In a break from modern tradition, former President Barack Obama appears to be wading back into political waters.
“It’s coming. [President Obama is] coming,” former Attorney General Eric Holder told a gaggle of reporters last month. “And he’s ready to roll.”
We don’t know the scope of involvement he has planned. The New York Times, though, reported that Obama’s team rushed to preserve intelligence regarding possible contacts between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia. That since leaving office, Obama tapped Holder to chair a new group focused on helping Democrats with redistricting efforts, while his loyal holdovers are leaking secrets about the Trump administration.
For all the talk about Trump’s atypical behavior, the Obama camp’s unfolding machinations feel almost equally unprecedented.
“Jimmy Carter threw himself into philanthropy,” observes presidential historian David Pietrusza, “but also took up oil and canvas, as did U.S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower, and George W. Bush, who threw himself into folk art. Theodore Roosevelt took after his successors, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, with hammer and tongs. It is up to Obama whether he paints or smears.”
One could argue that Obama’s choice is both acceptable and appropriate. He’s young, just 55, and you could even say that it’s his civic responsibility to do everything within his power to check Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.
This is the justification—or possibly a rationalization—for what Obama appears to be doing. “[I]f the only way to protect norms is to destroy norms,” writes The Atlantic’s David A. Graham, “the effect is a feedback doom-loop for norms in general.”
The ends justify the means. He has to destroy the village in order to save it.
To be sure, Trump, too, has played into that destructive feedback loop throughout his campaign and now his candidacy, as when he tweeted Saturday about Obama supposedly wiretapping him during the campaign, and—in still another example of Trump reflecting attacks aimed at him back at his enemies—said of Obama “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Trump also recently told Fox News he thinks “President Obama is behind [the disruptive protests happening at Republican town halls] because his people certainly are behind it.” Is this another outlandish Trump claim?
Perhaps, but there also may be some merit. Organizing for Action, a successor to the Obama campaign, is urging progressives to attend Republican town hall meetings.
The fact that Obama has decided to remain in Washington, D.C., is both unusual and symbolic. True, a retired Woodrow Wilson also remained in Washington, but he had reasons. He had remarried a Washington widow, possessed no private home to return to and was too sick to do much more than privately fume about a presidency gone wrong.
Obama, however, will remain politically active; that break with tradition is simply another aspect of his political abnormality. The truth is that Barack Obama bears a lot of responsibility for destroying what had been acceptable standards—the destruction of which ultimately made possible Donald Trump’s ascendancy. While Obama now poses as a defender of decorum, tradition, and protocol, he (in a much subtler way) flouted convention.
This is a guy who, in not even a single term as a U.S. senator before running for the highest office in the land, accomplished little but did try to filibuster Sam Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and supported a “poison pill” to kill immigration reform. Who ran as a celebrity, helping pave the way for the sort of hero worship that President Trump’s fans now employ.
He won office at a time when America felt like it was already coming apart, and given the opportunity to be a true post-partisan leader who could unite the country, chose instead to run a highly partisan and ideological presidency. That began with his choice of the divisive issue of health care reform as his landmark legislation—Obamacare being Obama’s original sin—using every means necessary to pass it on a party-line vote. And he frequently resorted to unilateral decisions outside the scope of his constitutional authority. Sound familiar?
Along the way, he got us used to a lot of things that his team is now accusing Donald Trump of inventing. Think Donald Trump is an undignified reality star? Yeah, remember the time that Obama gave an interview to a YouTube star who drinks cereal out of a bathtub? Cultural degradation doesn’t just happen overnight.
Do you think President Trump was the first politician to have a casual relationship with the truth? Then answer this: Who said, “If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor” and that ISIS is the “JV team”?
Don’t get me wrong—in his outward demeanor and rhetoric, Obama generally acted much more like a traditional politician than does Trump. But while the narrative seems to be that Obama was kind and normal—and that Republicans were mean and obstructionist—it takes two to tango. Don’t forget that Obama curtly told Republicans “I won” when they were first trying to negotiate with him.
Yet, his façade masked a partisan motivation that harmed not only the nation and the Constitution but also his own party. Now, he may harm his party yet again because a too-active ex-president possesses its own risks. Theodore Roosevelt’s post-presidential political resurrection deterred the rise of any alternative Republican progressives, such as a Robert La Follette, a Hiram Johnson, or a William E. Borah. A still-active, Washington-based Obama may similarly retard the ascent of badly needed new Democratic leadership, much as any sitting president eclipses his own party.
By turning his term into a never-ending, eight-year campaign, Obama established a non-traditional presidency which begat an even more non-traditional president as his successor. He will open even more previously-locked doors by continuing his tradition of ignoring tradition.
Hastened by those who should know better, the erosion and devolution of discourse is already finding easy footholds in an already-surreal Trump Presidency. The reverberations, sadly, could echo far beyond the four or eight years of the current administration and tinge Presidential politics for a generation or more.