This all comes at a time when President Trump’s approval is at a historical low point at this juncture in a president’s term. It’s impossible not to view past presidents in light of the current Oval Office inhabitant. “Well, at least Bush hired good people, read books and didn’t peddle in ludicrous conspiracy theories,” Democrats can acknowledge. “Obama never attacked his own intelligence community and understood his own health-care bill,” Republicans can acknowledge. “He wasn’t an obnoxious, know-nothing bully.” It’s fair to conclude that intellectually, temperamentally and ethically, Trump is a far worse president than either Bush or Obama. How can the latter two not look better in hindsight?
That said, part of our affection for past presidents relates to the tribalism that infects the current political scene. It’s become a “them or us” political world, most especially for Trump cultists who cannot process any facts at odds with the Trump party line nor reject any daft rumor if it helps discredit their opponents. Tribalism — the intense identification with one party or another that matters more than ideology, policy or personality — has turned politics from problem-solving to an endeavor in self-expression or psychotherapy. With regard to ex-presidents, however, they no longer threaten the tribe of either party; they become in retirement (sadly, only then) the presidents of all Americans. Their errors are not forgotten, but the venom is gone, as is the need to savage the other guy’s leader.
We are left to contemplate two aspects of ex-presidents’ tenures. First, they hold a unique unifying role that exceeds the current political players. They cannot and should not weigh in on every policy debate, but they have a special role when it comes to defending our institutions. At meaningful moments, a unified statement from ex-presidents can be powerful, particularly because they comment so rarely. Should, for example, Trump arrange to fire special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III, a joint statement from ex-presidents could be a powerful inducement for members of Congress and the public to defend democratic norms. Second, the hyperactive 24/7 news environment — which five minutes away from Twitter leaves one feeling as if they’ve fallen hopelessly behind the news — deprives us of perspective and nuance. We all suffer from the impulse to infuse every presidential decision with grave importance and to render a verdict on presidents moment by moment.
Ex-presidents remind us that their tenure can be assessed only over time — and graded on a curve. In that regard, every president (even James Buchanan) owes Trump a debt of gratitude. We’d take just about any one of Trump’s 44 predecessors around now.