President Trump has taken aim at many targets over time and often says he’s just counter-punching his critics. Yet there’s one perceived foil he goes after time and again without provocation or much threat of a backlash – his predecessor, Barack Obama.
“Great timeline on all of the failures the Obama administration had,” he tweeted to congratulate his favorite Fox News show recently. “Obama did nothing about Russia!” he tweeted days later. Repeatedly he has said Obama is the one who should be investigated, not him, because Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign happened on Obama’s watch.
Trump has slammed Obama about healthcare, the Iran nuclear deal, the economy, gun and immigration policy and even (falsely) for the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in London — and that’s just in the 80-plus tweets he’s fired off against his predecessor, not counting his public remarks. In his most memorable attack of all, a year ago Trump charged, without evidence, that Obama ordered the “wires tapped” in Trump Tower, adding, “This is McCarthyism!”
Obama is no shrinking violet, and relished the occasional sharp retort. “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” was an early, memorable one. But in the post-presidency, Obama mostly is mute. When he does speak out, he never explicitly mentions the president.
The same goes for the other four living ex-presidents back to Jimmy Carter. Obama, as Trump’s immediate predecessor and the one especially reviled among the president’s white working-class base, is the more frequent target. Yet the other three presidents of the past quarter-century — both George Bushes, father and son, and Bill Clinton — have taken frequent hits, often collectively, as Trump indicts them all for some perceived failure.
Turning the other cheek is a new phenomenon for an elite group known as “The President’s Club” for their experiential bond that transcends partisanship. Until now, cheek-turning wasn’t necessary: By longstanding tradition, past presidents didn’t publicly attack their predecessors, or vice versa, once the campaigns ended.
George W. Bush kept his thoughts to himself during the Obama years, just as his predecessor, Clinton, did for Bush and as President George H.W. Bush did for Clinton, though Clinton had ousted him from office. Like them, Obama heeds the old customs even as the newest member of the club -- Trump — flouts them.
“Obama certainly had critical things to say about Trump when he was running, and both of the Bushes said they weren’t going to vote for Trump,” said James Thurber, a presidential scholar.
“But we haven’t heard from them since he became president, and the reasoning is that they have respect for the office of the presidency,” Thurber said. “We have one president at a time and they respect that.”
By contrast, Trump recently showed again that he doesn’t return the respect, tweeting that George W. Bush didn’t have the “smarts” to get along with Russia, while Clinton and Obama ”didn’t have the energy or chemistry.”
After last summer’s solar eclipse, Trump singled out Obama, retweeting a series of photos of Obama and himself in which his face moved to cover Obama’s. The caption: “THE BEST ECLIPSE EVER!”
Most presidents and ex-presidents have criticized each other gently, if at all, said Joanne Freeman, an early American history scholar at Yale University.
“That isn't to say that presidents haven't ever critiqued each other's policies. They occasionally have,” she said. “But they usually focus on policies, rather than tossing around insults and accusations.”
The tradition of new presidents not assailing their predecessors dates to the country’s start. As the second man to hold the office, John Adams was so concerned about honoring the service of the first, George Washington, that he didn’t even replace Washington’s Cabinet appointees.
The third president, Thomas Jefferson, assumed the office after a particularly nasty campaign and yet, despite his deep disapproval of the Federalist policies of the two preceding administrations, he did not attack Adams’ record.
Presidents and ex-presidents have criticized each other before, but not with Trump’s regularity. For example, Carter attacked George W. Bush, especially after the invasion of Iraq, calling his foreign policy “the worst in history” and his faith-based social program “quite disturbing.”
Bush, who left office highly unpopular, amid two wars and the worst recession and financial crisis since the Great Depression, kept quiet when Obama occasionally complained of the “big mess” he’d inherited. Yet Obama avoided using Bush’s name.
In recent days, Obama has told friends how wise he thinks Bush’s silence was. As Obama was preparing to leave office, aides said, he talked with them about how he wanted to carry himself through what promised to be a brash and bombastic Trump presidency.
Obama expected Trump to keep up his campaign rhetoric and to use Obama as a “foil to galvanize his base,” especially in moments when Trump felt the need to boost his political standing, said Josh Earnest, Obama’s former press secretary and a close advisor. For Obama to return fire would make it a bigger story.
“Obama engaging Trump has a measurable upside for Trump,” said Earnest. “But there’s no obvious benefit for the country or, of course, Obama.”
Obama was also concerned about overshadowing the next generation of Democratic leaders he thought should be finding their voices in the new era, Earnest said.
But Obama told aides that he would weigh in if the stakes were high enough. The example he cited: If the Trump administration began systematically deporting “dreamers,” the young immigrants who came to the country illegally as children and who had received temporary legal status under an Obama program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Obama did speak up when Trump ended the DACA program. “These Dreamers are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
As Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress tried to repeal Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, Obama posted on Facebook an appeal urging people to call their members of Congress in protest. Let them know, he wrote, “what this means for you and your family.”
In neither case did Obama mention Trump by name. In both cases it was clear whose actions he was criticizing.
Some of Obama’s former aides tend to try to match his subtlety. The most cutting commentary of Trump comes in the Instagram feed of Obama’s White House photographer, Pete Souza, who lets his old pictures do the talking.
When Trump proposed a travel ban on Muslims, for example, Souza posted a picture of Obama laughing with a girl wearing a headscarf. On the day that Trump refused to shake the hand of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Souza posted a photo of Obama hugging her.
Other former Obama officials are more explicit, challenging Trump policies on television, with podcasts and in print. Three advisors from Obama’s national security team recently formed an organization specifically to oppose Trump’s foreign policy.
One, Ben Rhodes, said of Obama, “He has taken the view that he doesn’t need to speak out on every issue every day.” If Trump is going to provoke North Korea and refuse to condemn American neo-Nazis, however, others have to speak out, Rhodes said.