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October 20, 2018

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In finally taking on Trump, Obama heeds cry for help

In November of 2016, in the simmering afterglow of Donald Trump’s stunning defeat of Hillary Clinton, a still-stunned President Barack Obama traveled to Lima, Peru, for a summit of APEC, or Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.While there, Obama gave a news conference, and the questions and answers, viewed in hindsight, with the full knowledge of the hell we’ve been through for nearly two years, is fascinating.

The first question was from Darlene Superville of The Associated Press, who asked:

“You’ve been telling world leaders this week that President-elect Trump is unlikely to govern in the divisive way that he campaigned. But I’m wondering, how can you be so certain of that, given that the first group of people he’s chosen for top national security and law enforcement positions hold the same views that he espoused as a candidate?”

Obama responded in part:

“People should take a wait-and-see approach in how much his policy proposals once in the White House, once he is sworn in, matches up with some of the rhetoric of his campaign. My simple point is, is that you can’t assume that the language of campaigning matches up with the specifics of governing, legislation, regulations and foreign policy.”

Well, we now know that Trump’s policies and rhetoric are exactly those of the campaign. Indeed, Trump has never suspended his campaign. On the day he was inaugurated, he submitted a letter to the Federal Election Commission notifying it that he met the legal threshold for filing for re-election in 2020. Furthermore, he continues to court and coddle his base, including through his incessant campaign-style rallies, rather than reaching out or even pretending to be the president of all of America.

But the exchange people remember most came with another questioner, Rich Edson of Fox News, who asked:

“Speaking of your predecessor, he made sure to offer essentially no public criticism of you during your time in office. Will you equally withhold public criticism for President Trump, even if he attempts to dismantle much of what you’ve accomplished?”

Obama responded in part:

“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, but go to core questions about our values and our ideals, and if I think that it’s necessary or helpful for me to defend those ideals, then I’ll examine it when it comes.”

Well, it appears that moment has finally come for Obama, though, in all honesty, it came months ago for many of us.

We have been howling into the wind so long that people dubbed our extreme objection to this deeply immoral and unscrupulous man Trump Derangement Syndrome. But in fact, the new Bob Woodward book and the op-ed in The New York Times by an anonymous administration official prove us right. The fact is that most Americans now believe that Trump’s relationship to the Russian hacking and the hush money payments to women who say they had affairs with him is unethical or flat-out illegal.

Although Obama has made some tepid, often glancing, remarks about Trump’s policies and rhetoric before, his speech last week at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was the first time that he has blasted Trump by name.

It was a departure from the genteel tradition of the presidents’ club in which the exes try not to personally criticize the current one and vice versa, although Trump had never adhered to this tradition. He insults and condemns his predecessors without end, particularly Obama, the black man whom his largely white base most detests.

Nothing Obama said was particularly new or revelatory. It was that he was saying it at all that arrested attention.

For instance, he told the audience that “each time we painstakingly pull ourselves closer to our founding ideals” there are dark forces that push us back, and that “it did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.”

He continued:

“He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years. A fear and anger that’s rooted in our past, but it’s also born out of the enormous upheavals that have taken place in your brief lifetimes.”

He could have read similar words in a thousand essays written since Trump was elected.

But for me, I deeply appreciate his words for another reason: He is loosening Trump’s stranglehold on the news.

There is only so much time in a news day, only so many column inches in a newspaper, only so much prominent real estate on a website. Up to this point Trump has dominated the news by overwhelming it, and no one has had the weight to challenge that dominance. Obama has that weight.

Just by speaking, he’s altering the diet of the news people consume.

His very presence in the fight, as a presidential voice — even if former, for some he’s forever — is disruptive.

For this I say, welcome back Mr. President. Your country was crying for help and you heard it.

Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.