June 14, 2016
The current and prospective presidents have all said their thing. Among the things Donald Trump said was that President Obama should resign if he couldn’t bear to refer to radical Islamic terrorism. That was just the beginning. He also used the either he’s stupid or hiding something from us argument. All in a day’s work, and perhaps not even noticed by many, given all the other conversation flying around.
Hillary Clinton said stuff. Sober, thought out stuff. The sort of thing she’s supposed to say, even when not trying to contrast herself with the unprecedented Trump. She spoke about limiting/preventing assault rifle access. She pledged to specifically work to limit the risk of “lone wolf” attackers. Hillary being Hillary. Either presidential or useless depending on point of view.
Today it was the incumbent’s turn. If you’ve seen any footage, he was not real chipper. Without any context, you’d assume he was hangry or something, perhaps struggling with a new plant based diet and below his preferred protein level. It can’t feel good to be the commander-in-chief when 49 people are killed for any reason, let alone by the hand of a single individual with the sort of weapon you’ve spent the past several years trying to eliminate/limit the distribution of.
Having the presumptive candidate of a major party call you out the way Trump did the day before is beyond the pale. While we’ve grown used to this candidate saying things like this, it’s not standard. Back in the 1800s, words like this were thrown around about presidents and presidential candidates, but by surrogates and partisan newspapers, not the participants themselves.
So Obama strode to the podium with plenty of purpose. He’s also in a different position than the normal lame duck. When Harry Truman and George W. Bush were in his position, they were almost completely discredited. Less than a third of Americans approved of their job performance. Their presumptive successors (Adlai Stevenson and John McCain) were keeping as much distance as possible, hoping voters wouldn’t link them.
He also doesn’t have the reservoir of support that Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, each of whom won their second election by larger margins than their first did. Obama is somewhere in the middle. Hillary is tying herself as close to him as humanly possible, but isn’t vocally running for a third term. Bernie Sanders spent the past year saying he hasn’t gone far enough, but most Berners like the president well enough.
There’s a whole lot of possible legacy for Obama to protect. At the moment, he isn’t a consensus success or failure (though a majority of individuals feel strongly one way or the other.) As we’ve mentioned over the past couple of days, the Orlando atrocity was neither a clear “mass shooting” like Sandy Hook or Aurora, nor a clearly completely ISIS/jihad influenced event like Fort Hood or San Bernardino.
It has elements of both, with an added LGBT angle. Whatever your interpretation, there are bits of evidence to use. Trump’s speech expressly chose to come out in strong support of the gay community while attacking Muslims from every possible angle. Normally, strong LGBT supporters are also the same people who want to avoid calling this a Muslim problem instead of a small percentage of extremists issue.
Trump split this link clearly in half, taking one of the strongest pro-gay positions in GOP history along with being completely anti-Islam. It left Obama with another item to push back on. He needed to make his case for gun control and against singling out Muslims, with the knowledge that some swing voters might have appreciated Trump breaking with some of his voters.
Normally, voters are beyond sick of an incumbent by now. But when the other choices are Hillary and Trump, Obama is actually still the newest figure on the public stage. The Clintons have spent the past quarter century in our living rooms, and Trump became a national figure in the 1980s. The Apprentice hit the airwaves before Obama’s big speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention.
Al Qaeda-style attacks have faded as a threat over the past fifteen years. While there are plenty of thwarted plots we don’t even hear about, the ISIS method of using distributed assailants is harder to stop. We may never find out for sure if the latest attack was truly ISIS inspired, or if the killer called in his allegiance to cover for an event caused by an inability to deal with his own sexuality. Or some other reason. Or all of the above.
This isn’t simple now. Perhaps it never was. Trump is not a master of nuance. Obama sees plenty of it. Trump is fire. Obama is ice. Hillary does not have the ability to command the airwaves by herself. She may defeat Trump but that’s different from convincing the public her direction is correct. A Clinton victory is likely the result of a lesser than two evils choice, not Hillary suddenly winning the public over.
Plus, Obama does not completely agree with her approach to terrorism. While he’s much closer to her than Trump, she appears far more interventionist than the president. So he has plenty of interest in continuing to weigh in. Whether to protect his legacy, push back against Trump, help ensure Hillary’s victory, or try to limit her range of responses, we are going to hear quite a bit from the current president over the next few months.
He’s also more popular than both candidates. Normally, when the incumbent is non-toxic, there’s a changing of the guard, however awkwardly. Don’t expect that. Especially on foreign policy/national security/terrorism, look for a three ring debate. This isn’t just Trump v. Clinton. The president is not leaving the building yet.