White House aides: Obama wasn't taking a dig at Trump in those comments at Pearl Harbor about "tribalism"

C’mon. Of course he was. And both he and Trump know it.

Trump was also irritated by Obama’s comments at Pearl Harbor on Tuesday afternoon in which he said, “even when hatred burns hottest, even when the tug of tribalism is at its most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward. We must resist the urge to demonize those who are different.” These felt to Trump like direct criticism of the president-elect, according to two people close to Trump.

Obama administration aides deny that the president was talking about Trump.

Liberals are cackling that even Trump now thinks “Trump” when he hears someone talking about political hatred, tribalism, and demonization. But that’s not why Trump jumped to the conclusion that O was targeting him; it’s because O has targeted him in those terms all year long in various speeches. In mid-January, with Trump’s surprising lead in primary polling having held up through the new year, Obama said this in the State of the Union:

It’s a lot easier to be cynical; to accept that change is not possible, and politics is hopeless, and the problem is all the folks who are elected don’t care, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future. Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure. And then, as frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.

“Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, turning against each other as a people?” he asked elsewhere in the speech. He never used Trump’s name, a habit Obama would follow in most of his speeches this year, but the media understood perfectly well whom he was talking about. Likewise, in June, in a commencement address at the Air Force Academy, he warned that “We can not turn inward. We cannot give in to isolationism. That is a false comfort.” WaPo rightly perceived that as a dig at Trump too.

Two months later, at the Democratic convention, Obama got more explicit in his attacks to suit the partisan moment:

America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s always been about what can be achieved by us, together, through the hard and slow, and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government. And that’s what Hillary Clinton understands. She knows that this is a big, diverse country, she has seen it, she’s traveled, she’s talked to folks. And she understands that most issues are rarely black and white. She understands that even when you’re 100 percent right, getting things done requires compromise. That democracy doesn’t work if we constantly demonize each other.

That capped a long passage criticizing Trump for his authoritarian tendencies and supposedly dim view of American democracy. “She will finish the job” against ISIS, he said of Hillary, “and she’ll do it without resorting to torture, or banning entire religions from entering our country.” The election came and went and Obama’s candidate lost, but as recently as last month, a week after Trump’s victory, he was still saying things like this: “We are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism, or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an us and a them…” He made that statement at a press conference in Greece while on a visit to Europe, but once again WaPo recognized that he was referring to Trump’s movement, not just to European nationalist parties. In fact, he did end up referring to Trump explicitly (and Bernie Sanders) later in the same press conference in speculating on why populist movements have had such success lately in criticizing “globalism.”

If the White House wants to play dumb about this in the interest of preserving its cold peace with Trump, that’s fine, but let it be noted for the record that various media outlets also saw Obama’s Pearl Harbor comments about hatred, tribalism, and demonization as a knock on Trump. (HuffPo links several of them here.) It may even be that Trump himself heard the comments for the first time through that media filter, with some talking head introducing the soundbite of Obama by noting that his remarks could be viewed as a critique of the president-elect. And why not, given how many times Obama has critiqued Trump in similar terms elsewhere?

You can watch his comments in the second half of this clip. Leave it to O, at a summit with the Japanese prime minister at Pearl Harbor, to go searching for the lessons of World War II and national reconciliation and come up with some lowest-common-denominator oatmeal about “tribalism.” It’s not that he’s wrong, it’s that it’s oh so bland. All that’s missing is a “Stronger Together” banner.