In the first seven months of his presidency, Donald Trump has tried to fulfill his campaign promises to reverse a number of Obama-era policies, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the program Obama created by executive order in 2012 for children brought to America illegally. Arguably, Trump won the White House on such promises, and it stands to reason that he would try to follow through on them now that he’s in office.
Shortly after the government shutdown in 2013, then-President Obama said if Republicans didn’t like his policies then they should go out there and “win an election,” not try to undermine the policies they don’t like. That’s exactly what the GOP did, first in 2014 and again in 2016, taking control of both Congress and the White House.
So does Obama stand by what he said? His 2013 boast implied that if Republicans manage to persuade voters to put them in power, they would have every right to pursue their own policy preferences and undo Obama-era measures. Alas, it seems Obama has changed his tune. On Tuesday, he issued a statement calling Trump’s decision to rescind DACA “contrary to our spirit, and to common sense.” Ending the program, he said, “isn’t required legally. It’s a political decision, and a moral question.”
Obama is right that it’s a political decision, just like creating the program in 2012 was a political decision. But of course he’s wrong that it’s a moral question. (Technically, it’s a legal question; no matter what one thinks of the DACA policy itself, the creation of such a program by presidential fiat was a blatant overreach of executive power.)
Democrats Think Their Policy Preferences Are Moral Questions
Here we see a familiar Democratic tactic at work. Whatever policies Democrats enact are not merely politically desirable but morally necessary, and opposing them is morally wrong. That goes for DACA but also pretty much every other Obama policy, from his draconian climate regulations to every last detail of the Affordable Care Act. If Republicans try to roll back any of it, they’re being morally callous—dooming the planet to climate change or killing thousands of Americans by denying them health care. Even opposing the Obama administration’s quixotic Iran nuclear deal was a grave sin that would mean “some form of war” in the Middle East.
That’s why it was hard to believe Obama really meant what he said in 2013. At the time, coming off his reelection the year before, he and other Democratic leaders likely thought there was no way Republicans could actually “win an election”—despite the GOP gaining control of the House in 2010—and that Democratic policies represented a kind of permanent consensus in American political life. What enlightened American, after all, would actually disapprove of Obamacare or the Paris Climate Accord, let alone a program like DACA? Who, besides racists and xenophobes, would ever want to restrict immigration or, God forbid, build a wall to enforce our southern border?
But as we all found out, many Obama-era Democratic policies were even more out of step with what ordinary Americans wanted than what the GOP was offering. We’ve also since found out that many Democrats think their fellow countrymen are indeed nothing more than racists and xenophobes for opposing those policies.
Trump was elected president largely on the promise that he would undo just about every major Obama-era legislative reform and executive order, from DACA to Dodd-Frank to Obamacare. He was pretty blunt about it, in fact, and one of the curious aspects of the DACA announcement is that it didn’t come sooner.
So for Obama to issue a statement scolding the Trump administration for following through on one of the president’s signature campaign promises—last year Trump called DACA an “illegal amnesty” and promised to “immediately terminate” it—shines a light into the progressive mind. For Obama and the Democrats, politics isn’t really about persuasion. It isn’t enough to “win an election” because certain issues are settled. Not even elections can change them.
We can debate the best way to provide universal health coverage, but not whether the government ought to provide such coverage. We can debate the extent to which the Environmental Protection Agency should dictate economic activity in order to combat climate change, but not whether the government should be combating climate change. And so on with every issue—including DACA, over which reasonable people apparently cannot disagree.
Americans don’t like this. They don’t like being told they aren’t allowed to disagree with the prevailing consensus of the political and media elite. It’s one of the reasons voters were drawn to Trump in the first place. He was willing to say all the things his rivals in the GOP primary were not: about borders, about political correctness, about much else besides.
This is why Democrats, despite Trump’s unpopularity and seeming unfitness for office, might have a hard time winning elections any time soon.