Why President Obama is wrong to denounce Donald Trump

President Barack Obama speak to reporters during a joint news conference with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 2 (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta).

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.

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Lisa Weber
2 years 7 months ago
President Obama is not history yet. Some evils are so apparent and so dangerous that a person has to speak out regardless of whether it is seen as partisan or petty. The possibility of Donald Trump ending up in the White House is an evil worthy of comment.
ed gleason
2 years 7 months ago
When Eisenhower was asked what notable thing that VP Nixon ever did in eight years he said 'give me a week to think it over'; That was from our most non- partisan president?
Carrie Solheim
2 years 7 months ago
Where is the Catholicism in this piece? It reads as much more suited for a secular political news outlet. President Obama is not "history" he is the President of the United States. He is still our President, and will be until January of next year. He is right to speak about the dangers of a Trump presidency. Many top Republicans have denounced Trump, including Mitt Romney and John McCain. The fact that President Obama would risk his reputation among the vast majority of Americans who believe that appearances and reputations are more important than the safety of our nation shows great courage.
William Rydberg
2 years 7 months ago
I am just a Canadian. But it seems to me that what is up for Election is an Executive Position that has virtually no Immediate Constitutional or Legislative limitations and is without Peer since the foundation of the World. So, it's not something that anybody ought to be indifferent to. So, Mr President Obama, you know the virtually limitless power, have your say. In fact, all Americans, have your say. Though as a Canadian, I got to say that it might be prudent in future to look at the Political Processes to ensure limits. Too late for this election. I am keenly aware that the next American President will be our de-facto Global President. This is why I pray for all people running and voting without prejudice. This is the duty of all Catholic according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to pray for our political leaders. The Jesuit Fathers who run this magazine in my opinion ought to make this clear. Just my opinion, in Christ,
Michael Calder
2 years 7 months ago
There are only 5 people on Earth who understand the gravity and the immense responsibility that comes with the job of President of the United States: President Obama, President George W Bush, President Bill Clinton, President George HW Bush, and President Jimmy Carter. None of them support Donald Trump. That says quite a bit. It is every American's duty to speak up and voice his/her opinion and the more prominent the speaker, the more clear the message becomes. I support President Obama's remarks.
Christopher Dake
2 years 7 months ago
Every living president has denounced Trump. Obama has not, nor will not, stop being a citizen. I don't ever want a leader who doesn't feel passion for the country and advocates for good, and denounces bad.
Emmett Burke
2 years 7 months ago
Obama, just as each of us, has a responsibility to speak out against Trump and other evils. Being President does not give him a dispensation from speaking out, as a matter of fact it increases his responsibility. He should not have to confess that speaking out was something that he failed to do.
Vincent Gaglione
2 years 7 months ago
I had just completed watching a video on the NY Times website about the unfiltered comments of Trump supporters at his rallies when I read this piece. TIm Reidy, if he hasn't seen it, should. In the current Presidential campaign I have not seen any evidence of any moral LEADERSHIP by any major figures except those hundreds of Evangelical ministers who gathered with Trump in New York City to commit themselves to him. Their morals, to my mind, are dubious indeed! Trump described as "disgraceful" remarks by Pope Francis regarding building walls. No major Catholic figure in the United States spoke publicly, loudly, and clearly to denounce Trump's characterization of the Pontiff. Perhaps that's why 48% of Catholics say they support Trump. With the exception of NY Times columnist, David Brooks, who called Trump a "moral pygmy" on Face the Nation, I haven't heard too many people speak emphatically to Trump's character. Most dance around the reality. All of which is why I have no problem with the President telling it like it is. Especially after hearing some Trump supporters, in response to Trump's comments about Obama's poor job as President, say "F--k the n----r," I think that we need someone with some moral courage to speak the truth.
Bienvenido Jongco
2 years 7 months ago
Omission is just as grave a sin as commission. Keeping quiet in the face of devastating consequences is condoning the bad.
Gabriel Marcella
2 years 7 months ago
The president has a number of roles in our democracy: 1. Leader of the United States 2. Commander-in-chief of the armed forces 3. Chief diplomat 4. Leader of the party. President Obama's criticism of a presidential candidate, well deserved in this case, is a foray into partisan national politics that he should have avoided. It diminishes the dignity of the office. He took time to enter contentious domestic politics while sharing the venue with a foreign dignitary, the Singaporean Prime Minister. Foreigners indulge our foibles us because they have no choice. It's notable that Ms. Patterson's wise commentary does not mention the Prime Minister, except under Obama's picture. Our democracy can't survive without civility in politics.
