ATHENS — President Barack Obama acknowledged Tuesday that voters may have elected Donald Trump in part out of “natural desires for change,” but he batted down the idea that American voters gave an “outright rejection of my worldview.”
Hours after arriving in Greece to begin his final foreign tour as president, Obama tried to explain the American election, allowing elliptically for the first time that Trump’s election might have been a repudiation of his own presidency.
Presidential elections, Obama said, can turn on “personalities” as well as campaigns. Sometimes there are “natural desires for change when you have an incumbent who’s been there for eight years,” Obama said.
Still, “a pretty healthy majority of the American people agree” with his vision, Obama said, even though they did not elect Democrat Hillary Clinton on her promise to continue it.
“Sometimes people just feel as if we want to try something to see if we can shake things up, and that, I suspect, was a significant phenomenon,” Obama said.
Defending his record, Obama said that his economic agenda for eight years — raising wages, investing in infrastructure and education — was directed at addressing the kind of anxieties that Trump successfully tapped into throughout his campaign.
“The problem was, I couldn’t convince a Republican Congress to pass a lot of them,” he said. “Having said that, people seem to think I did a pretty good job. And so there is this mismatch between frustration and anger.”
Reacting to Trump’s stunning election upset for the second time in less than a day, this time on foreign soil, Obama drew a distinction between Trump’s victory and the so-called Brexit vote in Britain this summer, but also reflected on how nationalist sentiment that is threatening European unity might inhibit America’s own success.
Globalization and technology have “disrupted” people’s lives, but ultimately those trends can be positive, especially if leaders are responsive to those concerns and can continue to appeal to and explain the benefits of collective action.
Europeans ought to know from its 20th-century history of authoritarian rule what happens when they start “dividing themselves up and emphasizing their differences,” Obama said.
Americans also invite danger by dividing along lines of race, ethnicity and religion, he said, arguing that such separations rob the U.S. of its full potential.
“My vision’s right,” Obama said. “It may not always win the day in the short term, but I’m confident it will win the day over the long term.”
The remarks followed Obama’s morning arrival in Athens, where eight years after the global economic crisis, Greek leaders are still grappling with a massive national debt and depressed economy.
Officials greeted Obama’s arrival as one last chance to harness his support in their push for a European debt relief package. An aide to Obama said he will support efforts to win “meaningful debt release” so that the economy can start growing again.
Aides have said that on the trip, which also includes stops in Germany and Peru, Obama won’t try to represent — or guess at — Trump’s plans or points of view.
“I still don’t feel responsible for what the president-elect says or does. But I do feel a responsibility as president of the United States to facilitate a smooth transition,” Obama said.
Still, in meetings with the Greek president and prime minister on Tuesday, Obama projected as hopeful a message as he could, making a point of assuring each leader of the strong U.S. commitment to its allies.
As for the economic recovery efforts, he said, “we intend to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Greek people during this process.”