President Barack Obama used his final national television interview to express doubts that Donald Trump will be able to effectively govern by firing off tweets and offered some advice about the president-elect’s feud with the intelligence community.
In a lengthy interview that aired Sunday evening on CBS’s “60 Minutes” news program, Obama also acknowledged some mistakes — a rarity for the outgoing chief executive. Among them were missteps he made in dealing with Congress.
“I will confess that I didn’t fully appreciate the ways in which individual senators or members of Congress now are pushed to the extremes by their … voter bases,” Obama told interviewer Steve Kroft. “I did not expect, particularly in the midst of crisis, just how severe that partisanship would be.”
Obama appeared to be referring to the financial collapse he inherited upon taking office.
When pressed on whether he delivered on his 2008 campaign trail promise to bring change to Washington, his answer was vintage Obama. He both accepted some blame, but after criticizing his political foes — and while slipping in his final-months list of what he sees as his biggest accomplishments.
“I became a lightning rod for some partisan battles,” he said. “By almost every measure, the country is significantly better off than when I came in. If you can look back and say, “The economy’s better. Our security’s better. The environment’s better. Our … kids’ education is better … then considering all the challenges out there you should feel good.”
“But I’m the first to acknowledge that I did not crack the code in terms of reducing this partisan fever,” Obama said.
The president who struggled in working with members Congress offered a dismal assessment of their collective ability to get things done.
“I think the American people can change Washington. But I … think that it is not going to change, because somebody from on high directs that change,” he said. “Members of Congress — on both sides of the aisle — are motivated by all kinds of issues. They’re sincerely interested in the economy, in terrorism, in social issues. But the one overriding thing they’re interested in is getting re-elected.
“If they think that it’s harder for them to get reelected by cooperating with each other, then they won’t cooperate,” said Obama, a former senator.
Notably, Obama singled out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to build and hold what amounted to a blockade that prevented Obama from filling the Supreme Court seat vacated by Antonin Scalia’s death last February. He said the fact that the Kentucky Republican did so without his party being punished at the polls is “a sign that the incentives for politicians in this town to be so sharply partisan have gotten so out of hand that — that we’re weakening ourselves.”
Obama also weighed in on Trump, though his comments were not as critical as others he and his top spokesman have made in recent weeks. For instance, the outgoing president wondered aloud if his successor’s use of social media as his primary means of communicating with the American people — and Congress — will translate into a successful and productive presidency.
“We are moving into an era where a lot of people get their information through tweets and sound bites and some headline that comes over their phone. And I think that there’s a power in that,” Obama said. “There’s also a danger, what generates a headline or stirs up a controversy and gets attention isn’t the same as the process required to actually solve the problem.”
Trump has waged a Twitter-based public battle with the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies over their conclusion that Russian President Vladimir Putin — whom the president-elect continues to court and praise in his public comments and tweets — ordered a hacking operation to intervene in the American election.
Asked about the wisdom of an incoming commander in chief taking on his entire intel apparatus, on which all presidents depend to help them make complex national security and foreign policy decisions, Obama had some advice for Trump.
“You’re not going to be able to make good decisions without building some relationship of trust between yourself and that community,” he said.
Obama sat down with Kroft on Monday afternoon at the White House to tape the interview. Six days later, the Capitol was buzzing with rare Sunday activities during a full dress rehearsal.
Military teams marched to the steady beats of their drum corps along the East Front of the Capitol and then down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Hours later, on the West Front side, a military stand-in for Trump took the Oath of Office, even mimicking the 45th president at one point by giving a double thumbs up.
Inside the Capitol, inaugural staffers scrambled from one side of the building to the other. They dodged stands holding signage that will help direct traffic on Friday, when Obama will accompany Trump up Pennsylvania Avenue to be sworn in. Members of the Marine Band joked with Capitol Police officers near the very door Trump will enter the massive West Front inaugural platform.
Staffers for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies consulted binders and called their “command center” when asked how certain things would work on Friday. One veteran JCCIC staffer acknowledged the Sunday scene appeared a bit disorganized, but promised things will run smoothly on Inauguration Day.
“Rehearsal day,” she quipped, “is always mostly about how the sausage is made.”