Why Trump and Obama are phone buddies

Trump: I love getting Obama's ideas
Trump: I love getting Obama's ideas

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Story highlights

  • Tim Naftali: Trump, Obama apparently having cordial phone relationship during transition
  • He says Obama may see chance to preserve legacy, Trump to make inroads with African-Americans

Tim Naftali is a CNN presidential historian. He teaches history and public service at New York University and was the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. He is the co-author of "One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964" and "Khrushchev's Cold War" and the author of "Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The great student of presidential transitions, the late Richard E. Neustadt, argued that it is in the nature of transitions that the future administration is rarely at its best. "Transitions offer opportunities to extract a whole governmental generation's lore at once. But those who need it most and could best use it, the incomers, rarely think of such things. Busyness and self-importance bar the way and also, often, deep suspicion."

Tim Naftali
This week, Donald Trump surprised many by admitting that not only has he been in regular telephone communication with the incumbent president but is seeking Barack Obama's advice on appointments. Given that Trump made a point of repeating in the campaign that Barack Obama "has been the worst president ever," the fact that the President would want to talk to this man may seem odd, at the very least.
But some context on transitions helps explain why the two men are talking.
    We should peg the modern presidential transition to Dwight Eisenhower's decision, in 1960, to do a better job of transferring power than his predecessor, Harry Truman, had when Eisenhower assumed the presidency. A patriot, Eisenhower made this precedent-setting decision despite believing to his core that his successor, John F. Kennedy, was unworthy of the White House.
    Indeed, he may have wanted the transition to involve a broad exchange of information between incomers and outgoers precisely because he thought Kennedy so woefully unprepared.
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    Kennedy and Eisenhower actually detested each other. Eisenhower called Kennedy "Little Boy Blue" behind his back. And Kennedy told his Boswell, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., that not only was Eisenhower "terribly cold and terribly vain. In fact, he is a shit." Kennedy also did not respect Eisenhower's intellect, but he took the old man's advice because the former supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe in World War II was still hugely popular and Kennedy was no fool.
    Unfortunately, as it would turn out, this first serious effort at a smooth, modern, transition produced few positive results. Kennedy was quick to dismantle Eisenhower-era institutions, some of which he would reassemble after he blundered at the Bay of Pigs. And when he did take the outgoing president's advice, Kennedy would regret it.
    Eisenhower stressed to Kennedy the importance of intervening in Southeast Asia, advice that Eisenhower would not have taken in his prime, but which Kennedy thought he could not afford to ignore. Eisenhower's transition advice would burden the incoming administration for almost all of its "Thousand Days."
    The last time that an insurgent captured a political party, and the nation, in as dramatic a style as 2016, the handoff of institutional knowledge operated no better.
    President-elect Ronald Reagan remained silent during most of his sole, substantive meeting with Jimmy Carter. He broke his silence to admit his admiration for how former South Korean strongman Park Chung-hee had dealt with student demonstrations. Park had them drafted and closed their universities. At the end of the meeting, according to Carter's memoir "Keeping Faith," Reagan asked Carter for a copy of the 3-by-5-inch card that he had used as a crib for his briefing.
    Efforts by the Carter administration to brief the Reagan team on the negotiations for release of the 52 Americans then held hostage in Iran were greeted with a similar lack of interest, and Reagan himself refused to weigh in on a decision about selling weapons to Saudi Arabia that Carter felt he ought to make with Reagan's agreement before leaving office.
    Needless to add, the Carter-Reagan ritual car ride up to the Capitol on January 20, 1981, was very chilly. "He hesitated to look me in the face," Reagan later recalled of the outgoing President.
    Obama's actions so far in the transition, including the reports of calls between the leaders, are consistent with the way he has viewed his responsibilities as President.
    During the campaign he spoke as party leader and implored his followers to see Hillary Clinton as his third term. But he also spoke as President, reminding both candidates that they had to respect the outcome of the vote (though he likely expected it to go Clinton's way).
    The Electoral College has spoken (or, more precisely, will soon), and Obama didn't get his "third term." That, like Eisenhower in 1960, Obama is offering advice to the man he hoped would lose, and whom he thinks too small for the office, underscores the fact that he not only respects the US constitutional system but wishes America well.
    There may be more at work here, too. Obama is already telegraphing he expects to be more vocal than past "formers" in the months after leaving office. Being available to Trump now gives him greater moral authority to criticize the incoming administration later if he can plausibly say he tried to help it get a running start. And being unavailable would have looked and been petulant.
    Finally, and this is pure speculation, but a clear-eyed look at some of Trump's positions -- on health care, on child care, on not involving the US military in overseas adventures -- reveals that they are closer to Obama's views than to those of the GOP's congressional leadership. It cannot hurt for Obama to develop some level of trust with a man who may decide to keep some elements of his legacy.
    The real surprise here is Trump's behavior. Why publicly admit to seeking advice from a man who is hated by your base -- especially when you've encouraged that hate?
    So far, Trump watchers have had a heck of time figuring out when the President-elect is improvising and when he is being calculating. In just the past few days, for example, we learned that a so-called congratulatory -- and highly controversial -- call Trump took from Taiwan's leader was anything but a matter of shooting from the hip by a team of amateurs. (It was a planned maneuver blessed by establishment conservatives and brokered by a high-powered lobbyist -- former US Sen. and presidential candidate Bob Dole -- working for Taiwanese officials.)
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    So why does Trump consult with Obama? First, as the most unprepared President-elect in history, Trump may actually realize that Obama has something to offer. Second, Trump and his inner circle must know that their narrow victory depended on getting some Obama voters in the Rust Belt and, however hard it may seem, they may have hopes of expanding support for Trump among African-Americans.
    Talking to the first African-American President and hoping that many people will have amnesia about the birther movement Trump led to delegitimize him cannot hurt in this regard, though it is incredibly cynical.
    Whatever Trump's motives, the fact he seems unconcerned about telling people he is asking Obama's advice on appointments signals he is confident he can control his supporters. This may ultimately prove to be hubris, but Trump clearly thinks that wherever he leads, his base will follow. Unlike his collaborators in the GOP congressional caucus, he currently doesn't fear being "tea partied."