The Presidents club is turning on its newest member.
Breaking the code of silence that retired commanders in chief normally maintain about their successors, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama delivered clear jabs at the current occupant of the Oval Office on Thursday.
President Donald Trump, however, likely didn’t feel a thing. His entire political brand stands as a living rebuke to the political establishment that both men once led and to the traditionalists who believe his behavior is eroding the prestige of the presidency itself.
While neither Bush nor Obama mentioned Trump by name or referred to his claims this week that he had been more attentive to relatives of slain US service members than they were, they used coincidental events to register their alarm with Trump’s politics.
In New York, Bush delivered a strong indictment of Trump’s populist nationalism, condemning trade protectionism and bemoaning how politics had fallen prey to “conspiracy theories” and “outright fabrication.” He also warned of the impact of “bullying and prejudice” in public life. It was not hard to work out who he was talking about in one of his most vehement interventions in politics since he left office in January 2009.
Obama, at the first campaign appearances of his post-presidency, warned about the tone and content of Trump-style politics – after spending several weeks watching Trump undermine his proudest achievements including the Iran nuclear deal and the Affordable Care Act.
Apparently referring to the President’s handling of racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and sluggish condemnation of white supremacists, Obama lamented the “same old politics of division” while campaigning for New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy.
“Some of the politics we see now, we thought we had put that to bed,” Obama said. “That’s folks looking 50 years back. It’s the 21st Century, not the 19th Century.”
In a second campaign stop in Virginia, Obama took aim at the methods Trump used to win the election.
“We’ve got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry – to demonize people who have different ideas; to get the base all riled up because it provides a short-term tactical advantage,” Obama said, again without specifically naming the President.
There’s no doubt that Obama and Bush have been dismayed by some of Trump’s antics in office. Both men were deeply conscious of the messages their own conduct and rhetoric projected at home and abroad. Both spoke about how they viewed the presidency as a public trust that was theirs for a short time and was not a vehicle for personal glorification.
Trump, by contrast, seems unimpressed by the conventions, heritage and protocols of the presidency. His critics have constantly complained that he is damaging the office of the presidency itself.