Obama Still Sounds Like a President

The former consoler in chief issued a statement on El Paso and Dayton that contrasted sharply with Trump’s rhetoric.

Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

Today, the consoler in chief finally emerged to comfort the nation after the massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

No, not President Donald Trump. He spoke, too, in White House remarks read stiffly from a teleprompter, using a lexicon that sounds stunted coming from him.

Instead, this was Barack Obama, in a statement delivered on social media:

It is vintage Obama. There is the sense of consolation that seemed to come naturally to him—in any case, he got horrifically frequent practice at striking this tone during his eight years in office. There’s moral clarity, identifying the problem as “troubled individuals who embrace racist ideologies and see themselves obligated to act violently to preserve white supremacy,” and (in contrast to Trump) situating the internet’s role not as a cause but as a catalyst. And there is the call to unity that has been his central political theme since 2004: “But just as important, all of us have to send a clarion call and behave with the values of tolerance and diversity that should be the hallmark of our democracy.”

In substance, much of what Obama wrote echoes what Trump said earlier in the day. The difference is both tonal and contextual. Such language sounds more natural coming from Obama than from the coarse and combative Trump, and it is more persuasive because, unlike Trump, Obama hasn’t frequently encouraged and condoned violence or demonized both Americans and immigrants.

Inevitably, Obama’s statement was greeted with wistfulness and relief by Democrats, and even by never-Trump conservatives like Bill Kristol, who spent eight years fighting the Obama administration tooth and nail. The common theme: This is what presidential looks like.

Indeed, Obama continues to act almost as though he is the president. This note reads like a statement released by the Obama White House. Past presidents have been known to put out statements at moments of national trauma; what’s unusual now is that, because Trump’s efforts at consoling and uniting are so intermittent and clumsy, it feels as though the role of president is vacant, and Obama is sliding right back into it by habit—his and the nation’s.

Like President Obama, former President Obama wants to remain above the political fray. It is clear to the Democrats running for the presidency (as well as to many others) that Trump has to answer for ginning up racial and ethnic hatred and violence. Obama’s statement walked up to the edge of condemning Trump, then stopped without naming him: “We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments; leaders who demonize those who don’t look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as sub-human, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people.” Nor does Obama make any policy suggestions.

In part, this is Obama’s attempt to maintain the old norm against former presidents criticizing the current officeholder. Obama has tiptoed up to this line before, notably a year ago in South Africa—though there, too, he avoided speaking Trump’s name.

But Obama has also never quite figured out how to respond to Trump. (He is not alone: The same can be said of the Democratic Party, the Republican old guard, the press, and perhaps much of the public.) Obama remains haunted by the specter of tribalism. He also knows that Trump’s election is, in large part, a product of the backlash to his own election as the first black president. If he attacks Trump with the intent to harm him politically, he threatens to reinforce that backlash, rather than weaken it.

He also knows that any attack would have to land squarely: While Trump has the privilege of nearly infinite mistakes, Obama does not, on this topic least of all. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued in The Atlantic in 2012, Obama, largely because of his race, has never had much margin for error. “An equality that requires blacks to be twice as good is not equality—it’s a double standard,” Coates wrote. “That double standard haunts and constrains the Obama presidency, warning him away from candor about America’s sordid birthmark.”

Yet as Obama holds back, he leaves Trump to continue doing all the things Obama spells out in his statement. Obama has arguably already flinched twice. First, he and other Democrats did not take Trump seriously enough as a candidate for president. Second, when Obama became aware of Russian interference in the election, he chose to mostly keep it quiet, fearing that discussing it publicly would look like political interference and confident that Hillary Clinton would beat Trump.

It’s been a tough week for the Obama legacy. At last week’s Democratic debate, many of the candidates for the presidential nomination were critical of actions his administration took. Yet he remains immensely popular, not only with Democrats but with the population as a whole—and certainly more popular than Trump. Contrast his situation with that of Bill Clinton, a former president whose sway has diminished but who called today for a reinstatement of gun-control laws enacted during his presidency.

There’s no figure in American politics who has as much credibility and popularity to act as a counterweight to Trump as Obama. But he’s still unsure what to do with that power—except, as he did today, to just do the job for him.