The last few days of any president’s term are bound to spark moments of melancholy reflection—perhaps for Barack Obama even more so than most commanders in chief. Imagine Obama in the third week of January 2017: He had made history as the first Black US president; he had prided himself on trying to govern rationally and to engage with his Republican foes with civility on the playing field of competing ideas; he was leaving a presidency that, despite many headwinds, had some notable achievements to its credit, such as the Affordable Care Act, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Paris Agreement on climate. Despite all that, Obama was about to be replaced by a malevolent buffoon.
For a leader of Obama’s dignity and seriousness, it must have rankled that his successor would be Donald Trump, a TV host whose every word and action spoke contempt for the very idea of sober policy-making, an anti-politician who rode into power with demagogic appeals to racism—including birther slanders about Obama’s own nativity and status as an American citizen. Trump defined himself as a kind of anti-Obama and threatened to undo everything Obama had worked on in eight years as president. Trump’s very election was a standing rebuke to Obama’s efforts to craft a redemption narrative of the United States slowly but gradually overcoming racism.
What is striking about Obama in the months after Trump won in November 2016 is the public grace and forbearance he displayed, very much in contrast to Trump’s own whining and destructive unwillingness to accept Joe Biden’s victory in November 2020. But we now have a better sense of what Obama might have been thinking, thanks to Bloomberg reporter Jason Leopold, who made a Freedom of Information Act request that led to the release of transcripts of an off-the-record meeting Obama had with progressive reporters on January 17, 2021. Of course, even when he’s off the record, Obama is still a politician performing for an audience. But his remarks to reporters (which can be found here) are much more wide-ranging and detailed about his thinking than the public statements he made at the time.
The big news item Leopold highlights is that Obama thought the harmful potential of a Trump presidency could be contained—if it lasted only one term. According to Obama, “I think that four years is okay. Take on some water, but we can kind of bail fast enough to be okay. Eight years would be a problem. I would be concerned about a sustained period in which some of these norms have broken down and started to corrode.”
On the whole, the transcript reveals that Obama was a shrewd judge of Trump’s personal character and the way it would run up against the rule of law and the structural norms that constrain any government. Obama’s prediction that the permanent government, including the Pentagon, would box Trump in has been largely vindicated. Obama was right in suspecting that Trump’s foreign policy talk and militaristic bluster were more about personal self-assertion and unlikely to lead to a war. Obama also zeroed in on what turned out to be the real threat: the likelihood that Trump would try to corrupt the FBI and Department of Justice.
Obama’s prescience extended to his understanding of how Trump stirred up controversies to distract from his genuine flaws. The then-president advised reporters, “Let me tell you, if Donald Trump tweets Meryl Streep, I don’t care. You should not either.” One wishes these remarks had been made public in 2017 and that the press had attended to them.
In trying to explain how Trump won, Obama emphasized contingent events, twice taking a shot at Bill Clinton for his June 2016 meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a private plane. According to Obama, “the multiple contingencies that resulted in Trump being elected” do not “somehow suggest that the country is invariably racist, misogynist.” Obama added, “I think it’s fair to say that a whole series of different things happening—how the email thing unfolded, and sort of the chain from Bill Clinton getting on that plane, to Comey making an announcement. At a bunch of different junctures, people could have made different decisions that would have resulted in it playing differently.”
This is reasonable enough, except that it includes an exoneration of then–FBI director James Comey, who Obama says is “actually a person of high character and…not partisan when it comes to this stuff, and [who] believes in playing it straight.” Obama’s criticism of Bill Clinton is well deserved, but stands in contrast to his willingness to give Comey every benefit of the doubt. The simple fact on the matter of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails is that Comey followed ambiguous rules in ways to minimize any criticism he would receive from Republicans in Congress, a political move that had disastrous consequences. But Comey is exactly the sort of nonpartisan establishment figure that Obama, as a defender of norms, instinctively defers to. On every page of the transcripts, it is blindingly obvious how much Obama is a creature of establishment politics, unwilling to consider the possibility that there are fundamental structural problems in American politics that preclude progress.
Obama’s message is that, overall, the institutions worked in 2016 and the real problems were caused by specific blunders by individuals that cascaded into disaster. In that vein, Obama also makes some veiled criticism of Hillary Clinton, referring sarcastically to “some failures of polling and analytics leading a leading Democratic candidate never to appear in Michigan or Wisconsin, or show up in a union hall, right?”
Again, all of this is worth attending to. There’s no denying that the Clinton campaign of 2016 was flawed, and Obama is actually more willing to talk about it than most establishment Democrats. But he’s equally quick to deflect from any policy mistakes he might have made that contributed to Trump’s rise. Was the Affordable Care Act designed in a way that ended up alienating many voters? That was the fault of the political necessity to please centrist Democrats. Was the 2009 stimulus too small? Again, political necessity is to blame. Did neoliberal Democrats make trade deals that alienated many working-class supporters? Obama tries to change the subject by saying that automation in the form of driverless cars is a bigger looming problem. This is a dubious distraction, since driverless cars, even in 2022, still seem a remote possibility, while neoliberal trade pacts remain a force in political economy.
Obama’s commitment to establishment politics shines through in a distinction he makes between Paul Ryan’s “normal” politics and what could be expected under Trump. Obama told reporters that “the callousness of a Paul Ryan wanting to block grant Medicaid that will hurt people and will cut taxes for the wealthy” is part of “a normal debate that we have within our democracy about how extensive or restrictive is our welfare state—versus Jeff Sessions assigning U.S. attorneys to investigate [a journalist] because the President doesn’t like what she’s been saying.” It’s true that Ryan’s policies are accepted as “normal,” but should that be the case? Isn’t it possible for elected Democrats to treat attacks on the poor as something beyond the pale? That was the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt’s lambasting Republicans in 1936 as “economic royalists.” But that’s a politics that Obama usually avoids, with the exception of a few gibes in 2012 against Mitt Romney.
The 2017 transcripts reveal that Obama understood Trump more than he did Trumpism. He outlined a good strategy for caging Trump as president—but not for fighting Trumpism as a political movement. Trump lost in 2020 to Obama’s former vice president, but even in that loss Trump got many more votes and a higher percentage of votes than in 2016. Which means Trumpism isn’t going away. And Obama, for all his virtues, is an imperfect analyst of how to fight Trumpism.