Between Trump being Trump and this guy peeing all over Dubya’s precedent of gracious silence in retirement towards his successor, the pro-Bush “Miss Me Yet?” memes circa 2019 should be spectacular.
In his remarks to [Organizing for America] activists, Mr. Obama urged them to stop moping and to ratchet up their opposition to Mr. Trump by Thanksgiving. He promised to join their cause soon after, telling them: “You’re going to see me early next year, and we’re going to be in a position where we can start cooking up all kinds of great stuff to do.”
He has echoed that message in private conversations, making it clear that he may not completely pattern himself after George W. Bush, who almost never criticized his successor.
One friend of Mr. Obama’s, who requested anonymity to discuss private discussions with the president, said the election results seemed to have made him more willing to remain part of the political debate.
“Everyone he talks to walks away with this impression,” the friend said.
Partly the Bush/Obama divide on this is a straightforward function of background and personality. Go figure that the community organizer’s going to go on looking for communities to organize once he’s out of office. But they’re differently situated in other ways. One: Unlike Bush, Obama will have a friendly media waiting to greet him in his post-presidency. If Dubya had tried to remained politically active, much of the coverage would have dwelled on errors he made in office. Obama will get a bit of that (questions about, say, why his policies left the white working class alienated from Democrats) but for the most part his coverage will dwell on errors that Trump has made in office. It’s easier to stay political in retirement when you know the media’s willing to carry your message. For all the pissing and moaning Obama and his team do about the media, the fact remains that, since JFK, no U.S. president has been as glamorized as an icon and as admired as a person by the American press as O has. When you’re in that position, why wouldn’t you continue to spout off on politics to news agencies and on late-night TV shows?
Two: It’s a plain fact that O will leave office much more popular than Dubya was. Bush’s job approval in mid-November 2008 was 29/66; Obama’s latest job approval as measured by Gallup is 56/42. Obama still has political capital to spend. I think Dubya would have held off on criticizing O no matter what, but that decision was easier to make knowing that his party didn’t necessarily want him speaking up about Obama’s policies for fear that his unpopularity would backfire on them. There’s a reason you didn’t see much of Bush on the campaign trail for Republicans over the past eight years; he didn’t even campaign for Jeb this spring until the situation had turned dire and Jeb needed a gigantic upset in South Carolina to stay alive. There just wasn’t a lot of demand for a politically active Bush post-presidency, and so in the end there wasn’t much supply. Obama doesn’t face that problem.
Three: Obama isn’t merely the most recent Democratic president, he’s the first black president. Fairly or not, that will put added pressure on him to speak up, especially if Trump’s policies run up against civil rights. Bush wasn’t risking anything to his presidential legacy by maintaining a respectful silence after leaving office. On the contrary, I think he helped his legacy considerably by cutting such a gracious figure. Even liberals who treated him like the antichrist while in office seem to have developed some respect for him as a person, which makes it harder in hindsight for them to believe that his policies were motivated by malice. Obama faces a different calculus. If he spends the next four years golfing, he’ll be attacked by some lefties as a guy whose interest in justice and equality coincidentally seemed to diminish as soon as he no longer stood to benefit from that politically. And that’s especially true given the figure cut by Trump. Any Republican, even one as inoffensive as Kasich or Jeb, would have been treated as an existential crisis by the professional left, but Trump is such a loose cannon temperamentally and an unknown quantity politically that the usual sky-is-falling hysteria seems less superficially insane this time. That being so, Democrats will demand an all-hands-on-deck effort from their side to try to hold Trump in check. And Barack Obama is the most famous, and momentarily most influential, Democrat on planet Earth.
For the moment, though, he’s a Democrat with a dilemma. Namely, how much time should he spend trying to cultivate Trump’s trust before he gives up and declares war?
[A]fter the sitdown with Trump, Obama told staff members that he had talked Trump through the rudiments of forming a cabinet and policies, including the Iran nuclear deal, counter-terrorism policy, health care—and that the President-elect’s grasp of such matters was, as the debates had made plain, modest at best. Trump, despite his habitual bluster, seemed awed by what he was being told and about to encounter…
Although Obama and his aides had long been alarmed by Trump’s disturbing rhetoric and loose grasp of policy, they decided that the best path forward was to assume the mask of decorum. It was a matter of amour-propre, but—again—also of tactics. To have any chance to influence Trump, they had to avoid any trace of the contempt that had once been so pronounced.
That’s not the first clue we’ve gotten that Obama intends to run a charm offensive at Trump, at least at first, in hopes of getting a foot in the door for Democrats to influence him on policy. (It’s also not the first time we’ve heard that Trump was blown away upon learning what the job he just spent 16 months competing for actually entails. “He was nervous and jolted … by the 90-minute Oval Office meeting with Mr. Obama,” according to people close to Trump who spoke to the NYT, “and for the first time appeared to take in the enormousness of the job.”) If O turns around in February and begins ripping into him, no matter how much Democrats will enjoy that, any possibility of Obama or congressional Democrats lobbying him on policy will go up in smoke. And Obama will be tempted to start ripping, as Republicans will be hard at work on day one to overhaul his pet project, ObamaCare.
Strategically, the smartest thing he can do is bite his lip, offer Trump any behind-the-scenes help he needs either from the outgoing cabinet or from congressional Dems as he learns the ropes, and make himself or his aides available to discuss the finer points of his policies — especially O-Care — as Trump makes changes to them. That’ll build goodwill and will give Obama a chance to nudge the direction of the coming reforms. Publicly, meanwhile, he should accentuate the positive as much as he can. Praise the cabinet picks that he likes — Pompeo and Mattis, if he ends up at Defense, are able public servants regardless of your party affiliation — and lay off any harsh criticism for now. Obviously this won’t last forever; eventually Trump will feel comfortable in the job and the GOP will take a wrecking ball to some Obama policy, be it ObamaCare, the Iran deal, or immigration, and then O will let loose. But he’d be a fool with a successor as ideologically adrift as Trump to choose war on day one instead of lobbying him. (This is a guy, remember, whose chief advisor Steve Bannon just crowed in an interview, “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.”) And I’m sure he understands that. We won’t see “activist Obama” until year two, in all likelihood.
Here’s Chuck Schumer this morning talking about fighting Trump tooth and nail if his policy takes a “dark, divisive turn.” That’ll be the Obama policy too, I’m sure, with a benefit of the doubt at first as Dems try to feel Trump out for common ground. Exit question: Per the Times, “Some Democrats say they are eager for Mrs. Clinton to re-emerge after a period of recovery” and agitate against Trump as well. Um, which Democrats? In which alternate reality is Hillary Clinton, whose incompetence put them in this position in the first place, an effective populist bulwark against Trumpism?