Should former politicians speak out against current officeholders?
This question has nothing to do with a former politician’s democratic right to support or oppose someone or something. Rather, it’s part of a larger debate related to the ex-officeholder’s decision to jump back into the political process, and whether he or she should just resist temptation and stay out of the fray altogether.
Former U.S. president Barack Obama recently decided to take the more well-travelled route of re-entering the political arena for a spell.
Obama endorsed the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on April 14. He had reportedly been asked earlier to back the man who had faithfully served as his vice-president, but he waited until the presidential primaries had basically concluded.
Since that time, the former president has been getting more and more involved.
During a May 8 phone call to 3,000 members of the Obama Alumni Association, he indirectly criticized President Donald Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It would have been bad even with the best of governments,” he reportedly said to his former political staffers. “It has been an absolute chaotic disaster when that mindset – of ‘what’s in it for me’ and ‘to heck with everybody else’ – when that mindset is operationalized in our government.”
He also had a brief tete-a-tete with Trump on Twitter. After the current president wrote “OBAMAGATE!” on May 13, the former president retorted with a one-word reply the next day: “Vote.”
As well, he went after Trump on May 17 during two commencement speeches conducted by video for graduates of historically black colleges and universities, and for the Graduate Together high school commencement.
“Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy, that’s what little kids do,” he said during the latter speech. “Unfortunately a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way, which is why things are so screwed up.”
Sure, Obama has the freedom to make these remarks. He’ll likely say even more before the Nov. 3 presidential election is held.
Will any of this change hearts and minds?
Of course not.
If you liked Obama as president, you’ll eat up every word, phrase and clause. If you disliked him as president, you’ll roll your eyes, laugh and move on.
So what’s the point of doing this?
There really isn’t one. Obama simply wants to express his mind and protect his presidential legacy. There’s no love lost between him and Trump, and he likely enjoys every opportunity he gets or manufactures to go after the sitting president.
Much the same way that Trump enjoys attacking Obama and other politicians. As radio host Mark Sutcliffe said to me on Monday, there’s every reason to believe Trump will keep doing it after he leaves office either in 2020 or 2024. I completely agree.
Trump recently tweeted that Obama is the first ex-president “to ever speak against his successor.”
That’s not even close to the truth. The Associated Press’s Arijeta Lajka wrote on May 11: “Several former presidents have made comments criticizing the policies of their successors, including George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter – even Theodore Roosevelt.”
Yet, George Washington University Prof. Peter Loge told Lajka: “Historically, recent presidents do not attack sitting presidents that often and when they do, they are measured.”
And University of Pennsylvania Prof. Kathleen Hall Jamieson said “when presidents have criticized other presidents, they tend to do so while not naming them.”
Obama hasn’t used Trump’s name in any statement or tweet. Whether this will continue remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, these critiques remain an undignified way for a current or former U.S. president – or any political leader, for that matter – to act in public.
Mudslinging is part of politics and that will never change.
But it would be a nice change of pace if former and current politicians stopped consistently adding water to every mound of political dirt they see.
Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.