The Corner

Politics & Policy

A Portrait of Two Presidents

In terms of the effective practice of politics, even apart from the wisdom or morality of one or another policy, yesterday offered a couple of extraordinary lessons in how not to be president. It’s easy to criticize, and it’s hard to be president, but surely it’s worth learning from what doesn’t work. 

The first lesson came from former president Barack Obama. His intervention in the DACA debate yesterday afternoon was a stark reminder of the peculiar combination of recklessness and moral preening that so often characterized his approach to the presidency. He took no responsibility for the situation he did so much to create; he just lectured the people who are stuck with it. 

In immigration, as in health care, Obama left behind a legacy teetering on the edge of collapse—a series of policies that could hardly survive except through extreme efforts by a successor both equally committed to their ends and equally willing to pursue super-legal means to sustain them. Whatever you make of the substance of what he was after and of the extraordinary political challenges he confronted, Obama’s approach to policymaking amounted to a failure to account for the need for endurance, and fairly little of what he built now looks likely to endure. 

In the case of DACA in particular, just as with the cost-sharing reduction payments in Obamacare, it frankly seems as though Donald Trump actually wants to keep his predecessor’s policies intact, but in both cases this could not be done without defending the legally indefensible. There are many, many good reasons to criticize Donald Trump, but his reticence to persist in his predecessor’s lawlessness just isn’t one of them. 

The sight of so many of those who have been (at times surely rightly) complaining for eight months about threats to our system and to democratic norms now lining up to condemn the Trump administration’s reluctance to ignore the Constitution has to make us wonder about their own commitments. And Obama’s comments also unavoidably raise the question of the depth of his commitment to the beneficiaries of DACA in particular. Are immigration liberals (including former president Obama) willing to trade anything for legitimately legalizing the “dreamers” by statute? Would they trade funding of an essentially symbolic border wall for it? Would they trade universal e-verify (which they can’t really muster any argument against) for it? Anything? Or is it worth so little to them as a substantive matter that they would rather offer nothing but sermons about their own moral superiority? The question itself is a reminder of one of the key problems with Obamaism. 

And then, before the day was done, we also got quite a reminder yesterday about one of the key problems with Trumpism. Whatever you think about DACA and whatever you think about the changes to it that the Trump administration announced yesterday, there is no way to understand this tweet by the president last night as anything other than a spectacular blunder that makes a complete hash of everything his administration and his allies might be after. 

The president’s statement contradicted both the substance of the policy Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced yesterday and everything Sessions said about it. It makes a mockery of what the president’s press secretary said in defense of it. It defines legislation to “legalize DACA” as the goal, rather than as a concession to be made in return for achieving other policy goals, so that Republicans must now effectively negotiate without leverage and while standing to the right of a famously immigration-hawk president and Democrats can make an “even Donald Trump” argument for not giving an inch. He has given ground decisively but gained no friends and no concessions. And so he has increased the likelihood that six months from now he will be right back here but weaker. It would not have been easy to undermine his own position more thoroughly than this.

There we have, in the course of one day, two presidents offering two lessons in how to get nothing accomplished. “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” James Madison warned us 230 years ago. He wasn’t kidding. 

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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