We’ve heard a lot of Republicans and conservatives respond to criticism of President Trump by pointing to things President Obama did. And the liberal/progressive-pundit buzzword du jour for this is “whataboutism” – i.e., the idea that it’s illegitimate to cite Obama as a defense to criticisms of Trump, even in arguments with people who defended or praised similar conduct by Obama. Does it matter that Obama did it first?
As a matter of right and wrong, or on a question of constitutional principle, the answer obviously is “no.” If Obama did something first, that doesn’t make it right. Indeed, for those of us who see the Obama presidency as a disaster for national security, small government, religious and economic liberty, separation of powers, and the rule of law, the fact that Obama did something first makes it more likely that it was wrong. For example, Obama claimed the right to effectively legalize millions of illegal immigrants by unilateral executive fiat as a matter of “prosecutorial discretion.” This was a gravely dangerous incursion of presidential power into lawmaking powers that the Constitution properly gave to Congress. President Trump has no similar power – if he has the power to issue things like his executive order on refugees, he needs to identify when and how Congress gave him that authority (which is exactly the argument made for that order, insofar as it is temporary in nature). To pick another example, conservatives rightly blasted Obama for picking economic winners and losers and taking a corporatist view of the economy. Boondoggles like Trump’s Carrier deal can’t be defended on the grounds that they are Obama-like; that’s the problem with them.
But there are a number of other ways in which looking back at the Obama years is quite relevant.
First, some controversies are entirely about what is normal, typical, or unprecedented in the conduct of the president or the federal government. That was especially clear during the transition. For example, there was an enormous hue and cry about Trump taking down sections of the White House website on particular issues; in fact, his team wiped clean all the Obama-era policy content on the site, moving it to an archived site. But that’s exactly the same thing Obama did on taking office. There’s no moral or political principle at stake, just the claim that Trump was doing something unprecedented – and it turned out he wasn’t. What about Obama was the central issue.
Second, there is the question of radicalism. Much of the “Resist” movement among Democrats and liberals (including the view that Trump should not even be entitled to fill a Cabinet) is premised upon the idea that Trump represents a truly unprecedented break with how our government operates. Certainly, this is true of Trump’s biography, his business empire, his use of Twitter, and of a lot of his behavior on the campaign trail. Aspects of his press shop’s contempt for the media and the truth have also broken new ground.
But many of the supposedly radical and dangerous acts by Trump and the Trump Administration turn out not to be such dramatic breaks with the Obama Administration, for good or ill. As I’ve detailed before, critics have overstated how Trump’s refugee order differs from Obama-era refugee policies (all the way down to Obama’s Administration having singled out the same list of seven countries for heightened scrutiny over terrorist risks under the visa waiver program). It’s fair to argue that both have been seriously misguided or that Trump has gone a step too far, but the context of knowing what the existing policy already was is important. Likewise, the argument that Trump is engaging in an unprecedented assault on the independence of the judiciary falls apart when you look at Obama’s record of public attacks on the Supreme Court. In that case, both Trump and Obama are in the wrong, but the Rubicon was crossed under the last Administration.
Third, there’s the matter of who caused a problem. Traditionally, most every president blames his predecessor for nearly everything when he first arrives in the office, and traditionally, the voters have the patience to accept this excuse for roughly the first year. That tendency goes beyond the presidency or government, as illustrated by the old “prepare two envelopes” joke. And presidents typically use “what we inherited” as a bar for measuring accomplishments after that. On the other hand, it becomes a crutch to keep just blaming every failure on the last guy, as Obama tended to do with Bush all the way to the very end. It’s fair and appropriate, for now, to notice which problems are not of Trump’s own making. But eventually, that will become a lame excuse.
Fourth, there’s the question of hypocrisy and media double standards. It is more than fair to note that people outraged at Trump had nothing at all to say about similar actions or statements by Obama, or celebrated them, or mocked his critics (and incumbent on conservatives, as well, to criticize things that we found genuinely troubling about Obama). For example, lots of liberals spent October 2016 lecturing us about how the worst, most un-American thing anyone could do is call into question the result of an election – they should not be able to memory-hole that now when doing precisely that. This is just one of a long list of categorical value statements trotted out by liberal pundits over the years that are forgotten as soon as they become inconvenient, from denouncing anyone who questions the patriotism of political opponents to arguing for compartmentalization. An adversarial system of punditry is necessary in order to remind people how little of this stuff is sincere.
A two-party system ensures that the shoe will often be switched to the other foot. Sometimes, it’s true, switching feet will make you change your mind about what the rules of the road should be, but reminding people where they stood the day before yesterday is a healthy way to encourage long-term consistency and punish nakedly hypocritical opportunism.