As I watched former President Barack Obama stand but a few yards away from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania last night and address the Democratic National Convention, as I paid careful attention to his comments directed towards President Donald Trump, I could not recall a former president rhetorically attacking his successor with such verve during a nominating convention.
As I rarely doubt my razor sharp quick recall of historical events–I still was glad to get confirmation of my suspicions from noted presidential historian Michael Beschloss, who Tweeted this morning that, “No former President has ever attacked his incumbent successor at a convention like Barack Obama tonight, or even come close.”
“Or even come close,” indeed!
As I mentioned on the Steel Sharpens Steel Podcast last night, I know that there has been an unwritten gentleman’s agreement for years that former presidents typically hold back on commenting about their successors. Alas, the very fact that nearly two decades after George H.W. Bush lost his presidency following a bitter battle with Bill Clinton–only to later become close friends and humanitarian allies with his former foe, highlights a tradition that at its heart suggests that love for country reins far more supreme than right, left, or centrist politics.
But I also noted in my comments last night that desperate times call for desperate measures, and with a nod to Thomas Paine’s quote, “these are the (desperate) times that try men’s souls,” one can surely understand Obama’s angst. Yes, with the strong economy that Trump inherited from Obama decimated by a Cornavirus Pandemic that has our nation on the verge of economic recession–if not depression–perhaps Obama felt as if he had no choice but to draw the sharp distinctions between his former vice president, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, and his successor, Trump.
Staying with the desperate times piece, I would add that what also differs in 2020 is that the current president, time and again, has battered Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, and his former Cabinet secretaries since taking office. Trump’s acts have been markedly different from when Obama was inaugurated in 2009 and how despite being in the midst of a global Great Recession, you rarely heard him mention his predecessors, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, as the proximate causes of that calamity due to sub-prime mortgages and irresponsible corporate acts within financial industries that occurred on both of their watches. Nope, Obama muddled through the mire–with Biden in tow–and expanded upon Bush’s work to use the power of the Federal government to pull our nation out of the economic morass. And Obama succeeded toward this end, so much so that Trump inherited a robust economy from day one.
But Trump, again, has always played loose with the facts on that subject–the economy–as he often acts as if he inherited a recession and pulled our nation from the doldrums. Which, essentially, is not just patently false, but problematic in that while I can admit that from 2017 to 2019, some of Trump’s deregulations and strong armed rhetoric against trade partners helped strengthen certain economic sectors, the problem is that when you are the captain of the ship, when it hits the iceberg–and the Coronavirus has been the titanic iceberg this year–once the ship begins to sink, the captain must take the blame for that as well.
But again, these are unconventional times and it is clear that Donald Trump will never be mistaken for President Harry “The Buck Stops Here” Truman as far as taking responsibility for the good and the bad. I remind that Trump boasted in 2016 that he could think of no time when he ever fell on his knees and asked God to forgive him; such was instructive of how he has acted this year when he joked repeatedly that the “China Virus is a Democrat hoax” that would ” just magically disappear” with “little to no deaths at all.” 5 million infections and 170,000 deaths later, we are paying the collective price for his failure to follow the lead of Italy, Germany, and New Zealand in mandating social distance measure and mask wearing.
And while Trump did, at long last, pivot last month and finally encourage mask wearing, it is an example of “too little, too late” because too many of his followers are still quoting his “hoax” jokes while refusing to wear masks.
Such is why the former president roasted the current one last night, and while it was ground-breaking, the simple matter is that Trump’s own ground-breaking harsh criticisms of Obama over the last three and a half years perhaps finally reached a boiling point where Obama said, enough!
Now, if I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I likely would have avoided Trump altogether and allowed Kamala Harris, who was nominated last night, to land the hard policy blows on the current administration in her acceptance speech.
But as one who has fought with both my hands and my mind during my 48 years, I understand being tired of the disrespect and calling the school bully out to the playground to “put up, or shut up.” What remains to be seen is whether Obama’s harsh but truthful criticisms of the Trump administration’s failures will resonate with those independent voters who supported Obama in his two elections, but abandoned Hillary Clinton in 2016.
We only have 75 days left to find out…