Barack Obama doesn’t often mention Donald Trump. More than anything else, that has been a constant in his random assortment of public appearances and statements since he left the White House. Even when he has occasionally answered the call from Americans to show leadership during a Trumpian scandal or crisis, Obama has preferred magnanimity, issuing statements exhorting his countrymen to soldier on and praising the goodness of the institutions they must lean on to do so.
In a week featuring perhaps the gravest controversy of Trump’s young term, the fallout over his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama delivered the apotheosis of that post-presidency form. His speech Tuesday in Johannesburg, at South Africa’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, was the most important moment of his career as a not-so-elder statesman. It was a marathon address that outlined a grand theory of liberalism and skewered Trump’s recent moves without once saying the man’s name. But it also highlighted one of Obama’s most enduring weaknesses: that he still doesn’t really understand Trump, or the forces that elected him.
The stage couldn’t have been set more perfectly for Obama’s big moment. On Monday, Trump managed to create one of the biggest firestorms of his presidency during a press conference with Putin. In a barely coherent series of responses, Trump declined to say whether he trusted his own intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. After facing fierce criticism from even his Republican allies on the Hill, Trump spent Tuesday afternoon engaged in a semantic do-over, claiming he actually meant that he agreed with the intelligence assessment—although he said other actors might have been involved, too.