For Obama, partisanship doesn't stop at the water's edge
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There was a time when it was considered bad form for an American president to go overseas, stand on a foreign stage and publicly bash political opponents back home.

The old axiom, "Partisanship ends at the water's edge," was obeyed as if it were a law.

No more. For proof, one need look no farther than President Obama's recent trip to Vietnam and Japan, where on Thursday he took to the podium in Ise City, Japan and fired away at Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWhat blue wave? A close look at Texas today tells of a different story Democrats go down to the wire with Manchin Trump's former bodyguard investigated in NY prosectors' probe: report MORE, the apparent Republican presidential nominee.


To be fair, Obama didn't blithely take on Trump without prodding. He was asked by an American reporter to comment on conversations he had with foreign leaders on the volatile U.S. elections. The president could have begged off and said the conversations were private, but instead he unleashed an anti-Trump fusillade.

"I think it's fair to say that they are surprised by the Republican nominee," Obama said. "They are not sure how seriously to take some of his pronouncements. But they're rattled by him — and for good reason — because a lot of the proposals that he's made display either ignorance of world affairs, or a cavalier attitude, or an interest in getting tweets and headlines instead of actually thinking through what it is that is required to keep America safe and secure and prosperous, and what's required to keep the world on an even keel."

It is not likely that Obama was surprised by the question. His skilled message handlers leave little to chance. They probably anticipated an election-related query and went over with him how he should respond, right down to using the verb "rattled," which made headlines everywhere.

"Obama Says World Leaders 'Rattled' by Donald Trump," said a headline in last Friday's New York Times.

Turning to a question on the ongoing bruising Democratic primary fistfight between Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: The center strikes back Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population Overnight Health Care: Medicaid enrollment reaches new high | White House gives allocation plan for 55M doses | Schumer backs dental, vision, hearing in Medicare Schumer backing plan to add dental, vision and hearing coverage to Medicare MORE (Vt.), a less-agitated Obama tried to soft-peddle the rancor and assume the role of conciliator.

"It's been my view to let this play out, let voters make up their minds. And during primaries, people get a little grumpy with each other. It's just the nature of the process," he said. "They are both good people."

And then, standing an ocean away in Japan, he went on to make a partisan Democratic pitch to the voters back home:

"Both Hillary and Bernie believe that every American should have healthcare. Both of them think that we've got to make college more affordable. Both of them believe that it's important for us to have a tax system that is fair, and that we should be closing corporate loopholes in order to pay for things like infrastructure investment and early childhood education."

Apparently feeling feisty, Obama said he would allow a rare "bonus" question. But his feistiness quickly drained away when the question focused on the recent State Department's inspector general report criticizing Clinton's email practices, which suggested she hasn't been telling the truth. Instead of answering, he dropped back and punted.

"OK. You know what, I take it back, I'm not taking another question," a chagrined Obama weakly joked. "We're in Japan, don't we have something in Asia that we want to talk about? I'll be talking about this in Washington the whole time."

But foreign podiums aren't the only unusual settings for Obama to take partisan political shots. A few days before heading overseas, he used a commencement address — traditionally a chance to advise graduates on how to gain success in life — to strongly suggest to newly minted degree holders how they should vote in November.

Here's how The Washington Post reported it on May 15:

President Obama delivered a commencement address at Rutgers University on Sunday that steered clear of the typical graduation advice and sounded a lot like a tough, aggressive takedown of the Republican presidential front-runner.

The president, who spoke before a crowd of more than 50,000 in the school's football stadium here, called on the graduates to reject politicians who hark back to better days. The 45-minute-long address was filled with obvious jabs at presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, whom the president didn't name, but who was a foil for the speech's most cutting applause lines.

Obama slammed Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the country's southern border, saying the world is becoming ever more interconnected and "building walls won't change that."

He mocked Trump's call to "Make America Great Again" ... "When you hear someone longing for the good old days, take it with a grain of salt," he said to boisterous applause.

So much for Obama's carefully crafted attempt to project an image of a president who is above partisanship, but nonetheless beleaguered by overly partisan foes. His political attacks against the apparent Republican nominee from usually sacrosanct settings such as Japan and Rutgers clearly demonstrate that he's a plain old partisan pol just like all the rest.

Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund For American Studies program at George Mason University.