In a pretty clear statement during a press conference with the prime minister of Singapore, President Obama called Donald Trump “unfit” to serve as president because of his lack of “decency” and his ignorance about economic and foreign policy and constitutional principles. He then called out leading Republicans for their habit of distancing themselves from Trump’s rhetoric and behavior — most recently with respect to the Khan family — and yet supporting (or at least not opposing) his ascent to the White House.
This did not have the air of a tossed-off comment. And it also did not seem to be a simple reflection of the coarsening and exceptional stridency of partisan conflict this year. Obama went to great pains to distinguish Trump from the two Republican opponents he faced in 2008 and 2012, whose differences with him were largely ideological and generational. Mitt Romney, of course, has made it clear he’s not backing Trump, and John McCain has criticized him often, so perhaps Obama was in part just drawing attention to the hostility of Republican elites to their 2016 nominee. But because it was unlike anything a sitting president has said of a potential successor in living memory, it adds a sober note to the cacophony of this campaign.
Team Trump might leap to the counteroffensive and hurl insults right back at the 44th president, and even claim he’s crossed a line. Maybe he has, though it’s worth noting that accusing Trump of unfitness to serve as president still falls well short of the common Republican claim that Hillary Clinton is unfit for life outside a correctional facility. Meanwhile, Obama has added his own unique contribution to the pressure that Republican leaders in Washington experience every time Trump says or does something outrageous. He may have even intended to help Democrats make the down-ballot argument that a party that makes a dude like Trump its maximum leader has no business running anything.
The part of Obama’s comments that may not get enough attention is the negative inference of his statement that he would have recognized the legitimacy of a President McCain or a President Romney. Does that mean he and other Democrats would not cooperate at all with a Trump administration? That’s a possibility that should be aired more generally as Election Day grows closer. In the meantime, Obama is undoubtedly reflecting the decision that seems to have been made by Hillary Clinton to make Trump’s character and temperament, rather than simply his issue positions, her target going forward. It’s certainly a target that grows riper every time the mogul opens his mouth.