President Obama is grappling with the difficult question of how to handle his successor, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGerman government denies receiving NATO invoice from Trump Breitbart denied congressional press passes: report Conservatism's worst enemy? The Freedom Caucus. MORE, after he leaves office in January.
Obama has frequently lauded former President George W. Bush for moving off the political stage to give him space to govern, a courtesy he says he wants to extend to Trump.
Obama has pledged a smooth transition of power, and in the process has made several friendly overtures to his onetime political nemesis.
He told reporters last Sunday in Peru that despite their differences, Trump deserves the same chance he had to lead without his predecessor “popping off."
But during the same news conference, he suggested there might be a breaking point for his vow of silence.
“As an American citizen who cares deeply about our country, if there are issues that have less to do with the specifics of some legislative proposal or battle, but go to core questions about our values and our ideals, and if I think that it's necessary or helpful for me to defend those ideals, then I'll examine it when it comes,” Obama said.
Trump, for his part, has suggested he hit it off with Obama during a White House meeting two days after his election. The two men had previously not met.
The president-elect gushed to The New York Times this week about how Obama “said very nice things” about him after their Oval Office meeting.
“I hope that we will have a great long-term relationship,” Trump said of Obama. “I really liked him a lot and I’m a little bit surprised I’m telling you that I really liked him a lot.”
During the campaign, Obama repeatedly blasted Trump’s plans to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., repeal Obama's healthcare law and deport millions of undocumented immigrants, including those brought here as children.
Many Democrats are clamoring for Obama to speak out if the incoming president follows through on those pledges.
“I understand the impulse to give your successor room to govern, but we're not talking about policy changes. We're talking about fundamental changes to the republic,” said Hari Sevugan, who served as a spokesman for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and for the Democratic National Committee.
“Barack ObamaBarack ObamaCoal executive: Trump 'can't bring mining jobs back' Nunes was on WH grounds day before announcing Trump surveillance info Graham: Left is 'going insane' after Trump's win MORE is a voice for integrity, decency and the best of America,” he added. “We need his voice now more than ever.”
There are signs Obama could be an effective anti-Trump messenger in 2017 and beyond.
He’s leaving office as a popular figure: His approval rating has reached a seven-year high of 59 percent, according to a new CNN/ORC poll. The same does not hold true for the Democratic Party, which only 39 percent of Americans view favorably.
Democrats see Obama as one of the only people who can still unite what has become a fractured party.
“There is a vacuum right now. Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonCheney: Russian election interference could be ‘act of war’ Conservatism's worst enemy? The Freedom Caucus. The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE is moving off the stage and there isn’t time for someone else to step on and take over,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.
But Trump opponents might not get their wish.
The president did not say exactly what would trigger him to speak out, although he did sketch out a basic scenario.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest indicated Tuesday it is in part contingent on whether Trump obeys the “basic tenets and principles of American democracy,” including freedom of speech and religion.
But Earnest stressed that Obama’s “preference” isn’t to spend the bulk of his time disparaging his successor, saying the “institution of the presidency is not well served” when that occurs.
There are risks if Obama eventually decides to play Trump’s foil.
It would break with the decadeslong tradition of relative political silence for ex-presidents, a move that could damage his legacy and reputation.
“No ex-president has directly and publicly criticized a president in a sustained way since [Herbert] Hoover,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a presidential historian at the University of Houston.
“If he does it in a way that’s in a partisan fashion, his outgoing approval rating would fall,” he added. “If he gets into the dirty, day-to-day critique of Trump’s policies, it makes it look like sour grapes.”
Obama has sought to influence Trump in multiple private conversations since Election Day.
He recently mused that Trump is coming into office with “fewer set hard-and-fast policy prescriptions than a lot of other presidents,” suggesting that he could play a role in shaping the president-elect’s priorities.
The approach has appeared to pay dividends, as the Republican has softened his pledges to roll back ObamaCare and the Paris climate accord.
But Obama could lose Trump’s ear if he speaks out against him.
Beyond countering Trump, Obama must decide how deeply to involve himself in the Democrats’ painful task of rebuilding.
The president has said Clinton’s loss is pushing him to intervene.
“Now I have some responsibility to at least offer my counsel to those who will continue to be elected officials about how the [Democratic National Committee] can help rebuild, how state parties and progressive organizations can work together,” he told The New Yorker’s David Remnick.
While Obama remains highly popular with Democrats, he’s not infallible.
Some on the left have chafed at Obama allies’ effort to challenge Rep. Keith Ellison’s (D-Minn.) bid to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee, according to The New York Times.
Democrats are also eager to develop a new, overarching economic message, a task they say is best left to those currently in office.
“People respect [Obama], but they were unhappy with the state of the economy that he left them,” Bannon, the Democratic strategist, said. “In shaping an economic message, you have to do something that is independent of him.”