Obama should follow the rules of the former presidents club and not criticize Trump
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
Just ten days into his successor Donald Trump’s presidency and former President Barack Obama has decided to criticize him. On Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, Obama released a statement through his spokesman praising public protests and dissent to his successor temporarily travel ban from seven predominantly Muslim nations without stable governments and halt to the Syrian refugee program. Obama broke tradition with the former presidents club, who usually chooses to avoid criticizing their successor allowing them to run the country and make their mistakes or successes, it was a model Obama’s predecessor Republican former President George W. Bush religiously upheld, making only one comment six years into Obama’s presidency. Obama’s choice to speak out imperils his legacy, historical perspective while blurring the lines of the presidency.
After Trump issued his executive order on Friday evening, Jan. 28, protests erupted at airports across the country, while lawsuits were filed and heard for those caught in the ban. The executive order halted travel to the US from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days, with nonimmigrant or immigrant visas. The order halted refugee entries for 120 days and the Syrian refugee program for an indefinite period.
The order was amended to allow entry to those with green cards, dual Canadian citizens and possibly those who worked with the US military. The order is based on the 2015 Terrorist Travel Prevention Act and its amendment in February 2016 under President Obama, which established these countries as threats because they do not have a stable government to communicate with US immigration to vet travelers. The bill created more extensive and vetting process for refugees from those countries. Obama’s bill caused little fanfare or objections.
On Monday, Obama’s spokesman issued a statement supporting the very vocal protesters, who held rallies at airports, city streets and even in front of the White House. Kevin Lewis, Obama’s spokesman, expressed in the statement, “President Obama is heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country. In his final official speech as President, he spoke about the important role of citizen and how all Americans have a responsibility to be the guardians of our democracy — not just during an election but every day.”
Obama’s spokesman continued, saying, “Citizens exercising their Constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake.” Lewis concluded, with the sharpest rebuke to President Trump, saying, “About comparisons to President Obama’s foreign policy decisions, as we’ve heard before, the President fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion.”
Former First Lady, 2016 Democratic nominee and Secretary of State under Obama, Hillary Clinton also tweeted her support, while daughter Chelsea participated in a protest in New York over the weekend. Apparently, the former president wanted his former Democratic supporters to protest as they have been doing in the little over a week Trump has been president. Former White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told the Washington Post, “What is notable about the grass-roots response to Trump .?.?. is that it is exactly the response that President Obama called for in his farewell address.” Essentially, Obama wanted dissension to Trump’s presidency and was always planning to be critical given the new president’s campaign pledges.
Such sharp criticism by a former president of his successor is the exception rather than the rule, even more so when it occurs just over a week after leaving the office. The Washington Post, which is highly critical of Trump, even had the headline, “Obama, in a rare move for an ex-president, breaks silence to criticize Trump on immigration.”
Twice, Obama implied he would only comment on Trump’s presidency in exceptional circumstances. Two days before leaving office at his final press conference on Jan. 18, Obama said, “There’s a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake.”
Obama indicated which issues would warrant his opinions, “I put in that category if I saw systematic discrimination ratified in some fashion; I put in that category explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise,” Obama said. “I would put in that category, institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press. And for me at least, I would put in that category efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids and send them someplace else.”
Just after the election in November, at his press conference in Lima, Obama also expressed what he would publicly say about Trump after he left office. Obama said, “I want to be respectful of the office and give the president-elect an opportunity to put forward his platform and his arguments without somebody popping off in every instance. As an American citizen who cares deeply about our country, if there are issues that have less to do with the specifics of some legislative proposal but go to core questions about our values and our ideals, and if I think that it is necessary or helpful for me to defend those ideals, I’ll examine it when it comes.” Obama remarks should come as no surprise, according to the Washington Post Obama organized his post-presidency office for political advocacy.
Obama however, surprised everyone by his criticism, it is unprecedented in American history for a former president to comment especially so early on in their successor’s term. Presidential historian Robert Dallek told the Washington Post, “I don’t think it’s very common at all for an ex-president to be commenting on the performance of his successor.” Obama is certainly not following the traditional and examples of most former presidents in American history.
Obama’s behavior is somewhat surprising given the respect, his predecessor George W. Bush gave to him when he embarked on the presidency. Although Obama spent much of his first term criticizing Bush and his policies, Bush never said a word to counter his successor or disparage him publicly for most of his time in office. Speaking in 2009, Bush said of Obama, “He deserves my silence. There’s plenty of critics in the arena. I think it’s time for the ex-president to tap dance off the stage and let the current president have a go at solving the world’s problems.”
Bush explained in 2014 over five years after leaving office the two reasons why he chose not say anything about the Obama presidency. Bush indicated, “I don’t think it’s good for the country to have a former president undermine a current president; I think it’s bad for the presidency for that matter.” Bush also said his reasons were personal, “Secondly, I really have had all the fame I want. I really don’t long for publicity. And the truth the matter is in order for me to generate publicity … I’d have to either attack the Republican Party, which I don’t want to do, or attack the president, which I don’t want to do. And so I’m perfectly content to be out of the limelight.”
In a 2013 interview with CNN Bush mentioned another reason why he will not criticize his successor, “I don’t think it does any good. It’s a hard job. He’s got plenty on his agenda. It’s difficult. A former president doesn’t need to make it any harder. Other presidents have taken different decisions; that’s mine.”