Tom Maher
2 years 7 months ago
President Obama's presumptuousness in grandly declaring opposition Presidential candidate Donald Trump "unfit for office" for the office of President was immediately recognized for the arrogance and self-delusional of President Obama's judgement. Obama statement shouts President Obama knows better than the 14 million Republican Primary voter majority that overwhelmingly made Trump the Republican nominee for President. Obama shows himself to be yet another elitist who by any and all pretexts wants arbitrarily by declaration to disqualify Trump so as not to allow Trump to debate national issues and compete in a democratic process for the Presidency where the voters are quite able to decide who they want for President. As Trump has repeatedly demonstrated for over a year and a half, he is very able to debates and win voter support which is why Trump is the Republican nominee for President. President Obama fails to show respect for the tens of millions of voters who have and will continue to support Donald Trump for President and thereby unnecessarily divides and embitters the country and crudely lower the conduct of the campaign to base ad hominin attacks on the nominee's person. Donald Trump has been chosen by tens of millions of people to represents their views. Free Speech and fair play demand that the views of the tens of millions that have elected Donald Trump be expressed by Donald Trump and they will vote for Donald Trump to be President. For over a years insider power brokers have unsuccessfully attempted to usurp the democratic process controlled by the voters in favor of the say-so of insider power brokers and party hacks and have Trump somehow arbitrarily declared unqualified to run for President as President Obama would like to do. But President Obama's highly partisan and self-serving opinions do not replace voter participation in the Presidential campaign process where no debates or votes have yet taken place. And who is President Obama to sit in judgement as to who is fit for office? This is the decision for the voter to make based on detailed debate of issues not the declarations of insider elitist with self-serving biases against Trump. Trump of course has across the board opposed Obama "legacy" policies and wants them revised and/or replaced. And since when does an outgoing President with less than six months left declare his potential replacement to be unfit? As many in the opposition party noted President Obama actual policies and results in office are overwhelming questioned by super-majorities of American voters. Polls for years have indicated that more than two-thirds of Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track. What has not happened so far in this election is the full and wide-open debate of national issues including President Obama's legacy policies and urgency needed reforms of security, economic, political and social issues neglected by over seven years of the Obama administration. With full discussion and debate the real issues facing the country can be decided by the voters in the November elections. President Obama fails to show the proper respect for the democratic process and institution of American Presidential election campaign and voting which the voters are quite able to decide without the President's unnecessary, petty and demeaning use of his office to make very heavy handeded political attacks on opposition candidates.
Vince Killoran
2 years 7 months ago
I'm not a Trump supporter (in fact, I've never voted for a Republican candidate). Still, President Obama is setting dangerous precedent with his comments on the GOP candidate. This is not really about "moral courage"--I mean, just about everybody has denounced Trump. The President hasn't put himself at any personal risk here.
2 years 7 months ago
Today is the day the church calendar commemorates the Basilica of St Mary Major, the largest church in the world honoring Mary. Built in the 4th century it reminds us that divisions existed in our church hisrory. Bishop Nestorius, the Patriarch of the See of Constantinople for all of 3 years, denied the theology of Mary as Mother of God, Theotokos. Not surprisingly at the time, the people of Constantinople were up in arms about the teaching of Bp. Nestorius. Today it is known as Nestorianism. His successor was Patriarch Maximianos who denounced Nestorius, as did the Council of Ephesus during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II. Yet Nestorius and his followers waged a war with their heresy until he died a failure and with no support, in large part because of St Cyril of Alexandria. . Where is the defense of God in our public square? Where are our Bishops teaching in the plazas or their dioceses? Where are the laity evangelizing Christ considering Vatican II empowered us? . Instead we have Liberal vs Consevative, Progressive vs Traditional, Right vs Left....all Western paradigms that matter only to First World nations. , We should all be ashamed as Catholic Bishops, Priests and Laity for allowing EVERY SINGLE TOPIC being framed in terms of these bankrupt paradigms. Yet here we are on a Jesuit online website where comments center on these labels that are no where found in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Christ is neither Left nor Right, as surprising as that might be to those two camps. . Where are the modern day St Francis of Assisi, St Teresa de Avila, St Therese of the Little Flower or St Cyril of Alexandria? . Pope Francis reminds us daily that we are all called to a radical inner transformation. . It is not too late to start your journey back to our God of Mercy and show others the same God of Mercy. AMDG
Stuart Bintner
2 years 7 months ago
It seems to me that it would be morally wrong not to speak out against a potential leader as ethically bankrupt as Donald Trump. We are not talking about the garden variety of political buffoonery here.
