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President Obama Holds Final News Conference. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired January 18, 2017 - 15:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[15:00:01]

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You don't want to do things off the cuff when it comes to an issue this volatile.

Chris Johnson. Chris Johnson.

QUESTION: On LGBT rights.

OBAMA: I'm sorry. Where's Chris?

QUESTION: I'm right here in the back, Mr. President.

OBAMA: There you go. I'm sorry. Didn't see you.

QUESTION: On LGBT rights, we have seen a lot of achievements over the past eight years, including signing hate crime (OFF-MIKE) legislation, don't ask/don't tell repeal, marriage equality nationwide, and insuring transgender people (OFF-MIKE).

How do you think LGBT rights will rank in terms of your accomplishments and your legacy? And how confident are you that progress will endure or continue under the president-elect?

OBAMA: I could not be prouder of the transformation that's taken place in our society just in the last decade.

And I have said before, I think we made some useful contributions to it, but the primary heroes in this stage of our growth as a democracy and a society are all the individual activists and sons and daughters and couples who courageously said, this is who I am, and I'm proud of it.

And that opened people's minds and opened their hearts. And, eventually, laws caught up. But I don't think any of that would have happened without the activism, in some cases loud and noisy, but, in some cases, just quiet and very personal.

And I think that what we did as an administration was to help to -- the society to move in a better direction, but to do so in a way that didn't create an enormous backlash and was systematic and respectful of the fact that, you know, in some cases these issues were controversial.

I think that the way we handled, for example, don't ask/don't tell, being methodical about it, working with the Joint Chiefs, making sure that we showed this would not have an impact on the effectiveness of the greatest military on Earth, and then to have Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Chairman Mike Mullen and the Joint Chiefs who were open to evidence and ultimately, you know, worked with me to do the right thing, I am proud of that.

But, again, none of that would have happened without this incredible transformation that was happening in society out there.

You know, when I gave Ellen the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I meant what I said. I think somebody that kind and likable projecting into, you know, living rooms around the country, you know, that changed attitudes. And that wasn't easy to do for her.

And that's just one small example of what was happening in countless communities all across the country. So, I'm proud that, in certain places, we maybe provided a good, you know, block downfield to help the movement advance.

I don't think it is something that will be reversible, because American society has changed. The attitudes of young people in particular have changed. That doesn't mean there aren't going to be some fights that are important, legal issues, issues surrounding transgender persons.

There are still going to be some battles that need to take place. But if you talk to young people, you know, Malia, Sasha's generation, even the Republicans, even if they're conservative, many of them would tell you, I don't understand how you would discriminate against somebody because of sexual orientation.

[15:05:08]

That's just sort of burned into them in pretty powerful ways.

April Ryan.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

Long before today, you have been considered a rights president. Under your watch, people have said that you expanded the rubber band of inclusion. And with the election and the incoming administration, people are saying that rubber band has recoiled and maybe is even broken.

And I'm taken back to a time on Air Force One going to Selma, Alabama, you said your job was to close the gaps that remained.

With that, what gaps still remain when it comes to rights issue on the table? And, also, what part will you play in fixing those gaps after -- in your new life? And, lastly, you are the first black president. Do you expect this country to see this again?

OBAMA: Well, I will answer the last question first.

I think we're going to see people of merit rise up from every race, faith, corner of this country, because that's America's strength. When we have everybody getting a chance and everybody's on the field, we end up being better.

I think I have used this analogy before. We -- we killed it in the Olympics in Brazil. And Michelle and I, we always have the Olympic team here. And it's a lot of fun, first of all, just because, you know, any time you're meeting somebody who's the best at anything, it's impressive.

And these mostly very young people are all just so healthy looking. And they just beam and exude fitness and health. And so we have a great time talking to them.

But they are of all shapes, sizes, colors. You know, the genetic diversity that is on display is remarkable. And if you look at a Simone Biles, and then you look at a Michael Phelps, they're completely different.

And it's precisely because of those differences that we have got people here who can excel at any sport. And, by the way, more than half of our medals came from women. And the reason is, is because we had the foresight several decades ago, with something called Title IX, to make sure that women got opportunities in sport, which is why our women compete better, because they have more opportunities than folks in other countries.

So, you know, I use that as a metaphor. And if, in fact, we continue to keep opportunity open to everybody, then, yes, we're going to have a woman president, we're going to have a Latino president, we will have a Jewish president, a Hindu president.

