by EDWARD-ISAAC DOVERE · September 5, 2017
Former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden listen as Diana Calderon, a student who has benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, speaks at a reception in the White House on Oct. 15, 2015. | Susan Walsh/AP
Think about how it’ll look on TV, Barack Obama told Donald Trump. All those kids being rounded up — teenagers, good kids. It’ll be all over cable news. Then he’d have to come out full blast himself, Obama told Trump, according to an aide to the former president who recounted the exchange.
The two of them were sitting in the Oval Office barely 30 hours after their first conversation ever, when Obama called Trump to say, “Congratulations, Mr. President-elect.” Maybe he’d gotten through, Obama told people afterward. But if not, and Trump still revoked protections for hundreds of thousands of Dreamers, it “would be something that would merit me speaking out,” Obama promised at his final news conference.
That moment arrived on Tuesday afternoon, and Obama issued a statement. It was the longest and most confrontational statement of his post-presidency. But it referred only to “the White House,” not the president, or Trump. It called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals decision “contrary to our spirit, and to common sense” and “self-defeating,” “wrong,” “a political decision, and a moral question.”
But Obama won’t be leading any rallies or doing any interviews. Just as he did during the Obamacare repeal fight, he’s purposefully keeping quiet — even as his team was already quietly consulting on steps forward Tuesday with activists and strategists.
Obama can see just as well as everyone else that the most reliable predictor of what Trump will do as president is the opposite of what he said or did. He’s decided the best play is to not give Trump any more to play off of than his successor already has.
“We are mindful of the dynamic that we’re in — which is the risk of backlash is real, and so we don’t want to give this administration an excuse to do the wrong thing, and we also don’t want to give Congress an excuse to do nothing,” said an Obama adviser involved with the deliberations on Tuesday.
His nine-paragraph statement — written in his Washington office on Tuesday and so much in Obama’s voice that it even includes his “let’s be clear” tic — there’s nothing about what to put in a bill, only the principles at stake and the need to do something. Obama sees protecting Dreamers as a major part of his legacy, but he doesn’t want Republicans to back away from a bill because they’re supporting something that their base’s favorite boogeyman wants.
Obama and his aides spent the past week bouncing between cynical dread and insistent optimism. Maybe Trump wouldn’t really do it. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as they thought.
“What he wants to do and what the Dreamer community wants from him is to speak for them, show support for them, but never to do anything that would backfire and cause harm — and that’s a very tricky line to walk,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Obama’s former White House communications director and currently an adviser to the Emerson Collective and Center for American Progress, who was involved in some of the discussions Tuesday.
Obama’s statement included pushback against the Trump administration’s stated rationale for rescinding DACA — “the previous administration’s disrespect for the legislative process,” as Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in making the announcement.
“For years while I was President, I asked Congress to send me such a bill,” to protect Dreamers, Obama wrote. “That bill never came.”
According to the people who helped Obama with the drafting, that was less defense and more about putting the responsibility on the House and Senate going forward. Making that point was “important in the telling of how we got here,” the Obama adviser said. “It wasn’t the imperial Barack Obama presidency, it was the lack of action from Congress.”
Obama and Trump haven’t spoken since the former president got in the helicopter after the inauguration ceremony in January. Obama’s office declined to comment on his conversation with Trump in November or the fact they haven’t spoken since. The White House did not return a request for comment.
Democrats have been eager for more Obama almost since 12:01 on Jan. 20. On Tuesday, more calls for him went out, even before the statement.
“We need his voice more than ever in inspiring Americans to speak out about the American dream, and Dreamers,” said New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, who is looking at suing Trump over the move. “I do think it would be pivotal to this debate that we’re having — especially in a broader debate on civil rights.”
“It is such a critical moment, a critical opportunity to step into that role to speak up more,” said Jonathan Paik, the Orange County director of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium. “He has a platform that very few people have. … Will it eventually be enough? It’s hard for me to say now. Would we like to see more? That’s something I’d like to see.”
Obama has been having this debate at least monthly since he was still windsurfing in the Virgin Islands with Richard Branson on his January vacation. His statement on Trump’s travel ban was purposefully attributed to a spokesman, so his own name technically wasn’t on it. His statements on Obamacare and exiting the Paris climate accord didn’t mention Trump by name.
It’s been a post-presidency by subtweet, exemplified by his decision, in the hours after Trump’s “many sides” comment about the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, to scrap a statement his aides were discussing in favor of tweeting a Nelson Mandela quote. (The response, which included a photo of Obama greeting African-American and Caucasian toddlers, turned out to be the most “liked” tweet ever.)
As dismayed as he and his circle are by Trump’s decisions, Obama dwells on his role in history, from his obligations to stay out of the fray as a former president to his perennial insistence on taking the long view over day-to-day flare-ups. Everything he does now, according to people close to him, he thinks of as in some way shaping what’s likely to be decades of a post-presidency to come.
That means always be cautious about how far he goes, leaving room to ratchet up what he says in case of what he considers a true crisis. He gets only one chance to take on Trump directly for the first time — or, if he ever feels the need, to say something more significant about Trump’s fitness for office, as many wanted him to in the wake of Charlottesville.
“I wouldn’t expect that this is the last you’ll hear from him,” Palmieri said, “but you should always expect that you’re only going to hear from him when he’s certain that he has a productive role to play.”
He’s leaving it to others for now.
During August, Organizing for Action did a “Defend DACA” day of action in a dozen states. On Tuesday, the group, initially formed to advocate for Obama’s agenda, set up a new online call tool to flood the offices of members of Congress demanding support for Dreamers legislation. OFA has been riling up supporters since an immigration-focused call last week.
“It’s in Trump’s interests for Barack Obama to be the foil,” said the Obama adviser. “But it’s in nobody else’s.”