Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama softened his criticism of Donald Trump during a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., Thursday.

How Obama has broken the mold in 2016

President Obama's trashing of Donald Trump is unique for the modern era. But he risks overshadowing Hillary Clinton. 

The 2016 presidential campaign has broken the mold in so many ways. Start with the first woman major-party nominee in Hillary Clinton and practically everything about Donald Trump’s candidacy. Now, add President Obama’s role as an attack dog.

At the Democratic National Convention last week, Mr. Obama launched a withering attack on the Republican nominee, accusing Trump of selling the American people short, cozying up to autocrats, and offering no solutions. In his choicest dig – a warning about “homegrown demagogues” – Obama alluded to the billionaire-turned-politician, but didn’t mention Trump by name.

This week, Obama became even more pointed. “I think the Republican nominee is unfit to serve as president,” he said flat out on Tuesday. Two days later, Obama warned the candidates that “if they want to be president, they got to start acting like president.” He used the plural “they,” but everyone knew who he was talking about.

To some, Obama’s comments have been a welcome addition to the chorus, and an appropriate use of the presidential megaphone to warn against a potentially dire outcome in November: the election of someone who could pose a threat to American democracy. To others, Obama’s statements are inappropriate and demean the presidency.

Either way, scholars say, Obama’s thorough trashing of the opposing party’s presidential nominee is unique for the modern era, compared with how other recent presidents have handled the race for their succession.  

“It is unprecedented certainly in post-World War II American history,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Making history 

The only example that comes close is that of President Harry Truman, who went after the Republican nominee, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, during the 1952 campaign, after General Eisenhower failed to defend Gen. George Marshall from attacks by Sen. Joe McCarthy, the anti-communist demagogue. 

In one campaign stop, President Truman called Eisenhower "a liar, a fool, a hypocrite, so ignorant of government after a life in the military that he was at the mercy of the party bosses.” Truman’s problem with Eisenhower seemed to be personal, not born of Eisenhower’s public persona and performance as a candidate.

Obama, too, has a personal reason to go after Trump: the billionaire’s persistent allegations that the president wasn’t born in the United States. But Obama’s critique of Trump doesn’t seem to stem largely from personal pique; it reflects Trump’s performance as a candidate over the past year, and widespread public doubts about Trump’s temperament and qualifications to be president.

Still, aside from Truman, historians don’t see many past retiring presidents working hard either to elect the nominee of their own party or defeat the other party’s candidate.

Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, reviewed all the convention speeches of second-term presidents going back to Eisenhower, to see what they had said about the opposing party’s nominee, and found nothing close to Obama’s attack on Trump.

Eisenhower did get in some veiled digs at the Democrats’ young nominee, John F. Kennedy, at the 1960 Republican convention, but nothing harsh. “The [voters] realize, as never before, that the stakes in today’s world are too high to risk their futures to the hands of frivolous, irresponsible, or inexperienced government,” Eisenhower said.

In 2008, President George W. Bush didn’t even attend the Republican convention, opting to stay in Washington and deal with the aftermath of hurricane Gustav. In a short speech via satellite, he barely alluded to the Democratic nominee, then-Senator Obama.

For Obama, not only are the full-throated attacks on Trump unprecedented for the modern era, so is the full embrace of Mrs. Clinton. Though once her rival, Obama has by all accounts developed genuine respect and admiration for her capabilities. In his convention address, Obama declared that “there has never been a man or a woman, not me, not Bill, nobody more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.”

Obama's enthusiastic support for Clinton is the exception in modern presidential history. 

“Oddly enough, circumstances have often for one reason or another prevented a sitting president from actively campaigning for a successor,” says historian David Pietrusza.

Sometimes the split came over policy. In the election of 1896, Democratic President Grover Cleveland supported the gold standard, and thus had little use for his would-be Democratic successor, William Jennings Bryan, who supported “free silver.”

Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush were all “damaged goods” by the end of their presidencies, says Mr. Pietrusza. “Silent Cal [Coolidge] kept his normal silence in 1928. He barely campaigned for himself in 1924. And beyond what [Ronald] Reagan may have thought of [George H.W.] Bush in 1988, he may simply have been running out of physical steam.”

Eisenhower also didn’t do much to help his vice president, Richard Nixon, succeed him. At one memorable press conference, in August 1960, Eisenhower was asked for a “major idea” of Vice President Nixon’s that the president had adopted. Ike responded tartly: “If you give me a week, I might think of one.” 

The dignity of the presidency

But it is Obama’s attacks on Trump – not his praise for Clinton – that are getting the headlines. Scholars are divided on the appropriateness of Obama’s approach. 

“The dignity of the presidency is not what it used to be. Obama has driven partisanship to new levels,” says Pietrusza, who offers an equally dour assessment of Trump.

Ms. Perry at the Miller Center says that while Obama’s attacks are unprecedented for contemporary times, so too is Trump’s candidacy – as a candidate with no government experience and “a genuine demagogue.”

“Thus, Obama’s attack on him at the press conference [Tuesday] for Singapore’s president is also unprecedented – but necessary,” she says.

“I don’t think it lessens the dignity of the office, which is highly political, obviously,” she adds. “And Obama’s attacks are done with a measured tone, if not content.”

She contrasts Obama’s political role in going after Trump with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critical comments about Trump, which were criticized on both sides of the political aisle as inappropriate. Justice Ginsburg later expressed regret for her comments.

Lowering the volume

Still, there are reasons for Obama to dial back the volume, which he did on Thursday in his press conference at the Pentagon. Clinton now leads in the polls – and it behooves her to fly solo for a while, says Mr. Jillson.

“If you think about the last many months, Hillary Clinton has wrapped herself in the Obama presidency and legacy, and benefited by it,” says Jillson. “Now she’s well-positioned to win this on her own.”

For Clinton, there’s a risk of being overshadowed by a president who is more charismatic than she. Obama's intense rhetoric could also backfire, discouraging voters who don't like Obama but who might otherwise support Clinton.

Obama, too, has reasons to pull back from the anti-Trump rhetoric. He has been “above water” in his job approval ratings for months now – more popular than unpopular – and he could risk that by being seen as overly political if he keeps attacking Trump every time he takes questions.

Obama’s relative popularity could also be useful to him in his remaining months in the Oval Office, as he looks at unfinished business and seeks to burnish his legacy. He can use his political clout in other ways, too, in the 2016 campaign: mobilizing minority communities devoted to the first black president, raising money for party committees, and campaigning around the country for Democratic Senate and House candidates.

The Democrats have an excellent shot at retaking the Senate, a majority that would be critical to a President Hillary Clinton, and an outside shot at winning back the House, especially if the Trump candidacy collapses. 

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