Barack Obama Will Not Save Us From Trump
Credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
November 16, 2016

On the impending Trump presidency, Jonathan Chait is not mincing words:

The Trump administration will make the last failed Republican presidency look like an age of reason. The United States has never elected a president so openly contemptuous of democratic norms.

... Americans who did not support Trump have no obligation to normalize his behavior. To the contrary: Upholding the dignity and value of the presidency means refusing to treat the ascendancy of a Trump into the office as normal. Trump is counting on a combination of media weariness and Republican partisan solidarity to allow him to grind governing norms to dust....

American small-D democrats need to treat the election of Trump’s party in a way not unlike how we respond to authoritarianism overseas.

Chait urges significant resistance to the Trump governing agenda. He calls for vigorous efforts to protect those targeted by Trump. He praises the post-election anti-Trump protesters.

So far, so good. But I question Chait's belief that our side has a secret weapon in Barack Obama:

Opposition parties tend to suffer from a lack of charismatic, high-profile leaders. American liberals enjoy the unusual good fortune of having the most popular politician in America on their side in Barack Obama.

... the man who thought he was through with politics has, it turns out, one more essential role left: Beginning next year, Obama needs to rally the opposition, to community-organize his coalition, and to exploit his celebrity to make the case for saving his legacy. His visibility alone would serve a vital function.... Obama is a powerful symbol of rationalism, thoughtfulness, and pluralism -- the ultimate anti-Trump, both ideologically and symbolically. Women, religious minorities, immigrants and prospective immigrants, transgender people, young Africans with iPhones, the beat-down opposition in places like Russia and China, and the people who bully all the preceding groups and more -- the whole planet, really -- need reminding that Obama’s version of America has prevailed before and will prevail again.

But we see how Obama is reacting to Trump's election. He's trying to ensure a smooth handover of power -- and I don't believe that's just in order to show that he's a better man than Trump. I think Obama genuinely believes that peaceful transitions are a hallmark of American democracy. I also think he learned a long time ago how not to be the angry man who rocks the boat, and he's reverting to that mode of behavior now.

If Obama is acting this way after the election of a man who's treated him with utter contempt (and whom he clearly despises), why should we expect him to to cast aside the tradition that an ex-president shouldn't criticize a sitting president? Modern presidents have continued to abide by that unwritten law -- although former vice president Dick Cheney has not shown similar restraint. Chait correctly notes that "the political-cultural norm of former presidents’ steering clear of politics is not rooted in any particular public interest" -- but a violation of this norm will horrify mainstream political insiders, as well as the right-wing noise machine. If Obama tosses this custom aside, the big news in any statement he makes will be decision to make the statement, which will be described as rude, appalling, and "arrogant" (the likely euphemism for "uppity"). Whatever he's upset about will be a secondary consideration.

Maybe -- maybe -- he can get away with this if journalists are being jailed or anti-Trump interest-group leaders are being assassinated. But if we're having what seems to be an ordinary legislative fight conducted under normal political rules, even if it's for huge stakes -- if, for instance, we're "merely" debating the end of all climate-change legislation, or the privatization of Medicare -- then it will be deemed scandalous if Obama injects himself into the debate.

Obama knows this. He'll act with restraint. It would be nice to have him leading the battle, but we really shouldn't count on it.

Crossposted at No More Mr. Nice Blog

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