ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Insisting that Americans deserve better, President Barack Obama chided Republicans Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz on Monday for a series of campaign-trail attacks that he said would be “ridiculous if it weren’t so sad.”
In some of his first commentary on the budding race to replace him, Obama accused the candidates of violating a time-honored American tradition of not playing “fast and loose” on topics of grave concern like foreign policy. And he said that regardless of which party wins the White House, he wants to ensure he’s turning over the keys to someone capable of seriousness and honesty.
“We have robust debates, we look at the facts,” Obama said during a news conference in Ethiopia. “We just don’t fling out ad hominem attacks like that because it doesn’t help inform the American people.”
Obama has largely avoided wading into the increasingly turbulent debate over who should be the next president. But during a news conference with Ethiopia’s prime minister, Obama was asked about criticism from Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, and seemed eager to add his take.
A day earlier, Huckabee said Obama was so naive about Iran that he agreed to a nuclear deal that would “take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven,” a reference to crematoria in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Obama suggested the tough rhetoric was a ploy by Huckabee to “get attention” or to push Trump out of the headlines.
“It’s not the kind of leadership that’s needed for America right now,” he said.
Huckabee quickly dismissed the presidential critique, arguing that what was “ridiculous and sad” was that Obama wasn’t taking Iran’s threats to destroy Israel seriously.
“I will stand with our ally Israel to prevent the terrorists in Tehran from achieving their own stated goal of another Holocaust,” Huckabee said in a statement his campaign emailed to reporters.
Trump, whose poll numbers are on the rise, has drawn consternation from the Republican Party over provocative comments he’s made about immigrants and his GOP rivals, which some Republicans say could hurt the party’s prospects in 2016.
Obama also singled out Cruz, the Texas senator, for suggesting in the wake of the nuclear deal that Obama — not Iran — is the leading state sponsor of terrorism.
“These are leaders in the Republican Party,” Obama said incredulously. He warned it was creating a culture that would stifle good politics and policies in the U.S. “The American people deserve better. Certainly presidential debates deserve better.”
Unprompted, the president also brought up how Trump had dismissed Arizona Sen. John McCain’s reputation as a war hero because he was captured in Vietnam. Trump said he liked “people who weren’t captured.”
Praising McCain’s heroism, Obama said the Republican Party was shocked at Trump’s remark, but added that it grew out of a culture where those types of comments are tolerated.
“When outrageous statements are made about me, a lot of people outraged about McCain were pretty quiet,” Obama added.
Although Obama reserved his toughest rebuke for Republicans, he said both parties needed to approach the campaign with decorum. So far, the Democrats competing for the nomination have mostly avoided the type of caustic attacks that have become commonplace in the GOP primary more than a year out from Election Day.
The Republican rhetoric has grown hotter by the day as the party’s 16 White House contenders vie for attention ahead of their first debate. Only the top 10 candidates in an average of national polls will meet the criteria for the Aug. 6 debate in Cleveland, Ohio.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, after Trump’s quip about McCain, called the reality television personality a “cancer on conservatism.” South Carolina Gov. Lindsey Graham dubbed Trump a “jackass,” leading Trump to call Graham an “idiot” and to give out his cell phone number on national television.
Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, has asked Trump to tone down his rhetoric, but some in the party have expressed concerns that putting the squeeze on Trump could lead him to run as an independent. That could split Republican voters between two candidates and make it easier for the Democratic nominee to win the election.
“I don’t see that happening,” Priebus told NBC Monday about a third-party run by Trump. He added that there’s consensus in the party that “if Hillary Clinton is going to get beat, she has to get beat by a Republican.”
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.