In post-presidency, Obama finds balancing act in countering Trump

Obama has remained a central figure in the U.S. and global political scene.

As his successor has seemed to systematically target key components of his legacy, Obama has been strategic, according to current and former aides, in choosing when and how to speak out.

The Obama’s have spent much time in Chicago where the foundation is located, spending time nurturing young politicians and teaching the importance of civic engagement.

Despite watching his signature achievements unravel, Obama has been described as “upbeat” and “optimistic.” But that positivity doesn’t come without some anxiety.

“Of course it causes anxiety just like it does for so many people,” former White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told ABC News. “He’s never looked at it from the perspective of him — his legacy — he’s looked at it from the perspective of the people whose lives he tried to improve. So if he thinks that people will lose healthcare or that young DACA folks will be at risk and potentially lose their status, sure that’s extraordinarily and profoundly troubling to him.”

Just two days before the transfer of power was carried out on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, Obama outlined to reporters in his final news conference the actions a Trump administration could take that might spur him to break with the precedent of polite silence previous presidents typically extended to their successors.

“There’s a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake,” Obama said.

But Obama was notably restrained in going after Trump directly regarding several other highly controversial moments in his first year, including the botched rollout of his first travel ban, his response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville and his accusation that Obama illegally wiretapped him during the election.

“I think you saw him kind of do that deftly and strategically this past year,” one aide said. “When it comes especially to the president’s political involvement but certainly all of this other stuff, he’s keenly aware that there’s nothing more that President Trump would like than to make Obama his foil.”

Matthew Dallek, a political historian and associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, pointed out that Obama wasn’t necessarily alone in breaking with the quiet deference that presidential successors typically extend to the acting president.

In October, former President George W. Bush delivered a rare public speech in New York City in which he didn’t call Trump out by name, but seemed to make multiple references to his effect on American political discourse.

“What he said then may have been harsher than anything he said about Barack Obama during the eight years of his presidency,” Dallek said. “I think it’s a bit unusual but I think the sense is among not just Barack Obama that it is incumbent upon them to speak out against Trump when they think it’s appropriate.”

Notably, Trump and Obama have not spoken since Inauguration Day, a sharp contrast from past presidents who have at times seeked counsel from their predecessors.

Given that Trump has worked to reverse many Obama-era policies, a person close to Obama says it wouldn’t have seemed likely that Trump would have relied on his predecessor for any advice beyond their initial hour and a half meeting together in the Oval Office Nov. 2016.

Obama, however, is ready and willing to provide his counsel should Trump wish to reach out, the person said.

Trump confidant and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich doesn’t anticipate either side mending fences anytime soon.

“Trump can be friendly toward anyone but I doubt if he thinks much about relating to Obama,” Gingrich told ABC News. “Why would Trump ask advice from someone he thinks is wrong on virtually every issue?”

That's a stark contrast to Vice President Pence who has been in regular communication with his predecessors. He's met in person many times with Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney and spoke with Joe Biden by phone multiple times this past year, seeking counsel primarily before foreign trips and meetings with world leaders, according to a person familiar with the communications.

Though it’s unlikely the political animosity between Trump and Obama will dampen with the 2018 midterms fast approaching.

Following his involvement in multiple special elections during 2017, an aide to Obama said he plans to continue assist Democrats up and down the ticket, akin to his involvement in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races and his robo-call for Democrat Doug Jones in the Alabama special election.

“I do think it’s definitely fair to say that way you saw him approach 2017 will be similar in the way that he will do it strategically, he will try to stay above the fray,” the aide said. “[There’s a] recognition that, you know, you wouldn’t want to have him out there trying to rally the troops on our side especially when he’s been very clear he can’t be the resistance leader anymore.”

“He cares a great deal about the midterm elections and I’m sure he will be as helpful as he can,” Jarrett said.

This story is part of a weeklong series examining the first year of the Trump administration.