‘Obama Taunted Trump and Look Where It Got Us’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That quote comes from an Atlantic reader referring to the blistering roast that President Obama gave Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner in response to The Donald’s deplorable Birther campaign deployed a few months earlier. That mockery of the reality TV host was wholly satisfying to watch (and just as skilled as Colbert’s professional takedown of Bush in 2006) … but was it wise? Did Obama’s public humiliation of a vengeful narcissist set the ball in motion for Trump’s presidential campaign—a campaign less about the presidency and more about proving Obama and the laughing media elites wrong?

That’s the premise of The Choice 2016, Frontline’s superb documentary. The key portion:

With that in mind, here are three reader emails that Fallows forwarded me to post in his stead. (Accordingly I’ve changed them from second-person to third-person.) The first reader writes:

I’m a huge fan of Fallows, but I disagree with his latest note, pushing President Obama to denounce President-elect Trump. Fallows asked, “What the hell does [Obama] have to lose?” I think the answer is clear.

As many commentators have noted, Donald Trump’s principal principle is to listen to people who flatter him and reject people who offend him. Barack Obama, it seems clear, has decided that his best influence on the next four years is to stay on Donald’s good side—to convince him, as Obama apparently did in their Oval Office meeting, that Obamacare needs reform, not repeal; and perhaps to convince Trump to maintain other positive aspects of the Obama legacy.

Obama attacking Trump at this point will cause Trump to attack Obama and the policies of the Obama administration. It would feel good for liberals (including me!), but the real-world consequences could be terrible. All of the attacks on Trump from mainstream media and politicians did not keep him from the presidency. Now that Trump will be president, Obama is trying to maintain a relationship and thereby some sway in Trump’s decision-making.

So what does Obama have to lose? His policies, his legacy, and his chance at influencing the next president.

This next reader is on the same page:

I have to disagree with the notion that Obama should do more and be more visible right now.

I do agree with targeting a memorable farewell address, but otherwise, I don’t think any activity on his part will do any good now, and likely could do harm.  We either survive the next four years reasonably intact, or we don’t, and I don’t think Obama can do anything about that now. Trump must be given the rope to hang himself and we must all hope he doesn’t take us all down with him.

To the extent that an in-power Obama fights against Trump, he provides ammunition to the narrative that the establishment is against Trump and won’t give him a chance.  A year and a half from now, if he lays out the facts of various Trumptastrophies, Obama can be a more powerful voice towards bringing us back.

Again, I base this on the belief that Obama trying to thwart Trump now is at best pointless, and could well be counterproductive. Remember, baring death, impeachment, or resignation, Trump someday has to hand power over to someone else in a peaceful way. I’m not convinced that this is a given, and as such, having the opposition provide a stellar example might help.

We can still come out of this with Trump being the historically negative example we all expect him to be. To get the other less-than-half of the electorate to see it that way means he has to fail on his own. It is the silver lining behind a dark cloud of a Republican Congress. In two years, there will be an actual record, and there should be no-one to blame but Republicans for it.

Another reader adds some good points:

I could obviously be wrong, but I very much suspect the reason President Obama has been so low-key the past four weeks isn’t just because that’s his style. I think he’s aware of how Trump operates, and that if Obama comes out strongly for something, Trump will have no ability to do anything but come out against it. If Obama’s against something, well then, by gosh and by golly, Trump will just have to be for it.

But that’s publicly. I think Obama knows the best chance of his being able to influence Trump in any way is to stay low-key and speak to him sotto voce. And I’d be surprised if he’s not doing at least some of that now, and will be doing far, far more of it post-January. He taunted Trump way back at that Correspondents Dinner and look where it got us. Now he’s going to try to be The Trump Whisperer, in hopes of keeping the world from blowing up. (And my God I wish that were hyperbole.)

Again, I could be wrong. But I think Obama’s staying quiet, laying low now—despite how horrific this must all be to him, and despite how hard it must be, and how much he must want to speak out—because he loves his country that much, and wants that strongly to do the best he can for the world. It’s why he’s one of the great statesmen our country has ever had, and why I think someday he’s going to challenge Jimmy Carter for the title of Greatest Ex-President Ever.

Update from a dissenting reader, Dennis, via hello@:

A quick response to the first responder who counsels against aggravating Trump: This view displays the height of cowardice. Indeed it’s the sort of response that a bully desires. A whole point of bullying is to silence the opponent.

And let’s face it, Obama’s legacy is already screwed short term. Long term, who knows. I don’t believe there is an arc to history. I’ll leave it to future historians to comment. (And notice we have no control over future historians.)