You know what? Who knows who we're going to have. I suspect we will have a whole bunch of mixed-up presidents at some point that nobody really knows what to call them.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: And that's fine.

What do I worry about? I obviously spent a lot of time on this, April, at my farewell address on Tuesday, so I won't go through the whole list.

I worry about inequality, because I think that, if we are not investing in making sure everybody plays a role in this economy, the economy will not grow as fast, and I think it will also lead to further and further separation between us as Americans, and not just along racial lines.

I mean, there are a whole bunch of folks who voted for the president- elect because they feel forgotten and disenfranchised. They feel as if they're being looked down on. They feel as if their kids aren't going to have the same opportunities as they did.

And you don't want to -- you don't want to have an America in which a hand -- a very small sliver of people are doing really well and everybody else is fighting for scraps, as I said last week, because that's oftentimes when racial divisions get magnified, because people think, well, the only way I get on ahead is if I make sure else somebody gets less, somebody who doesn't look like me or doesn't worship at the same place I do.

[15:10:02]

That's not a good recipe for democracy. I worry about, as I said in response to a previous question, making sure that the basic machinery of our democracy works better. We are the only country in the advanced world that makes it harder to vote ,rather than easier.

And that dates back. There's a -- there's an ugly history to that that we should not be shy about talking about.

QUESTION: Voting rights?

OBAMA: Yes, I'm talking about voting rights.

The reason that we are the only country among advanced democracies that makes it harder to vote is, it traces directly back to Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery. And it became sort of acceptable to restrict the franchise.

And that's not who we are. That shouldn't be who we should be. That's not when America works the best. So, I hope that people pay a lot of attention to making sure that everybody has a chance to vote. Make it easier, not harder.

This whole notion of election or voting fraud, this is something that has constantly been disproved. This is fake news, the notion that there are a whole bunch of people out there who are going out there and are not eligible to vote and want to vote.

We have the opposite problem. We have a whole bunch of people who are eligible to vote who don't vote. And so the idea that we would put in place a bunch of barriers to people voting doesn't make sense.

And then the, as I have said before, political gerrymandering that makes your vote matter less because politicians have decided you live in a district where everybody votes the same way you do, so that these aren't competitive races, and we get 90 percent Democratic districts, 90 percent Republican districts.

That's bad for our democracy, too. I worry about that. I think it is very important for us to make sure that our criminal justice system is fair and just, but I also think it's also very important to make sure that it is not politicized, that it maintains an integrity that is outside of partisan politics at every level.

I think at some point, we're going to have to spend -- and this will require action by the Supreme Court -- we have to reexamine just the flood of endless money that goes into our politics, which I think is very unhealthy.

So, there are a whole bunch of things I worry about there. And, as I said in my speech on Tuesday, we got more work to do on race. It is not -- it is simply not true that things have gotten worse. They haven't. Things are getting better.

And I have more confidence on racial issues in the next generation than I do in our generation or the previous generation. I think kids are smarter about it. They're more tolerant. They're more inclusive, by instinct, than we are. And, hopefully, my presidency maybe helped that along a little bit.

But, you know, we -- when we feel stress, when we feel pressure, when we're just fed information that encourages some of our worst instincts, we tend to fall back into some of the old racial fears and racial divisions and racial stereotypes.

And it's very hard for us to break out of those and to listen and to think about people as people and imagine being in that person's shoes.

And, by the way, it's no longer a black and white issue alone. You have got Hispanic folks and you have got Asian folks. And, you know, this is not just the same old battles.

We got this stew that is bubbling up of people from everywhere. And we're going to have to make sure that we, in our own lives and our own families and workplaces, do a better job of treating everybody with basic respect, and understanding that not everybody starts off in the same situation, and imagining, what it would be like if you were born in an inner city and had no job prospects anywhere within a 20-mile radius.

[15:15:15]

Or how does it feel being born in some rural county, where there's no job opportunities in a 20-mile radius, and seeing those two things as connected as opposed, to separate.

So, you know, we got work to do. But, overall, I think, on this front, the trend lines ultimately, I think, will be good.

Christi Parsons.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OBAMA: And, Christi, you are going to get the last question.

Christi is -- you know, I just -- I have been knowing her since Springfield, Illinois. When I was a state senator, she listened to what I had to say. So, the least I can do is give her the last question as president of the United States.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

OBAMA: Yes, there you go. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Well, thank you, Mr. President. It has been an honor.

