Since Donald Trump’s victory last month, President Barack Obama has gone to great pains not to criticize him directly, dutifully adhering to the very political norms Trump casually flouts. But on Tuesday, appearing with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo at the USS Arizona Memorial for service members lost at Pearl Harbor, Obama took an apparent shot at Trump in his remarks.
“Even when hatred burns hottest, even when the tug of tribalism is at its most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward,” he said. “We must resist the urge to demonize those who are different.”
Like clockwork, Trump tweeted this apparent response:
On some level, Obama’s implicit rebuke isn’t a huge departure from his rhetoric throughout the transition, when he’s issued subtle warnings about the president-elect. As on Tuesday, Obama has avoided explicit criticism of Trump, simply by refusing to name him. But few people, including Trump himself, were in doubt about Obama’s intended target on Tuesday.
No one gets under Trump’s skin more than Obama, and no one—save Michelle Obama, in her remarkable speech about Trump and sexual assault—more effectively criticized him during the campaign. The Obamas are still the best communicators that Democrats have, which is why it’s so troubling—if not surprising—that they’re planning to sideline themselves from national political debates once Trump takes office.
Next year, with Trump in the White House and the GOP in control of Congress, Obama’s moral clarity and rousing defense of progressive values will be more vital than ever. By going silent, while Republicans try to dismantle his signature achievements, Obama would deprive the Democrats of their most powerful voice at a time when the opposition party needs it most.
In a podcast interview posted Monday with his longtime political adviser David Axelrod, Obama made clear he doesn’t want to lead the resistance to the new president. He allowed that he might take on Trump “a year from now or a year and a half from now or two years from now”—if “foundational issues about our democracy” are at risk—but Obama has other post-presidency priorities: vacationing with his wife, drafting his next book, developing new Democratic talent, and, before any of that, getting some serious shut-eye.
No one begrudges Obama some R&R after eight taxing years. But the memoir can wait. And while he should absolutely promote the next generation of Democrats—and work on redistricting with Eric Holder, as he’s also planning to do—those projects will take many years. The left has more immediate, pressing political concerns. Until the opposition finds a new, dynamic leader, it should be able to count on the great one it’s already got.
This doesn’t mean Obama should be tweeting back at Trump. Obama told Axelrod he shouldn’t be part of the “day-to-day scrum,” and he’s right. But the president is uniquely positioned to be an outspoken ex-president, and their are a host of reasons he should be emboldened to do so. Maybe it’s with more thinly veiled statements like Tuesday’s. Maybe it’s with explicit criticism doled out discerningly. But he’d be making a mistake not to step up when his party needs him—especially, though not exclusively, when his own legacy is at stake.
As Obama correctly told Axelrod, there’s evidence to suggest most American voters share his vision for the country. They elected him twice and gave the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Trump’s election was not a repudiation of liberalism, and Obama is uniquely situated to stand up for those values. In fact, he stands to be the most powerful ex-president in living memory.
Consider his predecessors. George W. Bush was deeply unpopular by the end of his second term, even among establishment Republicans; he was in no position to shape his party’s future. Bill Clinton had a healthy approval rating—66 percent, according to Gallup—but was tainted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. George H. W. Bush lost his reelection bid, and thus lost much of his influence. Ronald Reagan was well on his way to becoming a Republican legend, but he was 77 and may already have been suffering from Alzheimer’s. Jimmy Carter is the exception. A one-term president, the 92-year-old has had a very influential, successful post-presidency—like Obama, he has won the Nobel Peace Prize—but with a focus on human rights and conflict resolution, not domestic politics.
Obama is departing the White House at 55, in better health than most men his age, with a solid majority of Americans still liking him. Gallup puts his job approval rating at 56, and on Wednesday the polling organization reported that he bested Trump by seven points to be the most-admired man in America.
Ever the institutionalist, Obama undoubtedly worries about the downsides of staying in the fight. Won’t it set a bad precedent? Won’t it further polarize America? Won’t it further degrade political norms?
Yes, yes, and yes. But these are questions that Republican leaders haven’t asked themselves for years, and they have a unified government to show for it. To fight back with any effectiveness, Democrats have got to be tougher. That means breaking a few norms themselves, if only to save others.
And this needs to start today, with the current leader of the Democratic Party. Obama can’t wait “a year from now or a year and a half from now or two years from now.” By then, Trump will have squandered America’s standing in the world (and perhaps even started a nuclear war). The free press will be slightly less free, the dissenters more frightened to dissent. Obamacare will be at least partially dismantled. And a conservative-leaning Supreme Court could be busy turning back time.
“I believe in the wisdom that George Washington showed, that at a certain point, you make room for—for new voices and fresh legs,” Obama told Axelrod. It’s worth remembering, though, that our first president didn’t retire for good after his second term was up. In 1798, as relations between the U.S. and France worsened, Washington accepted an appointment by President John Adams as lieutenant-general and commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army. He served until his death a year and a half later.
Today, a different sort of fight is looming. It’s important for the left to make room for new voices and fresh legs, but the opposition’s ranks lack an accomplished, inspirational leader at this critical moment. There is only one obvious choice.