Obama, accepting a Profile in Courage award at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, gave a half-hour speech in which he discussed broad ideas about leadership and the role of public servants in American politics. Then he got a lot more specific, attacking congressional Republicans and their proposed health care bill, the American Health Care Act.
“It is my fervent hope … that today's members of Congress are willing to look at the facts and speak the truth, even when it bucks party dogmas,” Obama said. “I hope that current members of Congress recognize it takes little courage to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential, but it takes great courage to champion the vulnerable and the sick and the infirm.”
Those aren't the words of an ex-president who's trying to stay out of the political fray. In fact, calling the political opposition cowards for their votes is about as public a call-out as an ex-president can utter.
Notably absent from Obama's speech? Trump. Perhaps Obama is trying to stick to the model followed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, who subjected him to almost no direct criticism. But maybe Obama also knows that he doesn't need to mention Trump's name to get his point across. Repealing and replacing Obamacare was one of Trump's core campaign promises and a direct assault on Obama's legacy. He can stay on the high road by not assailing Trump directly but still be free to throw his political weight around by arguing against Trumpism.
It's traditional for ex-presidents to stay out of the political fray. Bush, when Obama was set to take office, explained it succinctly, saying Obama “deserves my silence” and the chance to enact an agenda without running commentary from predecessors.
But Obama seems to feel that times have changed and that the old norms have been thrown out the window. Does Trump “deserve” Obama's silence?
Obama clearly doesn't think so.