Bush finally broke his silence in 2015, at what was suppose to be a private event, without media coverage. Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition and donors in Nevada, Bush criticized Obama’s Middle East policies including negotiating a deal with Iran and withdrawing troops from Iraq. Supposedly, Bush said of the Iran deal, “You think the Middle East is chaotic now? Imagine what it looks like for our grandchildren. That’s how Americans should view the deal.”
Most of the former presidents kept silent in public refusing to criticize their successors in office. Afterward, many have grown close even after contentious campaigns where they were opponents. Rivals in the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush became close friends in 2005, as did Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford who were opponents in the 1976 election. President Harry Truman became friends with one of his predecessors; Herbert Hoover after the Republican helped the Democrat “restructure the executive branch.” Lyndon Johnson reached out to his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower after John F. Kennedy’s assassination and during the Vietnam War, and he was friends as well with Truman.
Dwight Eisenhower happens to be the best example of a recent former president not criticizing their successor, even if seems appropriate. Eisenhower never admonished his successor Democrat John F. Kennedy, even during biggest blunder the Bay of Pigs although he criticized him privately calling him “Little Boy Blue.” Afterward, Kennedy sought Eisenhower’s advice, and apparently, Kennedy admitted, “No one knows how tough this job is until he’s been in it a few months.” Eisenhower responded, “Mr. President. If you will forgive me, I think I mentioned that to you three months ago.”
Jimmy Carter has been the most vocal and critical post-World War II president criticizing three of his successors. Carter was a one-term president, with an active post-presidency. He criticized fellow Democrat Bill Clinton’s morals on the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his pardon of Marc Rich; he criticized Republican George W. Bush saying in 2007, “as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history.” Carter even was critical of Obama for how he handled North Korea and Iran. Carter’s criticism and meddling in foreign affairs made him the most disliked living former president.
Carter was not the most severe case of post-presidency criticism, that prize might go to Republican Theodore Roosevelt to his handpicked successor William Howard Taft. Taft made promises to keep Roosevelt’s cabinet and stay true to his policies but soon moved on to forge his own path. With Republican encouragement, Roosevelt mounted a campaign against Taft even winning more primaries, but Taft won the nomination after discrediting Roosevelt’s delegates.
Roosevelt, in turn, mounted a third party run with the newly formed the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party with a progressive “New Nationalism” platform. Roosevelt ended up being competitive to the Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson and secured a second place finish in the election that Wilson won, leaving Taft in the dust. Even with all the animosity, later on, Roosevelt said in 1910 after returning from an extended trip to Europe and Africa, “I will make no speeches or say anything for two months. But I will keep my mind open .?.?. As I keep my mouth shut.”
Time magazine editors and presidential historians, Nancy Gibb and Michael Duffy in 2012 book “The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity,” argue that there are usually bonds between the presidents. Gibb and Duffy write, “Such are the journeys this book attempts to trace: the intense, intimate, often hostile but more often generous relationships among the once and future presidents. It makes little difference how much they may have fought on the way to the White House; once they’ve been in the job, they are bound together by experience, by duty, by ambition, and by scar tissue.”
There are also rules including as former President George H. W. Bush has said, “No matter the politics, you know and understand the weight of the decisions the other guy had to make, and you respect that.” Gibb and Duffy indicate the two most important rules, “The Presidents Club has its protocols, including deference to the man in the chair and, for the most part, silence about how the members of the world’s most exclusive fraternity get along and the services they provide one another.”
Obama seems to be breaking with one of the most important precedents set out by the first former president George Washington. As Gibb and Duffy indicate, “but most of all to relinquish his power peacefully, even prematurely given his immense stature, at that time a striking act of submission to untested democratic principles.” Obama seems to look to incite Democrats many who have said Trump is “not their president” or claimed like Rep. John Lewis that he is “not the legitimate president.” Instead, Obama should have looked to precedent, where former presidents,
“join forces as needed, to consult, complain, console, pressure, protect, redeem.”
Obama speaking out so soon shows he is having difficulty letting go of the presidency and that confuses Democrats and his supporters who seem so adamantly against President Trump. Obama is showing too much partisanship, just after the election, and the inauguration of a new president. Gibb and Duffy say, “They can support whomever they like during campaigns; but once a new president is elected, the others often act as a kind of security detail.” The partisanship does nothing to help Obama who left the office with an average approval rating lower than the majority of post-war presidents. In the post-presidency, most former presidents reputations heal, and their popularity soars, because they stay out of the partisan fray, leaving it to the current president.
Obama needs to stop encouraging protests and chaos from his supporters and Democratic Congressional leadership, and instead look to give Trump some advice and guidance in private while letting his supporters know Trump is the president. Whether Democrats and liberals like Trump’s policies or not they need to look for effective means to make a difference rather than protesting in the streets and airports because all it seems like is lawlessness and pettiness because the Democratic Party just never accepted the election results of a president that legitimately won.
Gibbs, Nancy, and Michael Duffy. The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.
Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. “Theodore Roosevelt: Campaigns and Elections.” Accessed February 1, 2017. http://millercenter.org-/president/biography/roosevelt-campaigns-and-elections.
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.