After keeping a fairly low electoral profile since the end of his presidency, Barack Obama has re-entered the fray in a rather boisterous way, delivering remarks on Friday that were critical of Donald Trump and congressional Republicans. A day later, the former president campaigned in California, where Democrats hope to gain several U.S. House seats, and where Obama told voters they have a chance to "restore some sanity in our politics."
"It's a consequential moment in our history," he said, pointing to this year's midterm elections. "And the fact is that, if we don't step up, things can get worse."
Vice President Mike Pence appeared on Fox News yesterday and expressed his "disappointment" with Obama's comments.
Says Pence: "The truth is, the American people in 2016 rejected the policy and direction of Barack Obama when they elected President Donald Trump." [...]Pence said it's "very disappointing" to see Obama break with the tradition of former presidents, who largely shun the campaign trail, and "become so political."
The idea that "the American people" rejected Obama's agenda "when they elected" Trump is problematic for a very specific reason: when "the American people" were given a choice in 2016, Trump came in second. To be sure, the Republican president won the election, and was elevated by way of the electoral college, but let's not pretend that most of "the American people" wanted what Trump was selling: he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots. To see this result as a resounding endorsement of Trump's platform from the nation's electorate is wrong.
But even putting that aside, the closer one looks at Pence's complaints, the less sense they make.
There are two key angles to keep in mind. First, the idea that "tradition" calls on former presidents to bite their tongues, resisting the urge to be "political" no matter what they think of their successors, gets a lot of attention, but it's often overstated. The New York Times published a good piece on this back in 2007.
Eisenhower was critical of John F. Kennedy's domestic policies, the first President Bush pounded on Bill Clinton, now his pal, for his Haiti policy, and Nixon chided the first President Bush (for comparing himself to Harry Truman in his 1992 re-election campaign).Theodore Roosevelt was brutal in his assaults on Taft and Woodrow Wilson, said Patricia O'Toole, author of "When Trumpets Call," a book about Roosevelt in the years after he left office.
Among other things, Teddy Roosevelt called Taft a "puzzlewit" and a "fathead." I don't imagine we'll hear similar rhetoric from Obama about Trump.
Second, even if we maintain the fiction that former presidents are always silent after leaving office, Trump's team is the wrong messenger for this message.
After all, who has less credibility on the importance of honoring political norms and traditions than officials in the Trump White House? Has Mike Pence met Donald Trump?