President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he did not expect to weigh in on day-to-day policy debates after departing the White House this week. But he vowed to inject himself into the national debate if he senses an erosion of the nation’s “core values,” such as efforts to suppress the right to vote, stifle free speech or “round up” young undocumented immigrants.
Obama used his final news conference to defend some of his recent policy decisions, but with less than two days before he hands over power to President-elect Donald Trump, he also foreshadowed his political life after the presidency.
Asked whether he was concerned about the future of younger immigrants known as “dreamers” under Trump, who has vowed to deport those living here illegally, Obama said that “the notion that we would just arbitrarily or because of politics punish those kids, when they didn’t do anything wrong themselves, I think would be something that would merit me speaking out.”
Obama’s post-presidency has been the subject of increased speculation in the wake of Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, who had been poised to assume the mantle as the leader of the Democratic Party and carry on many of Obama’s policies.
The president has expressed admiration for his predecessors, including Republican George W. Bush, who remained largely out of the political spotlight and allowed his administration the political space to pursue its agenda. He said Wednesday he plans to do some writing, presumably on his memoirs, and spend more time with his two daughters.
“I want to be quiet a little bit and not hear myself talk so darn much,” he said.
But many Democrats are hoping that Obama remains active in helping the party rebuild in the wake of its crushing loss of power in Washington, where both chambers of Congress are controlled by the GOP. Democrats have also lost considerable ground in state legislatures during Obama’s tenure.
Obama emphasized that he does not plan to run for another elective office. But he said he is “still a citizen” and believes “there’s a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake.”
Administration aides have begun to pack up, with most of the West Wing staff scheduled to move out late Thursday. Officials said a small number of Obama aides will remain on the job through noon Friday, when Trump takes the oath of office.
Obama and the first lady are scheduled to fly to Palm Springs, California, for a vacation Friday afternoon. They are leaving the White House for a private residence in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood while their younger daughter, Sasha, finishes her final 2 1/2 years of high school.
The president chose to field questions from reporters in the White House briefing room, a location chosen by aides in part for its symbolism, showing the working press in proximity to those in power. Trump aides have alarmed reporters by suggesting that they could be moved out of the West Wing, with fewer chances to question senior officials.
And as if to reinforce his message that diversity is an essential part of the American identity, Obama called on journalists from a range of outlets, including Latino, LGBT, African-American and foreign outlets.
“America needs you, and our democracy needs you,” he told a standing-room-only crowd in the briefing room.
Obama declined to weigh in directly when asked about the growing number of Democrats who have announced plans to boycott the inaugural ceremonies over differences with Trump.
The president-elect targeted Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., on Twitter after Lewis questioned Trump’s legitimacy in the wake of reports that Russian operatives meddled in the 2016 campaign in an effort to help Trump win the election.
“All I know is I’m going to be there. So is Michelle,” Obama said.
Closing his remarks, Obama said that he remains upbeat despite Trump’s victory.
“At my core, I think we’re going to be OK,” he said. “We just have to fight for it. We have to work for it and not take it for granted.”
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