In post-presidency, Obama finds balancing act in countering Trump
Scott Olson/Getty Images (WASHINGTON) — One year after exchanging pleasantries with a newly inaugurated President Donald Trump and ascending onto Marine One for the final time, former President Barack Obama has remained a central figure across the United States and global political scene.
As his successor has seemed to systematically target key components of his legacy, Obama has been strategic, according to current and former aides, in choosing when and how to speak out.
He has watched the year’s political developments closely from Chicago and his home in Washington, D.C., which sits just miles up the road from the White House. He has made global excursions to mentor young adults, delivered paid and unpaid speeches, and hunkered down to write his post-presidency book, while coordinating the operations of his foundation and presidential library.
The Obama’s have spent much time in Chicago where the foundation is located, spending time nurturing young politicians and teaching the importance of civic engagement.
“He has rolled up his sleeves and really worked hard to make sure [the foundation] reflects his values and his priorities,” former White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told ABC News. “Civic engagement — he thinks it’s so incredibly important for young people to recognize their responsibilities as citizens and that that should begin at a young age because it should be a lifelong passion. And so anything he can do to mobilize that effort is important.”
Despite watching his signature achievements unravel, Obama has been described as “upbeat” and “optimistic.” But that positivity doesn’t come without some anxiety.
“Of course it causes anxiety, just like it does for so many people,” Jarrett told ABC News. “He’s never looked at it from the perspective of him — his legacy — he’s looked at it from the perspective of the people whose lives he tried to improve. So if he thinks that people will lose health care or that young DACA folks will be at risk and potentially lose their status, sure, that’s extraordinarily and profoundly troubling to him.”
Just two days before the transfer of power was carried out on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, Obama outlined to reporters in his final news conference the actions a Trump administration could take that might spur him to break with the precedent of polite silence that previous presidents typically extended to their successors.
“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 said.
In a year’s span, Obama spoke out four separate times with vocal objection to a policy being pursued by President Trump and the GOP-led Congress, including twice regarding the Republicans’ failed effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, President Trump’s announcement of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and the administration’s rescission of legal protections for nearly 800,000 “DREAMers.”
But Obama was notably restrained in going after Trump directly regarding several other highly controversial moments in his first year, including the botched rollout of his first travel ban, his response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville and his accusation that Obama illegally wiretapped him during the election.
“I think you saw him kind of do that deftly and strategically this past year,” one aide said. “When it comes especially to the president’s political involvement but certainly all of this other stuff, he’s keenly aware that there’s nothing more that President Trump would like than to make Obama his foil.”
Matthew Dallek, a political historian and associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, pointed out that Obama wasn’t necessarily alone in breaking with the quiet deference that presidential successors typically extend to the acting president.
In October, former President George W. Bush delivered a rare public speech in New York City in which he didn’t call Trump out by name, but seemed to make multiple references to his effect on American political discourse.
“Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” Bush said. “We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism.”
Dallek said what Bush said then “may have been harsher than anything he said about Barack Obama during the eight years of his presidency.” “I think it’s a bit unusual, but I think the sense is among not just Barack Obama that it is incumbent upon them to speak out against Trump when they think it’s appropriate.”
Notably, Trump and Obama have not spoken since Inauguration Day, a sharp contrast from past presidents who have at times sought counsel from their predecessors.
Given that Trump has worked to reverse many Obama-era policies, a person close to Obama said it wouldn’t have seemed likely that Trump would have relied on his predecessor for any advice beyond their initial hour-and-a-half meeting together in the Oval Office in November 2016.
Obama, however, is ready and willing to provide his counsel should Trump wish to reach out, the person said.
Trump confidant and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich doesn’t anticipate either side mending fences anytime soon.
“Trump can be friendly toward anyone, but I doubt if he thinks much about relating to Obama,” Gingrich told ABC News. “Why would Trump ask advice from someone he thinks is wrong on virtually every issue?”
That’s a stark contrast to Vice President Mike Pence, who has been in regular communication with his predecessors. He’s met in person many times with Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney, and spoke with Joe Biden by phone multiple times this past year, seeking counsel primarily before foreign trips and meetings with world leaders, according to a person familiar with the communications.
Though it’s unlikely the political animosity between Trump and Obama will dampen with the 2018 midterms fast approaching.
Following his involvement in multiple special elections during 2017, an aide to Obama said he plans to continue assisting Democrats up and down the ticket, akin to his involvement in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races and his robo-call for Democrat Doug Jones in the Alabama special election.
“I do think it’s definitely fair to say that way you saw him approach 2017 will be similar in the way that he will do it strategically. He will try to stay above the fray,” the aide said, adding that there is a “recognition that you wouldn’t want to have him out there trying to rally the troops on our side, especially when he’s been very clear he can’t be the resistance leader anymore.”
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