For four years of the Trump administration, Americans suffered through a dangerous, aberrational and thoroughly unfit president. And for nearly two years since the 2020 election, they have suffered through the antics of a dangerous, aberrational and thoroughly unfit former president who never accepted that he lost and doesn’t seem to understand he remains subject to the same laws the rest of the country lives under.
The Obamas’ return to the White House on Wednesday for the unveiling of their official portraits was a welcome change of pace. The country benefited not only from the camaraderie, good humor, graciousness and elegance they displayed, but also from a reminder that the act of leaving the presidency (thereby resuming one’s place among fellow citizens and supporting the accession of their successor to power) is an important and vital part of democracy.
Former first lady Michelle Obama put it most eloquently when she explained: “We hold an inauguration to ensure a peaceful transition of power. Those of us lucky enough to serve work … as hard as we can for as long as we can, as long as the people choose to keep us here. And once our time is up, we move on.” She added, “And all that remains in this hallowed place are our good efforts. And these portraits.”
And as former president Barack Obama put it, “You take the baton from someone, you run your leg as hard and as well as you can, and then you hand it off to someone else, knowing that your work will be incomplete.” That is the essence of democracy: recognizing that the officeholder’s tenure is temporary but the institution continues.
That is how it is supposed to work. In highlighting that salient fact, the Obamas demonstrated just how deeply destructive and wrong the actions of former president Donald Trump have been. He did not leave peacefully but instead cultivated — and continues to cultivate — a deep sense of anger and even incited violence. It would be nice to “fire” someone from the role of former president, but unfortunately there is no such mechanism (aside from perhaps indicting, convicting and disqualifying that person from future office).
Before Trump, we were blessed with five former presidents (Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter) who all understood their role in the ongoing effort to sustain our democracy. Their humility and decisions to retreat from the politics of the day — opting instead for the occasional joint philanthropic effort, participation in commemorative occasions that reinforce a sense of national unity and the attendance at inaugurations — underscore the peaceful transfer of power. Occasionally, they stood up in times of national crisis to reemphasize our commitment to democracy, as they did following the January 2021 attack on the Capitol. As George W. Bush put it then: “It is a sickening and heartbreaking sight. This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic.”
Just as it was beyond Trump’s capacity to adhere to his oath or respect our democratic institutions and norms, it is too much to expect him to act like a normal, law-abiding, patriotic ex-president. That makes it all the more important for former first families to remind us what normal, appropriate behavior for former presidents looks like. Who guessed that would be such a vital contribution to democracy?