President Barack Obama is traveling a far more benevolent path to the presidency of Donald J. Trump than his fellow Democrats. The president’s pubic mood is one marked by grace and acceptance, while his followers promise to follow Dylan Thomas’ admonition to “not go gentle into that good night.”
Considering the vitriol leading up to the November election, the transition between Obama and Trump promised to be chilly at best and downright nasty at worst. After all Trump had spent much of the last eight years raising the “birther” question to discredit Obama’s presidency, while Obama had ricocheted between condescension and incredulity about Trump’s presidential bid.
Certainly other presidents have been gracious to their predecessors in leaving office, such as President George H.W. Bush who left a generous and patriotic note for a newly inaugurated Bill Clinton in 1993. And President George W. Bush was particularly accommodating to President Obama, and maintained that decorum through his entire presidency and declined to gossip or take potshots at his successor. (Not so true for former Vice President Dick Cheney who was more loyal opposition than loyal.)
The fact that early days have been restrained, dignified and even forgiving may have more to do with the quality of Obama’s leadership than history. Like many a good chief executive officer (CEO), Obama appears to have recognized that succession is not about being right but about being realistic.
Business executives have long understood that carefully calibrated successions are the hallmark of great leaders. Clearing the way for the next CEO or board chairman is a sign of a healthy and forward-looking leadership team that has the company’s best interest at heart. The examples are many but two of the finest are Eli Lilly and Co. and Intel Corp.
Eli Lilly has earned a reputation for the well-executed transition, with a minimum of histrionics and a prodigious emphasis on planning. When Dave Ricks was tapped to replace John Lechleiter as CEO, the official handoff at the end of this year will be the culmination of months of planning and work. Lechleiter knows a peaceful transfer is good for the company because he had experienced it himself in his own transition, as had the nine CEOs before him.
And Intel ranks high in terms of transitions, especially its shift in 2004 from CEO Craig Barnett to Chief Operating Officer Paul Otellini, who came to the post without the same technical proficiency of his predecessor or his mentor Andy Grove, Intel’s legendary CEO. Otellini spent months studying for the job, with dozens of tutorials about the complexities of the business and the density of the technology.
What makes Obama’s transition more unusual than his predecessors or a Fortune 500 CEO like Otellini is that the president has spent the last four months belittling Trump and his candidacy on the campaign trail, and in the weeks before the election had called Trump unfit for the office.
Despite the history, many suspect that Obama may feel compelled—and expected—to rescue Trump from himself and his own lack of understanding of government as the president-elect plots his transition. The Wall Street Journal reported that after meet with Trump, “the only person to be elected president without having held a government or military position, Mr. Obama realized the Republican needs more guidance. He plans to spend more time with his successor than presidents typically do.”
Obama has seemed to gently acquiesce to the president-elect, both in private and in public. Much like retiring CEOs might do for their successors, always upbeat and looking to the future. Obama even played defense for Trump during a November trip that found him consoling European leaders and assuaging their fears that Trump wouldn’t support critical alliances.
Of course there are moments when Obama seems to be more like a chastising older brother than presidential equal or wise exiting CEO. “What I said to him was, what may work in generating enthusiasm or passion during elections may be different from what will work in terms of unifying the country and gaining the trust of those who didn’t support him,” Obama said during a Nov. 17 press conference in Germany a week after the election. “He’s indicated his willingness, his understanding of that…. That has to reflect in not only what he says but how he fills out his administration.”
One of the dangers is that Trump and his team won’t listen to Obama. James Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of The Strategic Presidency: Hitting the Ground Running, suggested in an interview with NPR in 2008 that incoming presidents are often guilty of knowing everything. “The problem often is that the people coming in are somewhat arrogant, they’re running on adrenaline, they’ve done in an almost impossible thing of winning the presidency, and often they’re not willing to listen to the people going out,” said Pfiffner.
What Trump is finding out now is that leadership matters. Something as CEO he should know a bit about, and something Obama has learned over the last eight years. “If you’re not serious about the job, you probably won’t be there very long because it will expose problems,” the president said in Germany. “And I think the president-elect is going to see fairly quickly that the demands and responsibilities of a U.S. president are not ones that you can treat casually, and that in a big, complex, diverse country, the only way that you can be successful is by listening and reaching out and working with a wide variety of people.”
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This article was co-authored with Sarah Kellogg, a writer living in Washington, D.C. who writes about the intersection of the law, leadership and public affairs.