in the White House made him better, and that a free press is essential to democracy.

To the journalists, he said: "You're not supposed to be sycophants. You're supposed to be skeptics. You're supposed to ask tough questions."

That appeared to be a follow-up to intense discussions among reporters about rumored plans by Trump aides to move the White House press corps out of their current quarters close to the president's Oval Office, to another location farther away, possibly in a different building.

Manning commutation

The first question to Obama Wednesday was about his commutation of the 35-year prison sentence handed down to Chelsea Manning for leaking classified military documents.

Since Manning already has served a longer sentence than others convicted of similar crimes, and since she has accepted responsibility for her actions, Obama said: "In light of all the circumstances, commuting her sentence was entirely appropriate."

The transgender former Army private has already endured a "tough" time in prison, he noted, so shortening the prison term meant that "justice was served." Manning is now due to be released in May, by which time she will have been behind bars for seven years.

Obama said he saw no contradiction between granting clemency to Manning while he denounces Russia's computer hacking of the U.S. presidential campaign, including the alleged theft of emails that embarrassed Democratic Party officials.

He also dismissed a promise by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks that its founder, Julian Assange, would agree to face charges in the U.S. in return for Manning's release: “I don't pay much attention to Mr. Assange's tweets, so that wasn't a consideration."

Obama said he has tried to persuade Russia to reduce nuclear stockpiles, but Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin has been reluctant to discuss that issue, so he hopes his successor will be able to make progress on nuclear disarmament.

Watch: Obama on Russia


Turning to the larger question of what role the United States plays in the world, the president said the sanctions that were brought against Russia after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region were a “good example of the vital role” America plays. He also urged the incoming administration to continue to prevent big countries from “bullying” smaller countries.

Overall, Obama, said, the transition between his administration and the Trump team has been "cordial." He added that he has advised the president-elect to gather a team of well-qualified advisers around him, because "this is a job you can't do alone."

Obama noted that Trump won the presidential election by opposing many of the initiatives he pushed during the past eight years. The new president will move forward with his own vision and values, Obama said, and “I don't expect that there is going to be enormous overlap” between the two administrations' policies or directions.

Obama said he would only speak up to criticize Trump if he feels core American values are at stake, through restrictions on voting rights, a harsh anti-immigrant policy or attacks on journalists. He declined to comment about the expected boycott of Trump's inauguration on Friday by more than 50 Democratic lawmakers; the outgoing president and his wife will at the U.S. Capitol to witness the new president's swearing-in ceremony.

Preparations at the U.S. Capitol are underway for the inauguration Friday of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, in Washington, D.C., Jan 17, 2017 (B. Allen/VOA). At his final news conference Wednesday, Obama said he told Trump that the presidency "is a job you can't do alone."
Preparations at the U.S. Capitol are underway for the inauguration Friday of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, in Washington, D.C., Jan 17, 2017 (B. Allen/VOA). At his final news conference Wednesday, Obama said he told Trump that the presidency "is a job you can't do alone."

In a message of diversity and inclusion, Obama said in the future he expects to see a woman president, a Latino president, a Jewish president, a Hindu president and many others in the United States.

“We’ll have a whole bunch of mixed-up presidents at some point that nobody knows really knows what to call them,” he said with a smile.

Obama reminded journalists there is still work to be done to repudiate "fake news," such as the claims last year - all thoroughly disproven - that the U.S. election results would be distorted by vote fraud. The president said there is an “ugly history” behind restrictive voting in the United States that traces back to slavery.

On another controversial topic, Obama said he decided to end the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cuban immigrants because it no longer made sense, given the increasing engagement between the United States and Cuba. The administration ended the arrangement last week under which Cuban emigres would be allowed into the U.S. if they reached the mainland after fleeing their homeland (the "dry foot"), but not if they were picked up at sea (the "wet foot") before reaching the United States.

On the Middle East, the president said the “moment may be passing” for establishing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that he feels the “status quo is unsustainable” for Israel.

Obama began the news conference Wednesday by offering prayers and well wishes to former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, both of whom fell ill and are hospitalized in Houston, Texas, - “as fine a couple as we know.”

WATCH: Obama to Bush family

At 55, Obama is younger than many U.S. presidents as they leave office. He has been somewhat vague about his post-presidency plans, although it likely includes writing a memoir and political attempts to help Democrats eventually regain political clout in Washington, where Republicans now control both houses of Congress. He said he is looking forward to spending time with his wife and daughters and being quiet, adding he has heard himself talk “too darn much.”

VOA's Mia Bush contributed to this report.

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