The election had been bitter, and the outgoing President was miffed at the victor’s arrogant promise that he would bring a political revolution to Washington, DC. He had no energy left for civility.
In fact, the nation’s second President, John Adams, even skipped Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 inauguration, leaving him only, in the words of historian Joyce Appleby, “a curt note informing him that there were seven horses and two carriages in the White House stables.”
The tone of the inauguration day letter from outgoing President Barack Obama to President-elect Donald J. Trump, released Sunday, belongs to a different tradition, the modern presidential ritual of leaving private notes behind in the Oval Office desk as a parting gesture to its next occupant. Beginning with a short note from Ronald Reagan to George H. W. Bush in 1989, a Reaganesque “Don’t let the turkeys get you down,” the gesture became a tradition when George H. W. Bush, an enthusiastic letter writer, penned his “Dear Bill” note for Clinton in 1993. Despite the pain of his own crushing defeat, President Bush ended his letter with the gracious “I am rooting hard for you.” The theme of President Bush’s letter was that since we have only one President at a time, we want that individual to succeed.
While reflective of this tradition, Obama’s “Dear Mr. President” letter is a departure from the billet doux of his recent predecessors — truly unusual in the sweep of recent history. And yet it is not surprising, since it was written to someone who proudly declared himself as outside the modern presidential tradition.
The note is civil rather than colloquial, aspirational rather than inspirational. While longer, and characteristic of different aspects of the man (President Obama, Professor Obama and the private Barack Obama), the letter is also very much a product of the tumult of the 2016 election. At the risk of reading too much into a note, it appears to reflect not only careful crafting but also significant concern about the possible implications of a Trump presidency.
Speaking historically, it seems inconceivable that any previous modern President would have felt the need, as President Obama did, to remind his successor of his role as caretaker of our democratic institutions and of the importance of the rule of law. And yet, having seen candidate Trump’s repeated stirring of anti-constitutional passions — his attacks on Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel, his vow to “lock up” his opponent, his avowed skepticism of the First Amendment — Obama must have had one eye on history and the other on Trump when implicitly warning him of where these dark forces might lead.
From Reagan through Obama, five Presidents from both major parties shared a commitment to more open markets and borders and, to a varying extent, cultural exchange. Trump, who campaigned hard against so-called globalism, is the first Oval Office occupant since 1989 not to share this basic understanding of America’s role in the world. Candidate Trump vowed to turn the clock back to the petty, disastrous isolationism of the America First movement of the 1930s. Obama’s letter, by implication, asked President Trump to think twice before doing it.
In spite of these soft warnings, President Obama kept the letter nonpartisan, avoiding any mention of specific policy issues — the right to affordable health care, the significance of climate change or the importance of not turning our backs on the Dreamers. In a curious turn of phrase, however, he flattered President Trump by linking both men’s rise to the top of the American pyramid, saying “we’ve both been blessed, in different ways, with great good fortune.” This was a segue to Obama’s bigger point that since most Americans do not start life on third base, it was important for President Trump to “build more ladders of success” for hardworking people who were not as fortunate as both recent Presidents have been.
So, what did this unorthodox President think of what Obama had to say? Shortly after his Inauguration, Trump shared with the public not only that he had received a “beautiful” letter from Obama but that he would “cherish” it.
At the time we did not know what was in it. Now that we do, it is easy to conclude that Trump has an odd way of showing that he cherishes something. Although we are years away from a deep historical understanding of the inner workings of the Trump administration, let alone of the presidential mind, there is substantial evidence that this President hasn’t taken any of his predecessor’s observations to heart. To name just a few examples, these would be Trump’s attack on the judiciary after the failure of his initial travel ban, the way he fired FBI Director James Comey, his dithering over US treaty obligations to NATO, his repeated rhetorical attacks on long-standing US allies (let alone his withdrawal from the Paris accord), and, above all, his revealing and distressing comments after Charlottesville.
And Trump’s rejection of the spirit of Obama’s letter does not seem to be just a matter of philosophy or politics, it seems personal. In its last sentence, the letter included a gracious offer, similar to the outstretched hand that recent Presidents have traditionally offered to their successors. “Michelle and I wish you and Melania the very best as you embark on this great adventure,” wrote the former President in January 2017, “and know that we stand ready to help in any ways which we can.” Less than two months later, Trump tweeted that Obama was a “Bad (or sick) guy.”