A showdown now looms over American politics. It is a showdown between law and lawlessness. With the rule of law at stake, the outcome is of utmost importance for the future of the nation.
On one side, there is Robert Mueller and his first rate team of legal professionals, investigating the assault by the most powerful adversary of the United States upon America’s democracy, and the possible criminal collusion in that assault by the campaign of the man whom that adversary helped become President.
On the other side, there is that President, Donald Trump, who has launched a dishonest public relations campaign – abetted by his allies in the Congress and the right-wing media – to impugn the integrity of those (Mueller and the FBI) working to see that the law is upheld.
In this intensifying contest, there is a basic and dangerous asymmetry.
On the one side, President Trump commands the “bully pulpit” (the bully’s pulpit), which always enables a President to dominate the national conversation (and especially so in Trump’s case, due to his talent for using the outrageous to command attention).
On the other side, Special Prosecutor Mueller is constrained by his professional prosecutorial role to remain mute, “speaking” to the nation only indirectly when indictments and plea agreements get filed.
That asymmetry between the attention-grabbing president and the mute prosecutor therefore confers an advantage to the side of the lie over the truth and of the lawless over the rule of law.
Other voices do get raised—e.g. by Democrats in Congress. But (even aside from their being habitually too restrained) none of these other voices are in a position to match the power of the President’s. There is no one among them with the stature or standing to stand toe-to-toe with Trump in the political ring.
Only one person has such standing. Only one in the same “weight class” as the President, who can redress the imbalance between the man with the bully pulpit attacking the rule of law and the silent and the lesser who are protecting it.
That person is the last person to serve before Trump –the former president who completed eight years free of scandal, who was a class act, and who — even in deep red Alabama — now commands a higher approval rating than President Trump.
Mr. Obama can use that unique standing to perform a vital service for the nation. He should take on the job of speaking publicly in response to any assault from President Trump on the foundations of American democracy (and, in particular, on the rule of law).
It might be objected that such a role goes against Obama’s character. And to some extent, that objection is valid. But ultimately, even in this role, Mr. Obama in this role should continue to act in accordance with his character– that is. so long as he follows one rule: Let nothing that Trump says or does that undermines the rule of law pass unremarked.
Indeed, Obama’s character is as important a message to America as the content of whatever he would say. The contrast in character between the two men would in itself be edifying for the American public.
(And we can be confident that Tas Trump — with his compulsion to strike out at critics, and his need to assert is dominance especially where Obama is concerned — would keep the confrontation between the two alive in the public eye.)
What a contrast– Obama, perhaps the most decent person ever to occupy the office, now followed by Trump, unquestionably the least decent.
- The truth-teller versus the liar.
- The man with a moral compass versus the sociopath.
- The man who respects American ideals versus the man who goes out of his way to trample upon them.
- The man who cares about things larger than himself versus the one for whom everything is about himself and the needs of his ego.
It’s not hard to figure who will come across better as the public judges such a contrast.
Why would Obama take on such a role, contrary as it is to American custom for a former president to step forward in such a way, and given that Obama has shown himself observant of such proprieties of this sort?
He might, because not only are the stakes
for the nation so high, with Trump’s lawlessness, but also because he might recognize in this mission an opportunity to make up for the one significant failure of his presidency.
Obama had some success as president (he is presently rated by historians as the 12th best out of 44). But in one crucial respect, he failed: facing an opposition party of an unprecedented nature — in its making the President’s failure its top priority, regardless of the injury to the nation — Obama never fought back effectively, never made his opponents pay a political price for their disgraceful behavior.
Indeed, unchecked by the President with the bully pulpit, the destructive force that has taken over the right over the past generation was enabled to grow in power and in virulence.
To recognize the extent to which this failure hamstrung the Obama presidency, one should recall the aspiration with which Obama entered office: it was his hope to be a <em><strong>transformational </strong></em>president.
But the triumph of Republican obstructionism transformed that hope into the reality — for Obama’s last six years in office — of Obama’s being almost entirely disabled from accomplishing anything legislatively.
Eventually, as we now know, that destructive force on the right, which strengthened under Obama’s watch, coughed up Donald Trump as the Republican nominee and elected him President.
And so now America has a president who may indeed prove truly “transformational,” but in the worst sense.
With the ongoing attacks from Trump and his allies upon the rule of law, Trump threatens to transform the American state from the democratic and constitutional form it was given more than two centuries ago (“a nation of laws, not of men”) into an authoritarian form where the strong man replaces the law.
It is in the context of this history, and this threat, that Barack Obama might — and should — step back onto center stage from where he would stand and deliver the messages that will best guide the American people to support strongly the basic American ideals now under assault.