President Obama is leaving the White House this Friday. But he isn't going far, moving into a house just on the other side of town. And while he took time at his final press conference to tell us he wants to leave office and "be quiet" for a time — to reflect and to write and hang out with his kids and "not hear myself talk so darn much" — he also methodically laid the ground rules for his sustained voice in the national dialogue.
In a nutshell: Barack Obama plans to turn down, but he'll still be in town, and yesterday he put Trump on notice: He'll be watching, and he'll be ready to pounce. And as much as he says he won't be getting political, his ground rules suggest otherwise.
Obama said the "normal functioning of politics" were for Trump and Capitol Hill’s Democrats and Republicans to hash out; but threats and actions to endanger the institutions that make up our democracy well, tread on that turf and Obama insinuated you’d have to take it up with him.
"There’s a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake," he said.
"I put in that category if I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion," Obama offered. "I put in that category explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise." He went on: "I'd put in that category institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press."
Left unsaid by Obama, but hanging in the air in the press room, was Trump's assault on the media and his efforts to undermine the press's legitimacy by branding outlets like CNN as "fake news." Obama couldn't resist invoking and appropriating that term, though, saying "voter fraud" -- which is the most often cited excuse for vote verifying/suppressing measures like voter ID cards -- "is something that has constantly been disproved." He punctuated: "This is fake news."
Is Voter fraud and voter ID cards a purely "core value" or political concern? Well, before you answer, Obama's apolitical list got even more decidedly political in short order, as he went on detailing his core-value bucket list: "And for me at least, I would put in that category efforts to roundup kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids, and send them someplace else, when they love this country."
While it’s difficult to argue against the free press and the right to vote as values that transcend politics, critics pointed to Obama’s inclusion of DREAMers on his list as a sign that he’s being more politically minded than he’s advertising. Indeed, Obama’s classification of some acts as political and others as more systematic, or institutional, is a rather ingenious way of rhetorically staking the high ground without taking off his partisan-political-advocate hat.
Abstaining from day-to-day politics and policy debates will likely be painful for Obama as he watches Trump and Congress repeal Obamacare and likely shift course on climate change, international relations, the Iran nuclear deal, and Immigration. But there is precedent for Presidents to allow their successors the space to govern, and even withholding from criticizing them. In fact, you need look no further than Obama’s own predecessor.
"I don’t think it’s good for the country to have a former president undermine a current president," George W. Bush said to FOX’s Sean Hannity in 2014. “I think it’s bad for the presidency, for that matter."
In fairness, W. was eager to recede from political and public life altogether. He told Hannity he wanted to "regain a sense of anonymity" after a bruising tenure as President, which explains the retreat to his Texan ranch, paint brushes in hand. Obama’s experience in office was markedly different, so it shouldn’t be surprising he seeks a different sort of afterlife, as it were.
Also: Obama's leaving office at the age of 55, which means, the man still has a lot of life to give, with a lot of his story left to write.