It is traditional that ex-presidents refrain from criticizing the policies of their successors in order to give the new president a chance to implement their own policy goals.
Former President Barack Obama broke that revered “code of silence” when he began to criticize President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Obama was first heard roundly excoriating Trump for his coronavirus response on a leaked May 8 phone call with the Obama Alumni Association, a group of ex-administration members.
During the call, Obama called Trump’s response to the global pandemic “anemic and spotty” as well as “an absolute chaotic disaster.” (RELATED: Obama Will Reportedly Skip His White House Presidential Portrait Ceremony As Long As Trump Is In Office)
Obama made his first public denouncement of Trump’s strategy during a May 16 commencement speech to graduates of historically black colleges and universities. Obama did not specifically mention Trump, but took a swing at leadership during the coronavirus pandemic.
“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” Obama said. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
Though Trump has consistently criticized the former president’s policies, Obama has until now refrained from publicly weighing in on Trump’s job performance. This is in keeping with the traditional “code of silence” upheld by ex-presidents.
While a former president’s private opinions of his successor are often non-controversial, it has been a long-standing unwritten rule among presidential alumni that the person who currently occupies the White House is not to be publicly critiqued. (RELATED: Everything We Know About Obama’s Involvement In The Russia Conspiracy)
“Former presidents are supposed to be above such mundane things as petty politics. Many ex-presidents have disagreed with their successors’ policies but kept silent as that was the unwritten code,” Ronald Reagan biographer and presidential historian Craig Shirley told the Daily Caller.
“President Reagan (and especially Mrs. Reagan) were fuming with then Vice President George H.W. Bush’s rebuke of Reaganism in his 1988 speech in New Orleans accepting the GOP nomination, but they said nothing publicly,” Shirley added. “And Reagan, as an ex-president, also disagreed with some of Bush 41’s policies, including a giant tax increase and expansion of government but again said nothing. Generally, it has been an unwritten rule to not undercut the current president out of respect for the office and the mandate given him by the voters.”
Likewise, H.W. Bush also avoided making public comments about successive presidents.
“Bush 41 was very reticent to criticize his successors, including his own son. But he took that further since he became such good friends with Bill Clinton,” James Rosebush, a senior aide to Ronald Reagan, told the Daily Caller.
Though the exact point in which the explicit code of silence became an established rule for ex-presidents is hard to pinpoint, many point to President George Washington’s refusal to engage in party politics as an early starting point for the tradition.
“It was never written, nor even spoken about formally as far as I know, it just generally evolved. I think also each former president was grateful not to be criticized by his predecessor so carried that tradition along,” Shirley said. “Paying it forward, so to speak. But since Washington never criticized John Adams, he gets the credit for starting this tradition, as he started so many others.”
“When you look at what Obama has said about what Trump has been doing in regard to COVID-19, any political leader needs to ask whether this is being made for constructive purposes or is it a political statement,” Rosebush said of Obama’s comments.
“Ex-presidents may make statements on current issues to protect their legacy and defend their record. We have the Obama legacy at stake right now. So that may make the debate more expensive since he is trying to defend his legacy,” he continued.
However, there have been notable examples of other presidents speaking out against the policies of their successors.
John Adams, the second president, and Thomas Jefferson, Adams’ vice president and successor, engaged in a bitter feud for years while each was president.
“Herbert Hoover, in the early days of the FDR Administration, attacked the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt and Truman sometimes let it slip how little he thought of Eisenhower,” Shirley said.
“Teddy Roosevelt frankly hammered both Taft and Wilson, Gerald Ford criticized Bush 43’s Iraq policy, as did Jimmy Carter, and Eisenhower was mildly critical of JFK’s domestic policies. But in the history of the American presidency, these are the very small exceptions to a generally accepted big rule,” he concluded.
Obama’s comments about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic were a break from one of the most enduring presidential traditions. Though some ex-presidents have chosen to criticize their successors, the criticism was often mild and was not directed at a president during a time of national crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.