Since leaving office nearly three years ago, Obama has tried to avoid giving Trump any fresh attack material to work with, and his foundation is rigidly nonpolitical. Here at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the third annual summit kicked off with a modern-dance performance highlighting black and immigrant experiences. It included the trailer for Ava DuVernay’s 2019 Netflix series, When They See Us, about the Central Park Five, a group of young men of color who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned on charges that they had raped a white female jogger in the park in 1989. At the time, Trump ramped up racial tensions around that case, taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the men to be executed.
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The two men had never spoken before Obama called to congratulate Trump on Election Night 2016. They met a few times during the transition, and except for a brief handshake at George H. W. Bush’s funeral last year, they haven’t spoken since Inauguration Day 2017. For almost three years, virtually everything Obama has said and done has been seen through the prism of attacking Trump.
Sometimes it’s unmistakable, as on Friday, when Obama spoke at the funeral for Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland. “There’s nothing weak about being honorable,” Obama said. “You’re not a sucker to have integrity and treat others with respect.”
That statement was clearly about Trump—but Obama’s remarks are not always about Trump, at least not definitively. “Make sure you have a team with a diversity of opinion sitting around you,” Obama said at a paid appearance in San Francisco last month. Also: “The other thing that’s helpful is not watching TV or reading social media. Those are two things I would advise, if you’re our president, not to do. It creates a lot of noise and clouds your judgment.” Are statements like that Trump-focused, or merely the same generic advice Obama would offer to whoever took his place?
“We are not naive to today’s political environment,” Eric Schultz, a senior adviser to Obama who was traveling with him yesterday, told me. “That said, the themes President Obama raises are points he’s been making his entire public life—and will continue to raise for many years to come.”
Obama warned yesterday against running for office just to run: “Then, when you get there, you have no idea what to do; you have no moral compass; you have no issue or cause that you’re willing to sacrifice everything for or lose your seat for. All that’s important to you is to stay that thing you wanted to be.”
In that instance, was he talking about what he himself stood for, or hinting about what Trump doesn’t? Perhaps both.
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Obama also appeared to possibly issue a warning to his own party when he said, “This idea of purity, and you’re never compromised, and you’re politically woke, and all that stuff—you should get over that pretty quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws,” and he made fun of people thinking they’d done something by retweeting a tweet. “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.”