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Obama Says America Will Be 'OK' In Final Press Conference

by Corky Siemaszko /  / Updated 
President Barack Obama speaks during a surprise appearance at White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest's last daily press briefing of the Obama administration in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington on Jan. 17.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

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President Obama used the final press conference of his presidency to deliver a hopeful message Wednesday to a nation nervous about the looming change of power in Washington: "At my core, I think we're going to be OK."

"I believe in this country," Obama said. "I believe in the American people."

The uplifting answer came in response to the last question he is likely to face as president from a reporter, a deeply personal inquiry about how his daughters Sasha and Malia reacted after Donald Trump won the election.

Obama admitted they were disappointed but also said they understand that "Democracy is messy."

"There are a lot more good people than bad in this country," he said. "There is a core decency in this country."

Obama began his final presser with praise for ailing former president George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara before revisiting his eight years in the White House with reporters who have been with him almost every step of the way. He also made it clear he would not be joining the other Democrats who are boycotting Trump's inauguration on Friday.

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Obama also pushed back against some of the proposals that Trump's team has already floated, like moving reporters out of the White House.

“Having you in this building has made this place work better, it keeps us honest…it makes us work harder,” he said.

While acknowledging that he doesn't expect "enormous overlap" with Trump, who campaigned on the promise of rolling back some of the President's signature achievements like the Affordable Care Act, Obama said he remains committed to ensuring a smooth transfer of power.

Asked what advice he's given the President-elect, Obama said he told Trump "this is a job of such magnitude you cannot do it by yourself" and advised him to rely on his team.

But Obama also vowed to speak out as private citizen if he saw “systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion,” if there were attempts to stifle dissent and a free press, or if there were “efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and are essentially American” and send them “somewhere else.”

Obama said he doesn't believe Trump will be able to roll back the gains the LGBTQ community made during his eight years because "American society has changed." He also said he doesn't think he will be the last person of color to become president.

"I think we're going to see people of merit rise up from every race, faith, corner of this country," he said. "We're gonna have a woman president, a Latino president, a Jewish president."

Obama answered questions about Russia, about the stalled Israeli-Palestinian situation, and he defended his decision to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning.

"Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence," Obama said of the former U.S. Army soldier who was convicted of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. "I feel very comfortable that justice has been served."

And Obama also called for keeping up the fight to ensure that voting rights are protected, calling attempts to keep minorities away from the ballot box a legacy of Jim Crow days.

"The whole notion of voting fraud is something that has been constantly disproved," he said. "That is fake news."

It is the 165th time Obama has faced the White House press corps in this kind of forum, according to the American Presidency Project.

That put the nation’s first African-American president 45 pressers behind his predecessor George W. Bush, who held 210 press conferences during his two terms, according to the APP.

Martha Joynt Kumar, who heads the White House Transition Project, said that doesn't mean Obama has kept reporters at arm's length.

"President Obama has given reporters plenty of access," said Kumar. "In terms of one-on-one interviews, he has done more than (George W.) Bush and (Bill) Clinton combined."

Kumar said she tallied 1,070 through September "and he's certainly done a hundred since then."

But Obama has not done many of the short question and answer sessions with the media that Clinton preferred doing, said Kumar. And, to the frustration of the White House press corps, he rarely took more than a handful of questions at formal press conferences.

"The thing about Obama is that he talked long," said Kumar. "What he liked to do is deal with a particular issue or area and answer questions at length."

Obama — like other presidents before him — often preferred to take his message directly to the people.

"For example, when he wanted to get young people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act, he went to Zach Galifianakis," Kumar said, referring to the comedian's "Between Two Ferns" show.

Also, said Kumar, "for Obama social media was important."

Like his predecessors, Obama left dealing with the White House press corps to press secretaries like Josh Earnest, who presided over his final briefing on Tuesday. Obama crashed the briefing and thanked Earnest for his service.

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