There was a time when American voters had to wonder whether Barack Obama was personally corrupt. In 2008, that was the claim of both Hillary Clinton in the primaries and John McCain in the general election campaign. They charged that he had gotten help buying a house from a crooked, wealthy developer. They depicted him as just another sleazy Chicago machine pol.
You may have forgotten all this because it was convincingly refuted and left no permanent stain on Obama. Whatever his failures in the White House, he has not been implicated in old-fashioned graft. He may make huge sums of money after he leaves office. But he didn't do it while he was there.
Contrast this picture with the spectacle of Donald Trump, whose administration promises to be a nonstop festival of ethical breaches. Previous presidents have felt compelled by law and political appearances to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Not Trump. Having amassed riches before being elected president, he sees no reason to stop now.
He has refused to disclose his tax returns or a full list of his assets, which are extensive. "At least 111 Trump companies have done business in 18 countries across South America, Asia and the Middle East," reported The Washington Post in November. His financial stake in these places gives foreign governments ways to ingratiate themselves or to put pressure on him.
Instead of looking only at what makes sense for American security and prosperity, he will have monetary incentives to consider what's good for him and his family. Putting his assets in a trust controlled by his two eldest sons, as he said last week he is doing, is wholly inadequate. He'll still be aware of what the trust owns; he'll eventually stand to profit from the deals it makes; and he intends to resume control after he leaves office. In the interim, he will have opportunities for self-dealing beyond his wildest dreams.
Trump, as The New York Times noted this week, has pursued deals in Russia for 30 years without much success. If President Vladimir Putin can accommodate the tycoon on that front, Trump might indulge Putin on Ukraine, NATO, Syria or something else. Unless he transfers his assets to an independent executor with instructions to sell them off and put the proceeds in a blind trust, everything he does will be under a cloud.
Next to all this, Obama's alleged impropriety looks comically quaint. When he and his wife bought a house in Chicago in 2005, developer Tony Rezko, a friend who had raised money for Obama, bought a lot next door from the same seller. The suspicion was that Rezko overpaid the owner so the Obamas could underpay. Later, Rezko sold them a strip of land between the houses to expand their yard -- which may have been another financial favor. Rezko later served time on federal extortion charges related to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who also went to prison.
After weeks of trying to ignore the issue during the 2008 campaign, Obama finally addressed it head-on. He came to the Chicago Tribune in March and spent 90 minutes giving a detailed account of what had happened and answering every question put to him. He never evaded, never responded defensively and never showed the slightest impatience. He gave the impression of someone who wanted the whole story known, confident it would vindicate his integrity.
It did. That fall, McCain tried to use the charge against his opponent, but the air had gone out of it. After the March session, the Tribune, which had criticized Obama's handling of the matter, editorialized that he had reaffirmed its confidence in his "professional judgment and personal decency" and set "a standard for candor by which other presidential candidates facing serious inquiries now can be judged."
Trump, on the other hand, has set a standard lower than that of any president in modern times. His business ties will serve as a constant temptation to both him and those who want something from him or the U.S. government. And that's fine with him.
On his way to the White House, Obama understood his obligation not only to behave ethically but to be open with the voters. Trump has insisted on doing whatever he pleases while refusing to provide useful information about his activities.
Obama's view was that he should be careful to avoid scandal. Trump's view is that for him, there is no such thing.