Speak Up, Mr. Ex-President

Speak Up, Mr. Ex-President or forever will hold your peace.

In my opinion, Obama was the embodiment of intelligence and professionalism as president. Many have expressed displeasure toward those supporters who see reason to criticize him for not putting on his cape, ignoring tradition, and wading into the current political mess swirling around Trump and congress.

The point of this commentary isn’t whether I liked Obama or not – and certainly not whether you did. (I listened to 8 years of mostly nonsense about why many of you hated Obama.) It’s about the disagreement of what a respected opinion should do in the face of strange and exotic circumstances, despite tradition.

I’ve seen some complicated verbal slap fights on social media, with some bellowing that others “shouldn’t” judge Obama for staying out of the fray. I agree with the spirit of those arguments. It’s Obama’s life to do exactly as he sees fit, especially since part of the gentleman’s agreement with ex-presidents is that they refrain from immersion in politics following their terms. There are benefits to our republic from doing so. But…

The truth, though, is that an ex-president never really has complete autonomy after serving: his life becomes entwined with the persona and duties of a figurehead. It’s part of the reason we provide immediate retirement benefits to our presidents. Traditions that served us well sometimes still continue to serve us, while others, including the expectations of diminished public interaction following a term, do not. Your voice is most useful when you’ve got the most to say.

Even though I agree that it is his life to do as he sees fit and that there are benefits to an ex-president giving a grace period to his voice in society, I strongly disagree that Obama is doing us any favors by being mostly silent on current events. If you have a respected voice and intimate working knowledge of the government, this is a skill that has real value on a day-to-day basis. Obama was president for 8 years and strictly speaking, knows more about the job that any other living person. His words – and silence – carry weight.

Obama does tweet, but carefully avoids public displays of criticism. His silence about current events is a disservice to us. If he sees that things are being done which violate the principles of the office of the presidency, he should confidently explain to us why. If he feels that the current president is wrongly stepping into affairs, he should say so. It is everyone’s choice to either heed his voice or ignore it. He has the right to use his pulpit in the manner he sees fit. His ability to exercise his right should be no more diminished than any other private citizen. He should wield his voice precisely because it is his to yield.

Trump placed dynamite on the old political establishment. Regardless of his term of office, Trump has voided many of the previous expectations of the presidency. If Obama is concerned, he needs to voice those concerns. Playing the game under an out-dated set of rules doesn’t help anyone.

It’s easy to believe that our republic will withstand the onslaught recently brought to it, in part because so far, it has done so. We compare Trump to Nixon, as if Nixon had so violently turned politics on its head. This is a foolish argument, given that Trump’s rise was considered a laughable impossibility until recently. Trump usurped both the GOP and Christians evangelicals, rejecting the traditional path and behaviors of both. The form that the presidency will take after Trump is seriously in question. Democrats quibble over who the party leader should be while their most respected voice sits mostly in silence, surrounded by incredulous people eagerly waiting to pass him the ball.

If Obama ever had a cape, he needs to fling it capriciously around his shoulders and start using his voice in the wilderness. His power rests in his skill as a trusted voice. Regardless of history, when people see silence in the wake of DJ Trump, it tends to dishearten those waiting for someone of stature to join them in condemnation of what Trump is doing to the country and to our collective intelligence.

We don’t need a grace period of silence in this country. We need Obama to put on his cape and grab the microphone now, as events unfold. Waiting until something has broken is a violation of our trust. I don’t want to know Obama’s opinion on smaller events if he isn’t going to share his experience, ideas and opinions on those things most on our mind as progressives. It’s his right to do exactly what he pleases. But if our places were switched, I would use each minute of my day to shout to all those people like me.

All of us collectively look at Trump and know that we are seeing something different, with wildly new unspoken rules. We need to stop thinking of these changes as temporary. We need new ways of keeping our country on course. Silence, even from ex-presidents with well-deserved vacation time in their pockets, is worse than nothing. Thanks, and my apologies for any poorly-executed explanations.

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