Robert Killoren
2 years 7 months ago
I respectfully and totally disagree. I believe the president is morally bound to speak out regularly and vociferously against Mr. Trump. Not because he is in a different political party but because he has a moral obligation to fight against his bigotry, his denigration of women, minorities, Muslims, and anyone who questions him. As Pope Francis has said we need leaders who will build bridges not erect walls between peoples. In a little more than 5 months from now, President Obama can stop being the voice of the people but while he is still president he has to do what he can to protect the Constitution and U.S. citizens, particularly the marginalized. The last time I felt this way was when Senator Goldwater was running for president in 1964. I am an Independent and don't have an ideology to promote. I just think Mr. Trump is a threat and totally unqualified to be President.
Ralph Hill
2 years 7 months ago
I expect the President to fully campaign for Mrs Clinton. That's what politicians do! He has a big stake in this election in preserving his legacy and potentially flipping one or both houses of the congress. He'd be a fool to stand back and let that opportunity slip away. In fact, I'd say he OWES it to those of us who voted for him. IMHO, He's been too reticent as president. Now is his time to bear down and "run through the tape," to borrow a sprinting metaphor. I say, "Give Trump and the rest of the Republican Party everything you've got, Mr. President. Give 'em everything you've got!"
J Cosgrove
2 years 7 months ago
I find it extremely ironic that Obama is complaining about Trump when it is he alone who is responsible for such a buffoon rising up and representing the Republicans. Trump, a New York liberal Democrat, was able to win the Republican nomination because of his push back against Obama and his policies, especially the porous Southern borders and Muslim acceptance. My guess is that if he had run in the Democratic primary he might have done just as well because he could have been more natural there with his pro abortion and big government leanings. But why Trump specifically. There Obama had help. Two people are primary responsible for pushing Trump, Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh. I believe Limbaugh is horrified now but will not admit it since he has such a large audience he does not want to lose. Limbaugh has spent the last 6 years berating Republicans for the lack of courage in defying Obama. When Trump began his Obama bashing, he was ecstatic. I am sure Limbaugh wishes he could take back the pushing of Trump but the genie is loose. Drudge is not as political as Limbaugh but has an even larger audience and continued to steer coverage of the primaries Trump's way to the end. He is still doing it as best he can even though at the moment, Trump seems to be imploding. Drudge can influence opinion by linking to stories that support his proclivities. As an example, currently he is down on the Rio Olympics and on Saturday morning has several negative stories on it. But back to Obama. His outrageous governing style and policies infuriated a large percentage of the electorate and they voted overwhelming Republican in the two off year elections. This ensured large Republican majorities all across the country at the local level and in the House of Representatives and a majority in the Senate. But the result of this was not the push back hoped for by the Republicans and thus, the commonly heard phrase, "the establishment." A sizable minority of the population was ready to get rid of this establishment and a political game became who were these people. Two identifiable ones were John Boehner and Mitch McConnell but two people are hardly an establishment. With an extremely fractured primary field, Trump was able to rise to the top as non Trump voters began to realize that he would win and was the best hope for a viable candidate especially since the alternative was Ted Cruz. So we have Trump, a non Republican representing Republicans as one of the two major candidates. People can rightly complain about Trump but let's not distort what led to his rise. It was Obama's policies that seemed to be destabilizing the country. Populist candidates, especially a reality TV star like Trump, will always be with us as entrenched politicians use the money of government to enrich both themselves and increase their power. Verbal skills are valued by those who feel screwed by the system (rightly or wrongly but it is perceptions that matter.) Look to the popularity of Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich amongst many Republicans (both became potential presidential candidates) because they are very articulate and can express outrage against the Democrats and Unions better than most. The question is, will it get better? I personally doubt it and a lot of people are asking are we seeing the beginning of the end game for the country or just an interim phase before more stability. The reason I personally doubt it is because there is no culture for the country any more. It is a fragmentation of mini cultures with no overriding culture. Such an environment is unstable.
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 7 months ago
I like your letter to the President, Tim. Especially the line about pardoning some more prisoners, lifting some sanctions. Yes, this seems to be the time for Obama to dare to say out loud what he really believes, what he has learned from his years. I still can't get into focus what is happening during this election. Seems like the superficial saga is really just a hint at what is happening to our whole culture at a deeper level. Something that we couldn't quite see before. I'm not sure that the presidential election is the whole story, or just a symptom of something else that I can't quite name. Something from the unconscious that is scary. I think we need the help of artists (and mystics).
Stephen McCluskey
2 years 7 months ago
The President is not a constitutional monarch who remains above politics. He is, among other things, a political leader. Harry Truman said it well: "I never did give them hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell." President Obama has been, if anything, too reluctant to tell the truth for fear of offending his opponents.


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