None of Barack Obama’s wrongdoings over the past eight years absolve Donald Trump of his in the coming eight. Period.
If we want to get serious about the scourge of “norm breaking,” though, we can’t ignore when those norms were first shattered simply because it’s politically convenient for some people to reset history.
In fact, pointing out Obama’s record is an effective way to highlight some of its shared governing philosophy with Trumpism and contemporary liberalism. “Whataboutism” — a tactic Democrats say is meant to deflect criticism from the president — also helps hold people on both sides accountable. The first step in kicking authoritarianism is admitting you have a problem.
Anyone genuinely concerned about the corrosion of constitutional processes has to view politics as a continuum. In the same way Obama blamed George W. Bush for the economic difficulties he faced in 2008, those who are troubled by executive overreach can point out that many of Trump’s actions were normalized years earlier by the same people warning us that the republic is collapsing. They want power, as well.
One of the few aspects of Obama’s legacy likely to survive the Trump years is his mainstreaming of the notion that the executive branch has an authority to do whatever it likes if the law-making branch “fails to act” — a phrase Democrats used incessantly over the past six years.
Whatever your views of immigration policy are, for example, if you believe it was acceptable for Obama to change the legality of millions with a pen, but that Trump is Joseph Mengele for temporarily banning travel for a few thousand potential refugees, you’re not really concerned about executive abuse or process.
If you embraced a regulatory regime that demanded nuns (and many others) purchase products that undermine their religious convictions, then supported attempts to coerce them through the courts, you have no standing to lecture anyone about the American tradition of respecting religious diversity or process.
At the time of the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals executive actions, some of us argued that the way Obama went about changing law would be more destructive than anything he was doing with amnesty. Folks like Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post — and almost every liberal at the time — maintained that the “only reason President Obama has to act on immigration reform is that House Speaker John Boehner won’t.”
So is it still the prerogative of the president to unilaterally act whenever he doesn’t get his way? Or is that power reserved for super-special presidents? Or is it only for presidents who lose control of Congress? Or is it for presidents who are polling poorly? Or are the rules malleable depending on topic?
This weekend, Trump tweeted an inappropriate attack on the “so-called” judge who issued a temporary restraining order blocking the administration’s temporary ban on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries. Trump, as the saying goes played the man not the ball. A freakout ensued, as they tend to do. This was, we were told, another “chilling” norm-shattering event.
In a 2012 press conference, Obama lectured judges about a case they were still deliberating. “Ultimately,” Obama explained, “I am confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”
Although far more articulate than Trump’s, this statement is almost entirely untrue, and extraordinary. The court, in fact, is tasked with deciding the constitutionality of laws — and one assumes all laws are passed by democratically elected officials. Whether those laws have a “strong” majority (Obamacare didn’t) is irrelevant. Also, by making this claim and misleading Americans about the role of the court, the president sabotaged separation of powers.
In 2010, after the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment in the Citizens United case, President Obama went in front of the entire nation and scolded the top court. The New York Times couldn’t find a single instance of any president doing the same. Later, Chief Justice John Roberts commented that the “image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the court – according the requirements of protocol – has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling.”
If you were upset about Obama’s lack of regard for protocol and accusation that the Supreme Court had destabilized democracy, you should feel similarly about Trump’s attack on a judge. And if you were fine with Obama’s rebuke, your contention that Trump’s tweet is more distressing than State of the Union attack on the highest court is difficult to take seriously.
And if you were cheering a presidency that promised to fundamentally alter the trajectory of American life and governance eight years ago, your concern for continuity and stability are also risible. The Left seems unable to comprehend that governing through bureaucracies, courts, and coercion can be viewed as illiberal, because they treat policy they like as moral imperatives.
Voters are also human. You can’t spend two terms treating half the country like moral cretins and not expect some pushback. Some Republicans just want revenge. Many don’t care how things get done. Whatever the case, Obama helped create unconstitutional expectations that numerous Trump Republicans believe is the only way to remedy the past eight years. They believe, as did Democrats, that the presidency is power and a little bit of authoritarianism is okay as long as they get the right things done.
It’s as shortsighted now as it was then. For those who believe the most important issue is process, there’s nothing wrong about pointing it out.