In an episode of CBS’s 60 Minutes last Sunday, former president Barack Obama not-so-subtly compared Trump’s tenure in the White House to something out of a banana republic or a one-party totalitarian state:
I think that there has been this sense over the last several years that literally anything goes and is justified in order to get power. And that’s not unique to the United States. There are strong men and dictators around the world who think that I can do anything to stay in power. I can kill people. I can throw them in jail. I can run phony elections. I can suppress journalists. But that’s not who we’re supposed to be. And one of the signals I think that Joe Biden needs to send to the world is that no, those values that we preached, and we believed in, and subscribed in, we still believe.
Comparisons of Trump’s rhetoric and actions to an authoritarian’s have ranged from the hysterical to the nuanced. But Obama’s assessment of Trump is not only dramatic and overtly partisan. It is a whitewashing of his own administration’s lawlessness and overreach. It is sheer projection.
Throughout his presidency, Obama routinely engaged in the sort of behavior he would describe as authoritarian and vindictive. His rhetoric matched his actions. After the 2010 midterm elections, House Republicans refused to enact the president’s overwhelming regulatory agenda. A frustrated Obama proclaimed, “Where they won’t act, I will.” Later, in his 2014 State of the Union address, Obama said he would try to “take steps without legislation,” “whenever and wherever” possible.
No doubt, Obama occasionally paid lip service to constitutional norms. In early 2011, when discussing immigration law, Obama said, “With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportation through executive order, that’s just not the case.” A year later, though, Obama issued his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order (DACA), which gave partial legal status to over 700,000 illegal immigrants who had arrived in the United States as children. In 2014, Obama again issued an executive order on immigration — Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, or DAPA — but a lower-court block of the sweeping move, which would have granted amnesty to millions, was eventually upheld by a deadlocked Supreme Court.
Obama’s IRS also attempted to silence political enemies. Lois Lerner, an IRS official who served under Obama, threatened Tea Party nonprofits that had applied for tax-exempt status throughout the 2010 midterms and the 2012 presidential election. Between 2010 and 2013, the IRS subjected these nonprofits, based on their names and policy positions, to unfair, heightened, abnormal scrutiny. Obama himself called out this behavior as “outrageous” and vowed to hold the IRS “fully accountable.” No one would be held accountable, and the scandal was swept under the rug, naturally.
During his final press conference, Obama fawned over journalists, calling upon the American press corps to retaliate against the incoming Trump administration. “Our democracy needs you,” he said, “America needs you.” This was not his position when in the White House; Obama was, in practice, more “Nixonian” than any president since Nixon. In 2015, former New York Times reporter James Risen described the Obama administration, in very stark terms, as “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.” His assessment is accurate.
Obama’s Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder, who once described himself as the president’s “wing man,” charged eight people for leaking to journalists under the Espionage Act of 1917: Thomas Drake, Shamai Leibowitz, Stephen Kim, Chelsea Manning, Donald Sachtleben, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou, and Edward Snowden. Overall, the administration prosecuted three times as many cases of whistleblowing and leaking as any previous administration, Republican or Democratic. Moreover, in 2013, the Obama administration obtained a warrant to search the phone records and personal emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen. Rosen had published sensitive information about North Korea that the administration claimed might have undermined its efforts.
“At the end of the day, I consistently tried to treat my political opposition in the ways I’d want to be treated,” Obama said during the 60 Minutes interview. To call him a hypocrite is not enough. Obama is a power-hungry — albeit talented — politician who exploits media outlets and his cultural cachet to advance his party’s agenda and protect his legacy, while castigating others who do not march in lockstep with his grandiose vision of what America ought to be. Now that he’s back in the limelight, there is no reason not to shine a torch on his real legacy.