One of my favorite presidential traditions is how each president leaves a personal letter to their successor on the Resolute Desk on Inauguration Day. It punctuates the peaceful transfer of power, which is one of the most remarkable and precious rituals in our constitutional republic.
So, I was excited this weekend when CNN obtained a copy of the letter President Obama left for President Trump. While I have varying disagreements with all of our former Presidents, each letter is full of kindness, humility, and a fraternity of having led the same great nation.
Every transition letter, without question, swells me with patriotism. Every letter, that is, until I read Obama’s sermon to Trump. In the document, the former president comes off as lecturing and hypocritical.
Before jumping into his letter, it’s worth reviewing how former presidents have composed such correspondence. You can find all of them since 1993 here.
They are always brief. Usually no more than would fit in a greeting card. There is a congratulations, an acknowledgement of the weight of the office, a short piece of personal advice, and a promise of support and prayer. The letters never touch on politics.
“There will be trying moments. The critics will rage. Your “friends” will disappoint you. But, you will have an Almighty God to comfort you, a family who loves you, and a country that is pulling for you, including me,” George W. Bush wrote to Obama in 2009.
“You lead a proud, decent, and good people…I salute you and wish you success and much happiness. The burdens you now shoulder are great but often exaggerated. The sheer joy of doing what you believe is right is inexpressible. My prayers are with you and your family. Godspeed,” Bill Clinton wrote to George W. Bush in 2001.
Of course, George H. W. Bush, the last man to hold the office who came from a time when letter writing was an essential skill, composed the greatest note of all.
“There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well,” Bush wrote to Clinton, who had just defeated the incumbent two months before.
Obama’s letter, despite being much longer than any before, struggles to achieve the dignity, class, and kindness of his predecessors. Obama never wishes Trump the unqualified success his predecessors expressed to each other. He simply wishes Trump an “expanded prosperity and security during your tenure” – an implicit characterization of Obama’s own administration.
Where Obama truly goes off the rails, however, is when he turns his attention to “a few reflections” from his two terms in office. What follows is an unprecedented comment on policy in a presidential transition letter.
On foreign policy, Obama lectures, “It is up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend.”
This, from the most dovish President since World War II. In his timidity, we watched a “reset” devolve into Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, the normalization of the use of chemical weapons for the first time in a century, the validation of Iran’s nuclear program, and the rise of ISIS.
As for the President’s domestic duties, Obama has much more to say:
“Third, we are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic inquisitions and traditions – like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties – that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it’s up to us to leave those instrument f our democracy at least as strong as we found them.”
One can hardly fathom the utter hypocrisy of Barack “Pen and Phone” Obama, who weaponized the administrative state to such an extent that people turned to a man like Donald Trump to save them. This is the man who declared “empathy” as his judicial philosophy, granted Obamacare waivers on a whim, dispersed billions of tax dollars to left wing organizations, unilaterally re-wrote immigration law after he declared he didn’t have such authority without Congress, forced nuns to pay for contraception, secretly monitored the press, and seemingly picked which laws he wanted to enforce.
President Obama should’ve steered clear from policy in his letter to President Trump. Not just because of his stunning hypocrisy which sheds light on his failures as President, but because it politicizes a tradition that should exemplify unity. To quote the late great show West Wing, “The things that unite us are far greater than those that divide us.”
“Michelle and I wish you and Melania the very best as you embark on this great adventure, and know that we stand ready to help in any ways which we can. Good luck and Godspeed,” President Obama concludes.
These sentiments are nice. There’s nothing so unequivocal as Bush 41’s “Your success is our success,” or references to the “proud, decent, good people” Clinton mentioned to Bush 43. Unlike former letters, Obama includes no prayer, nor does he ever allude to the great country he and Trump both serve.
I read Obama’s letter with the sincerest hope that it would continue a wonderful legacy among Presidents of both parties. Instead, he penned a politicized lecture which only serves to highlight the hypocrisy and condescension of it’s author.
I’ve considered the possibility that perhaps I am letting my dislike for Obama’s presidency taint my reading of his letter. One should certainly remember that he was writing this letter to Trump, an amateur who won the presidency despite (or because of?) his penchant for vulgarity aimed at Obama and others.
There have always been reasons for incumbents to harbor grudges or feel anxiety toward their successor. None of them, however, have let such reasons keep them from offering exceptional words of respect, kindness, and encouragement. I wish Obama could’ve found it in himself to live up to that legacy.