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26 U.S. Code § 6103(g)(1) says that the President can request tax return information from the IRS:

Upon written request by the President, signed by him personally, the Secretary shall furnish to the President, or to such employee or employees of the White House Office as the President may designate by name in such request, a return or return information with respect to any taxpayer named in such request.

This request, if made now, would have to be disclosed to Congress by Jan. 30, 2017 [by which point the election will (likely) be over and the next President inaugurated]:

Within 30 days after the close of each calendar quarter, the President... shall file a report with the Joint Committee on Taxation setting forth the taxpayers with respect to whom such requests were made during such quarter under this subsection, the returns or return information involved, and the reasons for such requests.

(A reason must be stated, but there are no clear additional requirements on what that reason may be).

§6103(a)(1) of the same title establishes the general rule that:

Returns and return information shall be confidential, and except as authorized by this title, no officer or employee of the United States shall disclose any return or return information obtained by him in any manner in connection with his service as such an officer or an employee or otherwise or under the provisions of this section. For purposes of this subsection, the term “officer or employee” includes a former officer or employee.

So it seems that Obama would not be able to directly share what he learns with the electorate, but merely disclosing that he has accessed the returns and after looking at them, really doesn't think Trump is in a competent position to take the office, might give more weight to what he's saying in at least some voters' eyes. Obama even publicizing that the option is there, with the implication he might use it, might add pressure for Trump to release returns voluntarily (limiting folks' imaginations), especially once the surprise factor of $0 paid (if that's accurate) has been absorbed.

Trump seems to be very willing to use executive authority to override treaties, international laws, etc. and thinks it's "smart" to gain maximal personal benefit from the laws in place in the tax code, so he'd seem to have a hard time challenging the ethics of Obama also using the existing tax laws to get the access the laws expressly permit him to have.

Trump famously pressed Obama for the release of his long-form birth certificate and still seems to think he deserves credit for getting to be able to see that, so Obama having a look at Trump's tax returns might be seen as at least partially a response which he can accomplish relatively easily from his current elected position.

Is there any polling, history, or other evidence indicating how the electorate would likely react to such a move?

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    I think this is going to be mostly opinion unless there is a poll out there already asking this hypothetical question. But even then, it's such a hypothetical that I imagine how the question is asked can also vary wildly producing very different polling data.
    – user1530
    Oct 4 '16 at 6:10
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    Your idea about Obama [...] disclosing that he has accessed the returns [...] really doesn't think Trump is in a competent position would be a breach of confidentality similar to directly publishing the data. To put an analogy, a doctor is not only forbidden of disclosing someone's medical condition but cannot either tell (publicly) something like "By the way, Mr. X, there is a new treatment which is really effective at healing ghonorrea, after seeing the results of your last analysis I relally think you should give it a try".
    – SJuan76
    Oct 4 '16 at 6:56
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    And yes, regardless of whether the law allows, Obama asking to see Trump's returns would be seen as greatly overstepping of his authority, as there is no legitimate thing he can do with those (and no, deciding which candidates are worthy and which are not is not the President job in any democratic country). Maybe if he were to enter the IRS after his term expires...
    – SJuan76
    Oct 4 '16 at 7:02
  • @SJuan76 That kind of comment is too specific; it's not a good analogy. Obama could continue to make exactly the same kinds of general comments he has already been making about which candidates are and aren't worthy, unchanged, but people might give extra weight to it if they know it's even more informed.
    – WBT
    Oct 4 '16 at 13:21
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    This could be answered with historical references if any exist.
    – Brythan
    Oct 4 '16 at 13:59
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The quest to see Trump's tax returns is nothing but political theatre. The only reason anyone would want to see them is to confirm whether there is any illegal activity or not. However it's not Obama's job to investigate or prosecute any individual's taxation activity; that is the job of the IRS. If Trump had been involved in ANY illegal activity with regards to his taxes, the IRS most certainly would've acted by now. Recall that Al Capone was brought down by the IRS.

How the electorate would react to Obama using his contacts and position to acquire Trump's tax returns should be self-evident. Anyone who supports Obama would celebrate the move. Anyone who supports Trump would not.

Source: common sense.

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    And yet every presidential candidate since the 60s has released their own tax returns and Trump promised to do so on multiple occasion. Rather than theatre, the real issue is honesty and integrity.
    – Jontia
    Jun 12 at 5:59
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    Rather than theatre, the real issue is honesty and integrity. Which is why it is unlikely that Obama or now Biden would make such a move, or that it would get the full backing you suggest, as it would shift the focus from Trump's integrity to their own. Tax is a difficult issue, which is why tax enforcement agencies focus on the little people, and not the financial arrangements of millionaire businesses.
    – Jontia
    Jun 12 at 6:05
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    @Jontia I wouldn't care if every human on earth released their tax returns and Trump didn't, as long as the IRS hasn't detected illegal activity, its no one else's business. And the core reason for wanting to see tax returns would be to see if there is in fact evidence of illegal activity. Since we can safely assume there is no illegal activity to be found, then it becomes clear that the only reason to request it is for Trumps adversaries to pick apart every business decision he has ever made and armchair quarterback it. The goal being of course to try and destroy his reputation.
    – NetServOps
    Jun 12 at 8:52
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    Tax returns can serve as evidence of crimes that have nothing to do with the tax code, so it is not only the IRS's job to investigate people's tax returns. The Department of Justice also has a reason to examine them - - which they are presently doing. The fact that it's possible for a rich person to pay very little tax legally does not imply that Trump's tax returns are clean. And a taxpayer absolutely has liability for fraud in the return even if it was prepared by someone else. Trump has built his entire life on lies; the idea that his tax returns are honest is difficult to believe.
    – phoog
    Jun 13 at 3:14
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    @NetServOps of course not. I am not a public servant, and I never promised anyone that I would release my tax returns. My point isn't that having a public persona implies an obligation to release tax returns but that Trump has demonstrated with remarkable consistency since the 1960s that dishonesty is a central element of his character, from claiming his buildings are taller than they really are to golf to bone spurs.
    – phoog
    Jun 13 at 4:17

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