President Barack Obama said Sunday he doesn’t intend to become his successor’s constant critic — but reserved the right to speak out if President-elect Donald Trump or his policies breach certain “values or ideals.”
Offering a rare glimpse into his thoughts on his post-presidency, Obama suggested once he was out of office he would uphold the tradition of ex-presidents stepping aside quietly to allow their successors space to govern. He heaped praise on former President George W. Bush, saying he “could not have been more gracious to me when I came in” and said he wanted to give Trump the same chance to pursue his agenda “without somebody popping off” at every turn.
But Obama suggested there may be limits to his silence.
“As an American citizen who cares deeply about our country, if there are issues that have less to do with the specifics of some legislative proposal or battle or go to core questions about our values and ideals, and if I think that it’s necessary or helpful for me to defend those ideals, I’ll examine it when it comes,” Obama told reporters.
Obama, who has consistently praised Bush for the way he’s handled his ex-presidency, faces a conundrum about how to handle his own. Though he’s vowed to ensure a smooth handover of power, Obama is keenly aware he’s being replaced by a new president who holds antithetical views on issue after issue.
The president spoke out vigorously throughout the campaign against Trump’s calls for banning Muslim immigrants, deporting millions of people living in the U.S. illegally, repealing “Obamacare,” and canceling the Paris climate deal, to name a few. Those policy proposals and others like them have stoked fear for many Americans who oppose Trump and are hoping vehement opposition from Obama and other Democrats might prevent Trump from implementing them.
Though Obama didn’t specify what might trigger him to break silence, he left himself a broad window of possibilities. His comments suggested he’d be most inclined to weigh in if Trump violated basic principles Obama has tried to uphold, such as minority rights, equal protection and respect for civilian life. Obama has long warned that Trump might impulsively use nuclear weapons, and has cast a dim view on ideas like a Muslim registry, which Trump’s incoming chief of staff declined on Sunday to rule out.
Yet Obama suggested that while he might not always hold his tongue, his goal wasn’t to spend his time publicly disparaging his replacement.
“My intention is to, certainly for the next 2 months, just finish my job,” Obama said. “And then after that, to take Michelle on vacation, get some rest, spend time with my girls, and do some writing, do some thinking.”
Bush, like many ex-presidents, strictly avoided opining on politics during Obama’s eight years. Former President Bill Clinton, after leaving office, focused his attention on global humanitarian issues, especially as his wife entered politics. Former President Jimmy Carter was more vocal in his views in his post-White House years, occasionally stirring up controversy with comments critical of Israel.
Obama’s remarks at a news conference in Lima offered some of his most specific indications to date of how he feels Democrats and Trump opponents should handle the next four years. Asked whether Democrats in the Senate should follow Republicans’ example of refusing to even consider a Supreme Court nominee, Obama said they should not.