A Washington publication on July 19 portrayed Barack and Michelle Obama in a peculiar position on its cover: An illustration of a partially hidden couple peeking around the Washington Monument, with the headline, “How the Obamas became invisible. Longtime Washingtonians hoped the former president and first lady would become unofficial ambassadors for their adopted home city. Instead, they’ve kept largely out of sight.”
Coincidentally or not, Obama came up for air last week as we witnessed a messaging and a sighting of the former president.
The messaging: Obama announced that he was dipping his toe into the campaign game by endorsing 81 candidates for the 2018 midterm elections.
The sighting: Obama and his former vice president, Joe Biden, appeared at the noble Dog Tag Bakery, a Washington non-profit establishment that helps disabled military veterans learn business and entrepreneurial skills. Obama ordered a sandwich and a salad and this bakery business has been “booming ever since,” an employee said.
Campaigns and bakeries are fine for former presidents, but what about the $64,000 Question: What does Barack Obama REALLY think of the Donald Trump administration?
So the $32,000 Question obviously is when do former presidents quietly seek relative seclusion out of respectful deference to their successors and, conversely, when do they audibly perch themselves out on Front Street to essentially defend their honor. Especially in the case of Barack Obama, who day-by-day has witnessed Trump ripping his legacy to shreds, piece by piece.
Allan Lichtman, the acclaimed political history professor at American University in Washington, explained that there have been precedents for presidents. “Obviously, there is no formal rule that a former president can’t criticize a current president,” Lichtman said. “There is precedent: Herbert Hoover was a persistent critic of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Jimmy Carter criticized George W. Bush, and Bush himself indirectly criticized Donald Trump.”
Nevertheless, we do have a couple of morsels reflecting Obama’s personal thinking about Donald Trump and the 2016 presidential election. Conveyed through a middle man. Those morsels are located in Ben Rhodes’ remarkable new book, “The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House.”
Rhodes, who was Obama’s deputy national security adviser, basically gives us an insider’s view of Obama while he was president. Rhodes, who started as a speechwriter for then-senator Obama, may be the first former Obama White House official to shine a very public lens in book form on the inner workings and feelings of the nation’s 44th president.
In fact, on Page 405 of his book, Rhodes paints a vivid picture of Obama’s visceral displeasure after Trump won the presidential election on Nov. 8, 2016.
Rhodes, setting the stage during Obama’s “Farewell Trip to Europe,” wrote of Obama referring to Trump as a “cartoon figure”: “Ten days later (after the election), on our final foreign trip there were flashes of anger. Standing backstage before his press conference with (German chancellor) Angela Merkel, I told him (Obama) that it was probably the last time a U.S. president would defend the liberal international order for a while. ‘I don’t know,’ he (Obama) said. ‘Maybe this is what people want. I’ve got the economy set up for him (Trump). No facts. No consequences. They can just have a cartoon.’’’
Rhodes appeared for a book discussion with Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic magazine, before a standing-room-only audience at a bookstore in Washington in mid-June.
Goldberg asked Rhodes: “Who was more surprised by Donald Trump’s election: Barack Obama, Michelle Obama or you?”
Rhodes, the brother of CBS News president David Rhodes, responded, “I was more surprised.”
Goldberg then asked, “They were not surprised?”
To which Ben Rhodes answered with, “No, I think they were a little surprised. I try to be candid in the book. It was white people who thought that Barack Obama’s election was going to transform race in America and not largely African-American people, certainly not the Obamas. They never believed that, because of the lived experience of being an African-American in this country.
“And so he was far more acutely aware of racism in this country than I was, you know. And far more aware of the forces that might lead to Trumpism. …”
Obama certainly has at least one poll on his side. According to a survey released by the Pew Research Center last month, Obama was viewed as the “best” president of recent years. When 2,002 respondents were asked the open-ended question “which president has done the best job during your lifetime,” 44 percent considered Obama to be the best or second-best president who they have witnessed.
He was followed by Bill Clinton at 33 percent and Ronald Reagan at 32 percent; Trump was voted best or second best by 19 percent of respondents. Note that in his second year of office, Obama tallied only 20 percent.
With that, now back to the issue of promoting a defense of the Obama Legacy. Should he or shouldn’t he?
Lichtman suggested yes, he should … but with a warning.
On one hand: “It’s a political calculation of when Obama — as well as the Democrats — should criticize Trump. Because there could be a backlash,” Lichtman said.
On the other hand: “Obama’s diffidence could hurt him and his legacy. He’s been too reluctant to speak out on political matters, in general.”
The bottom line, according to Lichtman: “Obama should speak on Trump and defend his own policies. He should criticize Trump’s politics, as well as defend his own legacy. And he doesn’t have to refer to Trump by name.”
The venue could be a public speech or a prime-time television interview. Perhaps that moment could be a belated birthday present by Obama to Obama. Remember, Obama turned 57 last Saturday, Aug. 4; social media hailed it as #ObamaDay.