The 2016 presidential campaign has broken the mold in so many ways. Start with the first woman major-party nominee in Hillary Clinton and practically everything about Donald Trump’s candidacy. Now, add President Obama’s role as an attack dog.
At the Democratic National Convention last week, Mr. Obama launched a withering attack on the Republican nominee, accusing Trump of selling the American people short, cozying up to autocrats, and offering no solutions.In his choicest dig – a warning about “homegrown demagogues” – Obama alluded to the billionaire-turned-politician, but didn’t mention Trump by name.
This week, Obama became even more pointed. “I think the Republican nominee is unfit to serve as president,” he said flat out on Tuesday. Two days later, Obama warned the candidates that “if they want to be president, they got to start acting like president.” He used the plural “they,” but everyone knew who he was talking about.
To some, Obama’s comments have been a welcome addition to the chorus, and an appropriate use of the presidential megaphone to warn against a potentially dire outcome in November: the election of someone who could pose a threat to American democracy. To others, Obama’s statements are inappropriate and demean the presidency.
Either way, scholars say, Obama’s thorough trashing of the opposing party’s presidential nominee is unique for the modern era, compared with how other recent presidents have handled the race for their succession.
“It is unprecedented certainly in post-World War II American history,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Obama, too, has a personal reason to go after Trump: the billionaire’s persistent allegations that the president wasn’t born in the United States. But Obama’s critique of Trump doesn’t seem to stem largely from personal pique; it reflects Trump’s performance as a candidate over the past year, and widespread public doubts about Trump’s temperament and qualifications to be president.
Still, aside from Truman, historians don’t see many past retiring presidents working hard either to elect the nominee of their own party or defeat the other party’s candidate.
For Obama, not only are the full-throated attacks on Trump unprecedented for the modern era, so is the full embrace of Mrs. Clinton. In his convention address, Obama declared that “there has never been a man or a woman, not me, not Bill, nobody more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.”
Obama’s enthusiastic support for Clinton is the exception in modern presidential history. “Oddly enough, circumstances have often for one reason or another prevented a sitting president from actively campaigning for a successor,” says historian David Pietrusza.