President Barack Obama’s remarks about Donald Trump in his Monday press conference contained some of the most ominous words I’ve heard since news networks began calling the election for Trump early last Wednesday morning. But you may not have heard them.
It is an understatement to say that Obama’s departure from the White House is occurring under unusual circumstances. He is managing a transition to the presidency of someone he believes is unfit for that office, who has empowered racist hate groups, wants to undo the Obama presidency, and shouldn’t be entrusted with nuclear weapons.
Despite all that, but also in a sense precisely because of all that, Obama is planning to play something like mentor to Trump over the coming weeks—something that doesn’t normally happen between outgoing presidents and incoming ones when the latter is acceptably disciplined and competent.
In a tense environment where reporters, government workers, world leaders, and anxious citizens and immigrants understandably are scrutinizing every Donald Trump tweet and utterance and leak, Obama’s closing thoughts on the presidency and his successor will be given short shrift. But the things he says about the transition contain critical information about its progress and his confidence that, on the other side of it, things will run smoothly.
His Monday comments suggests he has very little confidence that they will.
There is a text and a subtext to everything politicians say in public, even ones without more elections to run. It was the subtext of Obama’s press conference that unnerved me.
On the surface, his performance was reassuring. He was chipper. He did not doomsay. He searched for the generous and hopeful things to say about Trump and Trump’s designs on the presidency. But on close reading the sum total of his remarks was frightening—a stage-setting, at the very least, for an administration Obama expects will be hobbled by incompetence and likely to fail.
Obama kept returning to three basic themes: that Trump will be given every opportunity to succeed, thanks to the tutelage Obama and his team will be providing, and the fact Trump won’t be inheriting massive crises—which should give him the kind of running room Obama never enjoyed; that the work of a presidency is ceaseless, and much of it highly detail-oriented; and finally that Trump’s grasp of what he’s been elected to do is at best remedial.
Obama may be subtly trying to communicate to the Trump transition team that they need to make massive strides, and quickly, or they will be, in Obama’s words, “swamped.” But his expectation that Trump and his entourage will get their act together is clearly very low.
“The most important point I made,” Obama told reporters at the White House, referring to his conversation last week with Trump, “was that how you staff—particularly your chief of staff, your national security adviser, your White House counsel, how you set up a process and a system to surface information, generate options for a president, understanding that ultimately the president is going to be the final decision maker, that that’s something that’s going to have to be attended to right away.”
This was all accurate, but it was a way of saying that Trump is the first president in living memory not to have even passing knowledge of how a White House operation runs.
Obama repeatedly touted the fact that Trump will be inheriting many advantages: low unemployment, rising incomes and wages, a historically low uninsurance rate, stable financial systems, a high stock market, strong international alliances, and cheap gasoline. Given the baseline Trump will inherit, Obama’s reminder that “the American people will judge over the next couple of years whether they like what they see” suggests a suspicion that many of these metrics will worsen once Trump takes over.
When he was stumping for Hillary Clinton, Obama frequently returned to an immutable fact about the presidency: that the office doesn’t change an inhabitant’s temperamental failures, but magnifies them. On Monday, Obama suggested that the only way around this potentially catastrophic problem for Trump would be to outsource aspects of the job which don’t suit his temperament to less erratic people.
Obama explained how this presidency hack worked in his case:
This may seem like a silly example, but I know myself well enough to know I can’t keep track of paper. I am not well organized in that way. And so pretty quickly, after I’m getting stacks of briefing books coming in every night, I say to myself, I’ve got to figure out a system because I have bad filing, sorting and organizing habits. And I’ve got to find some people who can help me keep track of this stuff. That seems trivial, but actually it ends up being a pretty big piece of business.
The analogy would’ve been amusing but for the fact that, whether he can keep his desk and files organized or not, Trump can’t focus long enough to read through “stacks of briefing books coming in every night” to begin with.
Reading comprehension and patience only scratch the surface of difficulties Trump will face. “I think there will be certain elements of his temperament that will not serve him well unless he recognizes them and corrects them,” Obama added, “because when you’re a candidate and you say something that is inaccurate or controversial, it has less impact than it does when you’re president of the United States. Everybody around the world is paying attention, markets moves. National security issues require a level of precision in order to make sure you don’t make mistakes. I think he recognizes that this is different.”
Trump may or may not need someone to set up a filing system for him, but he’ll need people to do his reading, and to keep him from making shit up or reflexively attacking his enemies in public. The consequences of failing to outsource these tasks to people with better temperament won’t be a disorganized workspace, but crashing markets and accidental wars.
On the campaign trail, Trump responded to relatively trivial setbacks by grinding campaign norms into dust. One of his favorite tactics was positing a variety of fake realities (international conspiracies, the fictional crimes of his enemies, the imagined hellscapes of inner cities) meant to turn his base’s focus away from some new mortifying revelation and back to the demagogic message of his candidacy.
Obama’s warning to Trump, and everyone who stands to suffer for his errors, is that living in a rhetorical fantasy will backfire on a president. “Regardless of what experience or assumptions he brought to the office, this office has a way of waking you up,” Obama said. “And those aspects of his positions or predispositions that don’t match up with reality—he will find shaken up pretty quick, because reality has a way of asserting itself.”
Should Trump respond to such shakeups by transgressing governing norms, where he once transgressed campaigning norms, Obama warned that he would find himself in the midst of scandal or crime.
“One of the things you discover about being president is that there are all these rules and norms and laws and you’ve got to pay attention to them,” Obama said, as if the president-elect weren’t a 70-year-old person with a fancy education. “The people who work for you are also subject to those rules and norms. And that’s a piece of advice that I gave to the incoming president.”
Obama’s presidency was historically uncorrupt and free from major scandal, but that is not typical in U.S. history. George W. Bush’s administration festered with scandal and corruption, even though Bush had governing experience and enough integrity not to let his presidency become a source of personal enrichment. Bill Clinton’s White House, though misremembered by Republicans as one part Saturnalia, one part Nixonian crime den, wasn’t scandal-free either.
“We listened to the lawyers,” Obama said, “and we had a strong White House Counsel’s Office. We had a strong Ethics Office. We had people in every agency whose job it was to remind people, this is how you’re supposed to do things…. We had to just try to institutionalize this as much as we could. And that takes a lot of work. And one of my suggestions to the incoming president is, is that he take that part of the job seriously, as well.”
Because of the unique and awkward position he finds himself in, Obama can’t trash the incoming president or sow panic about the country’s coming stewardship. But it isn’t normal for an outgoing president to have to tell the incoming one he should follow the law, and that aspects of his temperament might get him into an economic crisis or a war or a massive corruption scandal. It’s certainly not normal for him to warn the public about it, however subtly, either.
We’ve become accustomed to some very high standards of behavior, and complacent—or even frustrated—with a slow, steady improvement upon the status quo Obama inherited eight years ago. This is Obama’s only way of preparing us for some abrupt and ugly reversals. We ought to listen very closely.