There should be a new rule placed on all incoming presidents: you only get one dumb scapegoat. “Fake news” showing up on my newsfeed every day is already too much. It’s still definitely the front runner for Most 2017 Phrase, remaining a crowd favorite for partisans of all stripes. There’s another, quieter fallback of the same ubiquitous and hollow variety. You’ve probably heard it from conservatives and lefties alike: “Well, Obama did it first.”
Why or how the Trump Administration and the GOP is using this excuse is beyond me completely. Then again, so is just about everything they do. After eight years of critiquing Barack Obama, his past decisions are now being used as precedent for Trump’s most unpopular actions.
“Remember how much we lambasted Barack Obama day in and day out? Well, now we’re using him as an excuse. Don’t like the deportations? Sorry, Obama deported people first and you didn’t say anything then so you don’t get to now. Angry about the travel ban? Well, remember that one time when Obama did something kind of like that? Yeah, so that means you can’t have a problem with it now.”
These sorts of things play as get-out-of-jail-free cards for the right and cautionary tales for the left. The only Democrats who didn’t see this coming are the ostriches whose heads are buried so deep in neoliberal, Clintonoid sand they’ve never even heard of drone strikes or Edward Snowden. Obama’s executive overreach and indiscretions were decried by progressives for almost his entire tenure in the White House. Let’s just say there are a lot of “I told you so” articles on The Intercept these days.
Ultimately, these sorts of conversations are necessary. Should we all survive the Trump era and help a more progressive minded agenda take over Washington, D.C. again, we’re going to need to remember the lessons of the Obama years. We’ll need to remember letting Obama get away with things is one of the main ways Trump got away with them too. But in the here and now, for the love of God, can we just drop this?
Fine, we don’t have to drop it completely. We should take it into account when it comes to rebuilding the Democrat Party from the bottom up. Still, it’s really the least of our concerns right now. Any bad thing Obama did is almost certain to be carried on and magnified by Trump and defining our own stance against whatever he does will dig out any latent concerns we had about his predecessor. The trick will be making sure whoever becomes the Democrat candidate in 2020 can’t pull the same tricks that worked in 2008; ironically, most of our “Obama did it first” problems are actually “Bush did it first” problems.
It’s illogical and counterproductive for the resistance to Trump to spend time fixated on the past. The best way to correct Obama’s mistakes isn’t to spend a bunch of time talking about them and how we saw this coming; it’s making sure Trump can’t make them too. We will never be able to undo Obama’s horrible record on drone strikes, surveillance, nonstop war, Wall Street collusion, prosecuting whistleblowers and whatever else. His years are over and we blew it. We didn’t call him on his bullshit and now we’ve got a far less likable and far more dangerous authoritarian wearing his stretched out and exorbitantly powerful glove.
“Obama did it first” is a resignation to history’s repetition. Perhaps the worst remnant of the Obama era is the fact so many of us still see him as a kind of Messiah, a brief reprieve from the worst elements of American society that returned in full force with Trump and his cronies. If Obama was guilty of the same things Trump is, why even keep playing politics at all? After all, he was so likable and he was pretty progressive. Maybe Trump and people like him are inevitable given our best and brightest are privy to the same sins as they are.
The left has a bizarre, nearly religious need to confess its own sins. Most progressives I know feel the need to apologize for every craven or uncouth thing any Democrat does. We really need to let that go for now because we’re hanging by a thread. Any energy spent atoning for our own inaction during the Obama years is time more effectively spent combatting the continuation and acceleration of his worst policies under Trump. A leftist saying “Obama did it first” is either being masturbatory or masochistic. They’re either applauding themselves for calling attention to the affable guy doing heinous things or attempting atonement for not doing so.
Here’s the thing: the right doesn’t care. All our own acknowledgment of bad precedent set by Obama is just setting the stage for them to say, “See! They agree. He did it first so now we can do it too.” No, they can’t. Better late than never is all that needs to be said to anyone who didn’t see the worst things going on from 2008 to 2016 but see them now. “Obama did it first” is a distraction and nothing more.
In what other situation is bad behavior continually allowable just because it wasn’t recognized before? Just because Obama got let off the hook doesn’t mean we have to do the same for Trump. Precedent is a silly idea, once you really think about it. It keeps us locked up in stasis. We can’t move forward because we’re so busy looking backward. The Obama years were a test for progressives we largely failed. But we get to retake the test with Trump and whoever comes after him. That’s where it’ll really matter.