There used to be something called being “presidential.” The rules of being presidential weren’t clearly enumerated anywhere, but they generally revolved around maintaining the dignity of the office and trying to be president of all Americans, not just your political base.
Those norms are breaking down. That’s really an understatement. The current incumbent in the White House sometimes amuses crowds at his rallies by explicitly mocking the idea of being “presidential,” which he equates with being stiff and boring.
The most recent ex-president, Barack Obama, observed many of those traditions, at least tonally (although I’m sure many of his detractors will disagree). Obama certainly maintained dignity during the handover to his successor and, since then, has kept a low profile even as that successor has been guided to a significant degree by an agenda to undo as much as he can of what Obama did.
Obama has carried some of those old norms of presidential-ness into his ex-presidency. He doesn’t say much publicly about Trump. He has stayed mostly out of the spotlight, but, as the midterms approach, he may be preparing to emerge a bit from the Cone of Silence, while still trying to maintain ex-presidential dignity. (For any youngsters in the audience, “Cone of Silence” is a reference to a recurring gag from the old 1960s spy spoof TV series “Get Smart.”)
Anyway, Obama spoke at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser last week in California and, although he managed to get through his remarks without mentioning his successor’s name, provided some analysis of recent events that struck me as smart reflections on what happened in the last election and since, and suggesting that lying and fomenting anger will not sustain a presidency in the long run. The former candidates of “hope” and “change” was still peddling those two abstractions.
Politico covered the event, and its full piece is here, but I thought a couple of excerpts from Obama’s remarks were worth revisiting:
Fear is powerful. Telling people that somebody’s out to get you, or somebody took your job, or somebody has it out for you, or is going to change you, or your community, or your way of life — that’s an old story and it has shown itself to be powerful in societies all around the world. It is a deliberate, systematic effort to tap into that part of our brain that carries fear in it.
All these people that are out here kvetching and wringing their hands and stressed and anxious and constantly watching cable TV and howling at the moon, ‘What are we going to do?’ — their hair’s falling out, they can’t sleep. The majority of the American people prefer a story of hope. A majority of the American people prefer a country that comes together rather than being divided. The majority of the country doesn’t want to see a dog-eat-dog world where everybody is angry all the time.
Obama mocked Trump and others for being among the angry:
They’re mad even when they win.
Reality has an interesting way of coming up and biting you, and the other side has been peddling a lot of stuff that is so patently untrue that you can get away with it for a while, but at a certain point, you confront reality. The Democrats’ job is not to exaggerate; the Democrats’ job is not to simply mimic the tactics of the other side. All we have to do is work hard on behalf of that truth. And if we do, we’ll get better outcomes.