OBAMA: Thank you. QUESTION: And I have a personal question for you, because I know how

much you like this.

The first lady put the stakes of the 2016 election in very personal terms in a speech that resonated across the country. And she really spoke to concerns of a lot of women, LGBT folks, people of color, many others.

And so I wonder now how you and the first lady are talking to your daughters about the meaning of this election and how you interpret it for yourself and for them.

OBAMA: You know, every parent brags on their daughters or their sons.

You know, if your mom and dad don't brag on you, you got problems.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: But, man, my daughters are something.

And they just surprise and enchant and impress me more and more every single day as they grow up. And so, these days, when we talk, we talk as -- as parent to child, but, also, we learn from them.

And I think it was really interesting to see how Malia and Sasha reacted. They were disappointed. They paid attention to what their mom said during the campaign and believed it, because it's consistent with what we have tried to teach them in our household, and what I have tried to model as a father with their mom, and what we have asked them to expect from future boyfriends or spouses.

But what we have also tried to teach them is resilience. And we have tried to teach them hope, and that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world. And so, you get knocked down, you get up, brush yourself off, and you get back to work.

And that tended to be their attitude. I think neither of them intend to pursue a future of politics. And, in that, too, I think their mother's influence shows.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: But both of them have grown up in an environment where I think they could not help but be patriotic, to love this country deeply, to see that it's flawed, but see that they have responsibilities to fix it, and that they need to be active citizens.

And they have to be in a position to talk to their friends and their teachers and their future co-workers in ways that try to shed some light, as opposed to just generate a lot of sound and fury.

And I expect that's what they're going to do. They do not -- they don't mope.

[15:20:04] And what I really am proud of them -- what makes me proudest about

them is that they also don't get cynical about it. They have not assumed, because their side didn't win or because some of the values that they care about don't seem as if they were vindicated, that automatically America has somehow rejected them or rejected their values.

So, I don't think they feel that way. I think they have, in part through osmosis, in part through dinnertime conversations, appreciated the fact that this is a big, complicated country, and democracy is messy, and it doesn't always work exactly the way you might want.

It doesn't guarantee certain outcomes. But if you're engaged and you're involved, then there are a lot more good people than bad in this country. And there's a core decency to this country, and that they got to be a part of lifting that up.

And I expect they will be. And, in that sense, they are representative of this generation that makes me really optimistic.

I have been asked -- I had -- I have had some off-the-record conversations with some journalists where they said, OK, you seem like you're OK, but, really, really, what are you thinking?

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: And I have said, no, I -- what I'm saying really is what I think.

I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad.

I believe tragic things happen. I think there is evil in the world. But I think that, at end of the day, if we work hard, and if we're true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time.

That's what this presidency has tried to be about. And I see that in the young people I have worked with. I couldn't be prouder of them.

And, so, this is not just a matter of no-drama Obama. This is what I really believe. It is true that, behind closed doors, I curse more than I do in public.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: And, sometimes, I get mad and frustrated, like everybody else does.

But, at my core, I think we're going to be OK. We just have to fight for it. We have to work for it and not take it for granted.

And I know you will help us do that.

Thank you very much, press corps. Good luck. JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Barack Obama, his final press

conference as president of the United States, taking a number of questions.

The people from whom he took questions, a statement unto themselves, taking questions first from the president of the White House Correspondents Association, then from FOX News. Other organizations that were represented were Univision, Al-Arabiya, an LGBT publication, clearly making a statement about the -- all the different kinds of media out there.

Let's talk about this, everything he had to say,

First of all, David Axelrod, let me start with you.

He clearly was talking to the press, talking to the country, but also sending signals, I think, to his successor.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Oh, I don't think there's any question of that, starting right from his opening statement about the importance of the media and noting that that it's valuable to have them right there in the building to hold people accountable.

But the thing that -- there was a statement that he was talking about it in the context I think of the Middle East, but he said that it is the prerogative of a new president to change policies, but he better make sure he thinks it through, because they have big ramifications. He said actions we take have enormous actions ramifications. We're the biggest kids on the block and the world reacts to what we do.

I think that was an important statement. Also, he made a comment about relying on one's staff and making sure those people around you will be honest with you, will give you the best counsel, and you're -- and urging the next president to have a willingness to listen to that kind of comment.

