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Politifact VA: Is Obama's Criticism of Trump Unprecedented?

Barack Obama
Former President Barack Obama criticized president Donald Trump's coronavirus response, which a Trump supporter, amplified by Trump himself, called unprecedented. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/

BEN: You’re listening to VPM News and this is PolitiFact Virginia. I’m Ben Dolle, sitting in for Craig Carper today. And with me is Warren Fiske, our PolitiFact editor. Hi Warren.

WARREN: Hey, Ben.

BEN: Warren, former President Barack Obama recently called President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic “an absolute chaotic disaster.”

Obama’s comments came on May 8th to an alumni association of people who worked in his administration.

His words angered some Trump supporters. One of them tweeted on May 10th, "Barack Hussain Obama is the first ex-President to ever speak against his successor, which was long a tradition of decorum and decency."

Trump retweeted the claim, adding, “He got caught, OBAMAGATE!"

Warren, PolitiFact National has looked into this. Is Obama the first ex-president to criticize his successor?

WARREN: Hardly. Traditionally, former presidents have extended some graciousness to their successors.

But there’s no hard and fast rule. And for at least the last century, former presidents have - when it suits them - taken shots at their successors.

Teddy Roosevelt, for example, turned against his hand-picked successor - William Taft -  in 1910 for aligning with conservative, laissez-faire interests. 

He accused Taft - his former vice president - of “the grossest and most astounding hypocrisy.” 

And in 1912, Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate against Taft - enabling Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency with just 41 percent to the popular vote.

BEN: What are some other examples?

WARREN: Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, but didn’t stop railing against FDR. In a speech at the 1936 Republican convention, he called the New Deal a “despotic poisoning of Americanism.”

BEN: You found a recording of Hoover’s speech. Let’s play a part where he talks about the New Deal.

“I t appears to be a strange interlude in American history in that it has no philosophy, that it is sheer opportunism, that it is a muddle of a spoils system, or emotional economics, of reckless adventure, of unctuous claims to a monopoly of human sympathy, of greed for power.”

WARREN: Other than that, Hoover had no complaints. 

Harry Truman criticized his successor - Dwight Eisenhower - at the 1956 Democratic convention. He said Eisenhower was prying national parks and natural resources, quote: “Out of the hands of people and into the pockets of a few selfish corporations.”

Truman also said the new president was scapegoating him for all problems. That’s a complaint many former presidents have had about their successors.

Gerald Ford - a year after losing office in 1976 - blasted Jimmy Carter’s financial  policies. 

Carter, in turn, chided Ronald Reagan for hawkish international policies and being unconcerned about the environment. 

BEN: Are there more recent examples of ex-presidents criticizing their successors?

WARREN: Yeah. George Herbert Walker Bush voiced his displeasure with Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair.

He said in a 1999 speech, “I have been deeply concerned by what appears to be a lack of respect for the office I was so very proud to hold.”

And Clinton criticized Bush for his 2003 “Mission Accomplished” declaration in Iraq, when years of U.S. engagement and deaths remained. “There is no military victory here,” Clinton said four years later.

BEN: OK, take us back to the start. A Twitter post, retweeted by Trump, claims that Obama "is the first ex-president to ever speak against his successor." What did PolitiFact rate that?

WARREN: Well, there’s lots of examples of the contrary. PolitiFact rates it False.

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