Describing the Republican nominee for president as “unfit to serve,” President Obama called on Republican leaders to withdraw their support from Donald Trump this week. They won’t, and it wouldn’t much matter if they did. Nobody is paying attention to those Republican leaders. Nobody is paying attention to President Obama either. It was fine and appropriate for him to deliver an eloquent speech on behalf of presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. But his attacking Mr. Trump may not diminish the Republican’s shot at the White House so much as the president’s own reputation.
Passion is welcome, but not when it seems partisan. The chorus of condemnations of Mr. Trump is already loud and vociferous. The president of the United States joining the ranks of those excoriating Mr. Trump becomes just another voice in the crowd, one more member of the Establishment trying to bring the candidate down.
The president hasn’t made a secret of his disdain for Mr. Trump. With the Democratic convention over, Mr. Obama is said to be eager to take Mr. Trump on. But for a president to immerse himself in the campaign for his successor is tricky, in this election particularly so. Mr. Trump is a political phenomenon. What kind of phenomenon is still unclear. The Republican candidate has outstripped his detractors’ ability not only to defeat him but to describe him. Narcissist, bully, demagogue, fascist, fabulist, fraudster—the animadversions continue to mount. A heap of invective has been poured upon his head. What is the president going to say about the candidate that hasn’t already been uttered?
Donald Trump is a party-crasher. Party-crashers don’t observe protocol or follow the rules. That’s why they are party crashers. Lecturing them is useless; so is trying to shame them for their misbehavior. Deriding, denouncing and decrying Trump may feel satisfying, but it’s unlikely to affect him or his supporters. The behavior that horrifies so many is the very thing they like about him.
Written in confidence that it will not be read, here is my note to the president about his campaign to discredit Donald Trump:
Mr. President, be careful. It’s not inconceivable that in trying to cut Trump down to size, you could end up looking small yourself. It’s happened to others along the campaign trail, and they didn’t have as far to fall as you do. You’re the president. You don’t want to seem just another politician.
Losing stature is one risk. Losing credibility is another. Leon Panetta fulminating about Trump encouraging Russia to locate Hillary Clinton’s missing emails seemed ridiculous, his charges distorted and overblown, the mountain he was trying to build out of that molehill pitifully small. Listening to the former CIA director as he danced around the T-word, insinuating the Republican nominee was guilty of treason, the word “hack” crossed my mind. A man with a distinguished career and a resume as long as an arm and a leg came off as just another Clinton operative looking for an attack line and willing to dredge up Cold War animosities if it would serve his purpose.
Recognize your limitations, Mr. President. It’s the voters’ turn. You’ve had your say, though maybe not your way, for close to eight years now. It’s time for you to move out of the limelight. I’m not saying you have to be completely uninvolved in the campaign. In small venues with interest groups and donors, you can articulate your angst and say why you think this election is so critical and why those present need to do everything they can to defeat Donald Trump. Work behind the scenes. But going around the country making the case against Trump at big rallies before thousands of voters—I just don’t think it’s going to do anything for you or your cause. You’re Dad these days. A dad who is watching his teenage daughter slide into a shiny red sports car with a boy named Trouble. He is bold, brash, thuggish and—to a lot of voters—fun. Or at least different. As generations of parents have learned from hard experience, the more you speak out against bad boys the more alluring they appear and the more you seem a page from ancient history.
Focus on the job you have, Mr. President, not the man or woman who will have it next. Do what good you can in the five months left to you. Pardon some more prisoners. Lift some sanctions. Enjoy whatever White House galas are on the schedule. Pick an obscure foreign policy topic and bore in on it. Maybe the people of Moldova can benefit from the scrutiny you bring to bear on U.S.-Moldovan relations. At this point in the campaign cycle, you can probably have more effect on them than on American voters.
Stay cool, Mr. President. Don’t give in to indignation that a man you regard as a moral idiot may win the White House. Now is not the time to lose the detachment you are known for. Pull your punches. Less is more. An occasional jibe here and there at the Donald can be effective, the snarky remark that comes out of nowhere and packs a wallop, the witticism delivered with a deadpan face. But resist the temptation to get too involved. It’s not about you, however much you want to be an influence. It’s entirely possible the voters will make a monumental mistake. They may in a fit of recklessness decide to entrust their future to a man almost uniquely unqualified. It’s also possible they’ll see sense. Either way, it’s their moment. You’re history.