President Obama has stated that while he will not engage in political battles outside of office, he will speak up when American ideals are “at stake.” Ergo, he will be more of a Jimmy Carter than a George W. Bush when it comes to commenting on his successor’s policies. And so he should be! The president’s opinions are highly respected worldwide and even out of power, he will continue to act as a source of inspiration and comfort for millions of people dreading the near future. As we have seen thus far however, he can’t go in too boisterously. Transitions are at the best of times awkward and some level of protocol must be recognized for the good of democracy. So, let’s take a look first at the candor with which Obama should conduct himself up until January’s inauguration before examining the ways in which he should behave thereafter, with a few comparisons to other presidents along the way.
It seems from various reports that Obama was just as surprised, shocked, and distressed as the rest of us by the results of the November 8th election. His initial address on Trump’s victory, whilst uncomfortable at parts to watch (owing to the long-standing animosity between the two) was nevertheless graceful though. He remarked how, while Bush II and he had many disagreements, he was well looked after when it came to the transition period- something he was very grateful for. Aiming to extend this courtesy to his successor, Obama has thus put politics and personal qualms aside for the good of unification. After all, he remarked upon that awkward televised meeting between the two, “when [he] succeeds, America succeeds.” Has a president ever had to show such restraint?
The US stands at its most deeply divided in decades. Trump’s policies may not be reflective of his voters’ own sentiments but his popularity and victory are symptomatic of a country pushing back the dial on a cultural shift towards liberalism. Racism, homophobia, and sexism were never wholly problems of the past but the scope of their significance hardly perpetuated the likes of the 1950s. Now, it seems for a great many Americans, all the cards are out on the table again. Obama has to tread carefully therefore- he’s not the president for just states like California and Washington, he’s the president for all these people, whose voices (like it or not) were heard this election. To compromise Trump with (let’s face it) the facts would serve not only to undermine the legitimacy of the Oval Office but alienate a great portion of the population and foreign interests.
Obama’s stature will not wholly diminish come the next presidency. The likes of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, after all, are still given a spotlight when they have something to say. His responsibilities however will become Trump’s, allowing him once again to lead the
ordinary life of an American citizen. That means, that like every other citizen, he is entitled to his opinion. Like everyone else, he can choose to express this when and how he likes, or not at all, if he wants to take the more quiet line of both the Bushes. While world leaders can technically can do this, they never seem to because of the dynamics of politics. In power, you have to work with people and that’s more easily accomplished when relations are kept sweet.
A certain level of caution, even outside of office, wouldn’t go amiss either. Former presidents have such a high profile that to intervene stridently with strong criticism can have a major effect on another administration. For example, Jimmy Carter’s opposition to engagements such as the Gulf War or his decision to speak to the press after a North Korean trip arranged by the Clinton administration were hardly appreciated by teams, devising specific, PR-led strategies. He’s loved by many for his blunt assessments (e.g. once calling George W. Bush the worst president of his lifetime) but sometimes sensitivity is needed in politics too. Bill Clinton, in many ways, is a nice compromise between Carter and the Bushes. He speaks on occasion on issues he supports, such as health care, but he doesn’t speak controversially- very much, as if he is (was) preparing to return to the arena of politics. Of course, future scenarios will hardly run in a neat parallel to what Clinton experienced in his post-presidency. Bush II had to contend with an injured country in the wake of 9/11. Clinton was a very different president in terms of politics but he recognised his successor needed all the support he could get. They even went on to become good friends! Obama and Trump, I estimate, will not.
Thanks to the House and Senate elections, Trump is in a greater position than most succeeding presidents, to dismantle the legacy of his predecessor. If he moves on Obamacare or the Iran Nuclear deal without any justification, it is likely the pushback from Obama and his camp will be nothing short of vitriolic. This is understandable. Bush II may have turned a surplus into a defecit before his first year was out but Clinton’s legacy was assured by the state of the union in 2000. A great part of Obama’s legend will depend on how his programs sustain in the future. Years from now, if the Affordable Health Care remains, historians will look back and say it all came to fruition in 2009. Trump’s not only a threat to Obama of course but liberal values he and his followers support. If Trump goes to build his wall, work against women’s rights, etc, then Carter may have a friend in the former president’s club. And while I personally admire old Jimmy, he kind of needs one.