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After rough transition, Obama breaks with tradition to criticize Trump policy

Former President Barack Obama issued a statement Monday applauding protests against President Donald Trump’s policies and indirectly criticizing Trump himself, just 11 days after he moved out of the White House.

“Citizens exercising their constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake,” the statement from Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said.

The former president also rejected Republican attempts to conflate Trump’s temporary ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries with his own immigration policies.

“With regard to comparisons to President Obama’s foreign policy decisions, as we’ve heard before, the president fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion,” Lewis said.

Obama had said in his farewell address and press conferences that he did not plan to remain silent. In a podcast interview with former senior adviser David Axelrod in December, Obama acknowledged that getting involved in “the day-to-day scrum” of politics would be contrary to tradition, but he suggested he would weigh in if a particular policy “goes to some foundational issues about our democracy.”

Few expected that he would feel compelled to speak so soon, though.

The statement Monday was carefully worded and did not specifically mention Trump or the policies he has enacted, but it is a clear endorsement of the protests against the new president.

“For the most part, men who have left the White House have tried to give their successors room to operate,” said Michael D’Antonio, author of “A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama” and “The Truth About Trump.” “Obama's decision to voice support for those protesting Trump, without naming him, bends the rule.”

Politico reported Tuesday that Obama is debating how aggressively to challenge Trump and when the right moment to publicly and directly criticize him will be. Allies say the former president fears that his opposition will have no impact or will only serve to empower Trump if not handled correctly.

Whatever he decides, Obama’s response to Trump will likely represent a marked shift from the treatment he received from his predecessor.

"He often talks about the example of the Bushes, both Bushes as ex-presidents, who have been very discreet about how they've spoken on public issues since they left the White House. And he appreciated it and saw virtue in it,” Axelrod said on CNN.

George W. Bush rarely uttered any criticism of Obama, even when goaded to do so by conservative interviewers. He once told Fox’s Sean Hannity that attacking Obama would be “bad for the presidency.”

“I don’t think it does any good,” Bush told CNN in 2013. “It’s a hard job. He’s got plenty on his agenda. It’s difficult. A former president doesn’t need to make it harder.”

When Bush did offer thoughts on Obama’s foreign policy during what was meant to be an off-the-record dinner with Jewish donors in 2015, former spokesman Ari Fleischer emphasized that Bush’s comments were not meant as personal criticism.

Historically, it has been rare for ex-presidents to openly criticize their successors, but it is not unheard of.

George H.W. Bush did occasionally take shots at Bill Clinton in the 1990s over foreign policy, health care, and the integrity of the White House. Clinton at times questioned the policies of George W. Bush too.

Jimmy Carter has been a vocal critic of all the presidents who came after him. In 1982, he accused Ronald Reagan of scapegoating him for the new administration’s problems. He later made similar complaints about Reagan refusing to accept responsibility for his mistakes.

In 1986, Carter and his predecessor Gerald Ford both spoke out against Reagan for secret arms shipments to Iran in a “Today Show” appearance.

In the decades since, Carter has leveled criticism at Clinton and Obama as well, and he openly opposed both wars in Iraq.

"Our country is now looked upon as the foremost warlike nation on Earth, and there is almost a complete dearth now of commitment of America to negotiate differences with others," he said of Obama’s handling of Iran and North Korea in 2013.

Some presidents have formed bonds with their successors. Ford and Carter became close friends, and George W. Bush reportedly turned to Clinton for advice twice a year during his second term.

Obama’s position is unique for many reasons.

He is leaving office far more popular than Trump, who has record low approval ratings for a new president. Other recent presidents have walked out of the White House less popular than their replacement, so Obama may not share their need to temporarily withdraw from the spotlight.

Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University who has successfully predicted every presidential election since 1984, said Obama joining the chorus of anti-Trump voices could inspire congressional Democrats to show more backbone.

“For many years, Republicans have been playing hardball and Democrats have been playing Wiffle ball,” he said. “Maybe now Democrats will play a little more hardball.”

The transition of power was also atypically rocky, with Trump publicly inserting himself into domestic and international issues and Obama ordering an investigation of Russian interference in the election that benefited Trump.

“The Trump people did not respect the leaving president,” said Dan Franklin, associate professor at Georgia State University and author of “Pitiful Giants: Presidents in their Final Term.” “They began trying to make policy even before they took office, and that’s pretty unusual.”

According to Lichtman, ex-presidents are especially hesitant to interfere during their successor’s honeymoon period, but there is no honeymoon this year due to Trump’s extreme behavior and policies.

“Because this presidency is so unprecedented, it does give Obama a bit of leeway to be a critic,” he said.

Trump’s latest executive orders have generated unusual pushback from prominent members of his own party, which Lichtman said grants Obama some freedom as well.

With Obama out of power and Hillary Clinton slinking away from the front lines, the Democratic Party lacks strong leadership and Obama taking on Trump could fill that vacuum.

“In terms of Obama’s role, the gloves are off,” Franklin said. “I think the Democratic Party is looking for leadership and he may be asserting himself as the leader.”

Obama bears some responsibility for that lack of leadership, Lichtman said. He accomplished big things as president, but his party lost control of Congress and many state governments in the process.

“Obama seems to have neglected the second requisite of a president, and that is to sell your policies and build your party,” he said.

The ex-president seems to recognize this failing to a degree. He told Axelrod last month that his priority after leaving office will be “to build that next generation of leadership” in public and civic life.

Obama, with nearly four times as many Twitter followers on his personal account than Trump, will be the first ex-president with an active social media presence. He has not used that platform for much since inauguration, and Franklin doubts it will be the most effective place to battle Trump.

“I don’t think Obama’s medium of choice is social media,” he said. “I think Obama is a speaker… In that respect, he’s old school.”

Twitter has grown exponentially in the eight years Obama was in the White House, though, and even if he is not waging Twitter wars with Trump, it will have its uses.

“That amplifies his voice for people who might not see him on television or hear him in the press,” Lichtman said.

Perhaps most importantly, Trump’s entire political career has been about shattering political norms and speaking his mind even when it is not politically correct to do so, so few may shed tears over Obama doing the same.

“It is unusual to speak out eleven days after leaving office, yes,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga, “but Trump broke all the rules as a candidate and is breaking all the rules of what a new president should be doing.”

D’Antonio, who has written books on both presidents, offered a blunter assessment of Trump’s first week and a half in office.

“I think we have entered uncharted territory with Trump,” he said. “He violated the norms of politics throughout his campaign and has continued to violate them as president. Have we ever had a chief executive who mocks senators, so brazenly distorts the truth, and engages in such a frenzy of executive action without consulting even those in his own party?”

If Obama believes the peace and stability of the nation is at risk under Trump, he will make that known, but D’Antonio predicted he will refrain from making his criticism personal unless it becomes necessary.

“I suspect that Obama believes we have entered a period of political crisis created by a man who delights in chaos,” he said. “I don't think he is concerned as much with his own programs being rolled back as he is about the preservation of our democracy. If the crisis continues, I think he will continue to speak out, but without naming Trump specifically.”

Obama’s statement Monday was unexpected, but violating the norms of post-presidential behavior is less shocking in the wake of Trump’s election than it was before the 45th president descended that escalator in Trump Tower 20 months ago and proudly rejected much of what was known or presumed about American politics.

“If you throw traditions out the window, then traditions are out the window,” Franklin said.

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