Understanding President Obama’s Approach to a Trump Administration

I have found the reaction from political pundits to how President Obama is handling the prospect of a Trump administration to be very interesting. For example, there was this from James Hohmann:

The lame-duck president has convinced himself that Republicans probably won’t go through with repealing Obamacare when they realize just how hard it will be. Ditto with the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord. “Reality has a way of asserting itself,” Obama reasoned. “I also think that he is coming to this office with fewer set hard-and-fast policy prescriptions than a lot of other presidents might be arriving with. I don’t think he is ideological. I think ultimately he’s pragmatic in that way.”

— Is Obama really that naïve? Probably not. He is just wallowing in a state of denial and has resorted to wishful thinking as a coping mechanism.

Let’s leave aside the fact that Obama never said the Republicans wouldn’t go through with those things. He simply said it would be hard to accomplish…which is a true fact. But, as they say in Texas, bless Hohmann’s heart for not thinking the president is naive – just in denial. Proving that it is only psychologists/psychiatrists who aren’t allowed to diagnose people from a distance, Hohmann goes on to let us know where various Democrats are in their stage of grief over the election of Trump. Obviously he thinks Obama is stuck on denial.

Dana Milbank had a similar response and asked, “Why on earth is President Obama smiling?”

…when Obama entered the White House briefing room for a post-election news conference Monday afternoon, everything was, if not awesome, then pretty darned good. “We are indisputably in a stronger position today than we were when I came in eight years ago,” he began. “Jobs have been growing for 73 straight months, incomes are rising, poverty is falling, the uninsured rate is at the lowest level on record, carbon emissions have come down without impinging on our growth . . .”

The happy talk kept coming…

It’s all true enough. But Obama’s post-election remarks seemed utterly at odds with the national mood. Half the country is exultant because Donald Trump has promised to undo everything Obama has done over the past eight years. The other half of the country is alarmed that a new age of bigotry and inwardness has seized the country. And here’s the outgoing president, reciting what a fine job he has done.

As someone who has been watching this kind of thing for over eight years now, it didn’t surprise me. We’ve been seeing this same kind of reaction to President Obama ever since Maureen Dowd reacted this way to his handling of the Gulf Oil Spill.

President Spock’s behavior is illogical.

Once more, he has willfully and inexplicably resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.

Part of me wonders what ever happened to the idea of curiosity in journalism. After all this time, you’d think people might begin to ask themselves what this president is actually up to rather than simply project their own expectations onto him and find him wanting.

When it comes to what Obama is trying to accomplish with his response to Donald Trump, Brian Beutler demonstrates more depth as he wonders if anyone is actually listening.

There is a text and a subtext to everything politicians say in public, even ones without more elections to run. It was the subtext of Obama’s press conference that unnerved me.

On the surface, his performance was reassuring. He was chipper. He did not doomsay. He searched for the generous and hopeful things to say about Trump and Trump’s designs on the presidency. But on close reading the sum total of his remarks was frightening—a stage-setting, at the very least, for an administration Obama expects will be hobbled by incompetence and likely to fail.

It would be fair to ask why President Obama felt the need to speak via subtext rather than be more direct. I would suggest there are two reasons. The first was suggested by this tweet from Maggie Haberman.

As Charles Gaba (akaBrainwrap)  put it, Obama is setting himself up to play the role of president whisperer for toddler Trump.

Think about the amount of love of country, and steely-eyed discipline, President Obama must have to do this. Think about how much he must have to clench his jaw and grit his teeth to be willing to patiently guide this racist, misogynistic, xenophobic con-artist egocentric moron through the most basic, rudimentary concepts of executive government…all purely because he knows that like it or not, he’s turning over the steering wheel to the nation over to him in just 67 days for the next 4 years and he’d prefer that the man-child not crash the country into a tree when he takes the wheel.

Secondly, the president himself laid it out in his opening remarks at the press conference on Monday.

First of all, as I discussed with the President-elect on Thursday, my team stands ready to accelerate in the next steps that are required to ensure a smooth transition…

It’s not something that the Constitution explicitly requires, but it is one of those norms that are vital to a functioning democracy — similar to norms of civility and tolerance, and a commitment to reason and to facts and analysis. It’s part of what makes this country work. And as long as I’m President, we are going to uphold those norms and cherish and uphold those ideals.

In other words, as we watch Donald Trump and the Republicans trample all over the norms that have kept our democracy functioning – including those about “civility and tolerance, and a commitment to reason and to facts and analysis” – this president is not going to contribute to their demise. We might not see much of that kind of patriotism from the incoming administration, but it will be there as long as Obama is in the White House.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.