So, I think, throughout this press conference, he was trying to lay down some principles that he hopes might infect the next White House.

TAPPER: And, in fact, he said he wasn't sure how convincing he has been in his conversations with president-elect Trump. But he has tried to convince him of some things.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: So, he did it again. In other words, I think he gave us pretty much a road map of the things that he has been say to the president-elect.

[15:25:03]

And most notably to me was talking about how there's a difference between normal politics and people agreeing and disagreeing over certain issue sets and -- as he put it, and moments where our core values are at stake as a country.

And then he really laid out step by step, I believe, the issues upon which you're going to hear him talk about in the future, if he believes there's a need for him to do so. He talked about systematic discrimination. In the back of my mind was, OK, Muslim ban. Could that be what the president is talking about?

Obstacles to voting. I believe it is. Reining back the press, efforts, as he said very distinctly, efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and could wind up someplace else, obviously talking about dreamers.

So I think he's made it very clear today what issues he tends to get involved with, and also you know told the incoming president, be very careful and keep your team -- make sure that you have the best people around you, as David is saying, because he talked very eloquently, I thought, about finding yourself isolated and only hearing from people with whom you agree is not a good thing.

TAPPER: Senator Santorum?

RICK SANTORUM, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, I would say a couple of things.

I agree with David and Gloria that a couple of his comments, I think, were very good, that talking about the team is an important thing. And Donald Trump has shown that he's not always listening. And I think it is a good thing to surround yourself with people. And he has.

Everyone talks about how -- he's got folks from all different parts of the Republican Party around him. And I think he will eventually over time I think start listening to them.

(LAUGHTER)

SANTORUM: But I to tell you, as the conservative on the panel here, this is a painful thing for conservatives to watch.

It really was, because...

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Obama leaving?

SANTORUM: No, just listening to his lane out of all these things that he's going to continue to go out there and speak on, when, number one, presidents don't generally do that. President generally leave and then go away and allow things to function without him.

But I think you're right, Gloria. I think he's made the case, nah, I think I'm going to going to stick around.

And I don't think that's helpful. I don't think, if you look at the fact that this president signed less bills into Congress -- less bills into law than any president in modern history, less than one-term presidents of Carter and Bush, this has not been a guy who has been helpful in getting things done in Washington.

And I don't think his speech tonight -- I mean, his press conference today did anything to help that. He continued to take a very hard- left, progressive approach to almost every single issue. And I can tell you, as someone sitting here watching it, it was painful, because I found very little, other than the platitudes that we can sort of all agree with, very painful to see this president sort of stick with the program that could never get passed up here in Washington.

TAPPER: Van?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I just find it odd to hear a Trump supporter make the case for normalcy, that what we need now is normalcy.

I think we have the most abnormal political situation that we have had, and I think in large part because of the conduct of president- elect Trump as a candidate and now as a president-elect, and probably as a president.

And I think it was very important actually for President Obama to lay out for what is now becoming an anti-Trump resistance in the country where he can be counted on to speak up and frankly where he can be counted on not to speak up.

He said, in the normal give-and-take, in the normal back-and-forth about taxes, about the environment, and those sorts of things, let that go on, that's good. But there are some key issues that are key to the country, and, on those issues, you will not fight alone, on issues about core discrimination against people based on their faith, mistreating these young dreamers, dissent being cracked down on.

And, frankly, what you want a former president to do is to be there on the big issues and the big controversies, because that's the moral statute, the moral standing. And Obama, I think, as you can see with 60 percent of support, should be heard from.

TAPPER: Senator Santorum, let me ask you, because he clearly did lay a framework for, I'm going to be quiet. There's going to be disagreements. he's going to things -- President Trump is going to do things differently from the way I did it. But there are some core issues where I will speak up.

And he did talk about them, systemic discrimination ratified, explicit and functional obstacles to the right to vote, efforts to silence dissent or the press, and rounding up young children who have been this -- children who are in this country illegally, dreamers, deporting them, those four areas. What did you think of him laying that out like that

SANTORUM: Well, I thought it was sort of funny that this president, who has done more to attack people of faith, tried to get Little Sisters of the Poor to buy abortions, to me, that -- it's unbelievable that the president would even use that as a marker.

I mean, this president has been anti-faith, and has tried to drive a secularism into this country. And so I hope he speaks out, but I hope he speaks out