President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, D.C., Dec. 16, 2016.
Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP

Obama urges Americans ‘to be the guardians of our democracy’

Two weeks ago, in his final press conference before leaving the White House, President Obama was asked about how he might approach the political arena once he’s a private citizen. It’s an important question: presidents have traditionally gone out of their way to give their successors a wide berth, not just during the transition, but also in the years that follow.

Then again, traditionally, Americans haven’t elected someone like Donald Trump to the nation’s highest office.

Obama acknowledged on Jan. 18 that, after Inauguration Day, the new president and new Congress would make their own determinations about the nation’s direction, and he intended to say little. “But,” he added, “there’s difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake.”

And with that in mind, the former president issued a formal statement through his spokesperson this afternoon, his first since leaving office, in response to Donald Trump’s Muslim ban.
President Obama is heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country. In his final official speech as President, he spoke about the important role of citizens and how all Americans have a responsibility to be the guardians of our democracy – not just during an election but every day.

Citizens exercising their Constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake.

With regard to comparisons to President Obama’s foreign policy decisions, as we’ve hard before, the President fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith.
To be sure, this is not a vigorous condemnation of Trump’s policy. In fact, the statement makes no specific mention of the current president or the policy that’s generated an international uproar.

But don’t be too quick to dismiss the significance of Obama’s statement.

For one thing, note that the former president seems to be encouraging the protests that have sprung up in a variety of cities across the country because, as Obama put it today, “American values are at stake.”

For another, the fact that the statement notes that Obama “fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith” suggests pretty strongly that the former president believes people are facing discrimination because of their faith.

But beyond the specific phrasing is the fact that Obama issued a statement at all. The expectation, under normal circumstances, is that a former president would simply retreat to the sidelines and bite his tongue in response to his successor’s various actions and controversies.

In this case, however, Obama felt compelled to weigh in – just 10 days into the Trump era. Obama wasn’t content to simply watch the debate unfold from a distance; he wanted to add his own perspective, rebuking an unjust White House policy and encouraging Trump’s critics to make their voices heard.

It’s emblematic of a former president who isn’t pleased, and who probably shouldn’t be expected to remain silent.