It’s Hard For Former Presidents To Hold Their Tongues, But Should They?

Former President Barack Obama recently delivered the keynote address at an event sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It came shortly after President Trump’s address to the United Nations, and many expected Obama’s speech to include some kind of rejoinder to his successor. And maybe, in its own subdued way, it was.

But Obama never actually mentioned President Trump by name. And while his speech included criticism of Republicans attempting to undo the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature legislative achievement, for the most part the speech called for optimism in an environment of uncertainty and fear.

If you are skeptical of such optimism, let me say something that may sound controversial. By almost every measure, America is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago…. If you had to choose any moment in history in which to be born, you would choose right now. The world has never been healthier, or wealthier, or better educated or in many ways more tolerant or less violent.

The former ‘former president’ tone?

That kind of tone is consistent with the way former presidents have been expected to behave after leaving office. The barb about Obamacare, however, violates the unspoken rule about former presidents directly criticizing current ones.

Actually, that unspoken rule has been spoken aloud by George W. Bush on a number of occasions. “I don’t think it’s good for the country to have a former president undermine a current president,” W. told Sean Hannity in 2014. And during the entire Obama administration, he was largely true to his word.

Yet there are signs that Bush’s resolve has wavered since Trump took office. After President Trump’s inaugural speech, Bush was reported by multiple sources to have said, privately but to those within his earshot: “That was some weird shit.”

Additionally, his comments in February about the importance of a free press were interpreted by many as an indictment of Trump, who at the time was railing on the “fake news” he didn’t like.

George W. Bush speaks out against Trump, sort of

For his part, Bush tried to push back against that assumption. “I’m asked the question, ‘Do I believe in free press?’ And so I answered that question and of course the headlines were, ‘Bush criticizes Trump.’”

The reality is that it’s impossible for any former president to avoid having his words applied to the issues and the officeholders of the day.

Of course, some don’t even try. Bill Clinton was often quite outspoken about George W. Bush starting the second Iraq War. At one point he referred to the conflict as producing “no military victory” in Iraq.

But many of these comments were made during the 2008 presidential campaign season in which he was supporting his wife seeking the presidency. Hillary was more than happy to beat up on Bush – indeed, she needed to – as she sought the Democratic nomination.

When Former President Jimmy Carter went rogue on North Korea

Jimmy Carter didn’t have that excuse. He has provided heartburn to nearly all of his successors, including Bill Clinton, who was reportedly furious that Carter unilaterally injected himself into negotiations with North Korea during Clinton’s tenure.

In 1994, Carter traveled to North Korea and negotiated an agreement with Kim-Il Sung an announced it as U.S. policy without even consulting with the Clinton administration to see if that would be all right.

Given the current climate in North Korea, who knows whether Carter – health providing – might be tempted to go rogue again.

Trump’s brashness makes it difficult for his predecessors to continue the tradition of staying mum. It’s hard to predict whether this president can expect a flood of criticism from his predecessors.

But there already appears to be an awful lot of cracks in the dam.

(Photo of former U.S. President Barack Obama answering questions at the Gates Foundation Inaugural Goalkeepers event on September 20, 2017 in New York City, by Yana Paskova/Getty Images.)


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