Barack Obama’s Role in Giving Us the Trump Presidency

by Benjamin Studebaker

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is remembered as a great philosopher and successful military commander, but he is also remembered for picking his feckless son Commodus as his successor, an emperor who infamously cared more about making showy performances as a gladiator than he did governing the empire. Barack Obama is still a popular president–his favorability rating is +10 and his job approval rating is +8. In recent months many pieces have been written lamenting his imminent departure, and many more will likely be written before January. But no matter how likeable Obama is or how well Obama governed while in office, the fact that he could not ensure the election of a competent successor counts against his legacy. How did Barack Obama end up giving us a Commodus? What, if anything, could Obama have done to avoid this?

One of the misfortunes of democratic politics is that the things you need to say and do to win in the short term often hamper you in the long-run. Barack Obama ran a brilliantly effective campaign in 2008. At a time when the global economy was disintegrating and confidence in establishment parties and policy was under threat, Obama promised hope and change, which is precisely what people were looking for. But to maximize his electoral reach, Obama preferred to speak of these changes in an abstract, rhetorical way. This allowed voters with diverse political views to project whatever changes they wanted to see onto Obama. When he did talk policy, he promised extravagant results without much specifics. Look at how Obama talked about what he was going to do at the DNC convention in 2008:

Now is the time to finally meet our moral obligation to provide every child a world-class education, because it will take nothing less to compete in the global economy. Michelle and I are only here tonight because we were given a chance at an education. And I will not settle for an America where some kids don’t have that chance. I’ll invest in early childhood education. I’ll recruit an army of new teachers, and pay them higher salaries and give them more support. And in exchange, I’ll ask for higher standards and more accountability. And we will keep our promise to every young American – if you commit to serving your community or your country, we will make sure you can afford a college education.

Now is the time to finally keep the promise of affordable, accessible health care for every single American. If you have health care, my plan will lower your premiums. If you don’t, you’ll be able to get the same kind of coverage that members of Congress give themselves. And as someone who watched my mother argue with insurance companies while she lay in bed dying of cancer, I will make certain those companies stop discriminating against those who are sick and need care the most.

Now is the time to help families with paid sick days and better family leave, because nobody in America should have to choose between keeping their jobs and caring for a sick child or ailing parent.

Now is the time to change our bankruptcy laws, so that your pensions are protected ahead of CEO bonuses; and the time to protect Social Security for future generations.

And now is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day’s work, because I want my daughters to have exactly the same opportunities as your sons.

Now, many of these plans will cost money, which is why I’ve laid out how I’ll pay for every dime – by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens that don’t help America grow. But I will also go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less – because we cannot meet twenty-first century challenges with a twentieth century bureaucracy.

A lot of this never happened. A lot of it could be in a political speech today and no one would be surprised. There are no numbers in it. The policies that Obama passed were much more complicated and did lots of things he didn’t choreograph during the campaign–the public was not primed for common core or the individual mandate. The promise to lower premiums suggested that premiums would fall in absolute terms, not relative to projections. Family leave never happened and became part of the Sanders stump speech 8 years later. The gender pay gap is as much a thing now as it was then. And of course, coming into office during a major recession, Obama could not realistically promise to avoid borrowing–indeed, avoiding borrowing would have been bad macroeconomics.

But the biggest problem with Obama’s 2008 campaign was his pledge to transcend partisanship. Obama was fond of saying things like this:

For eighteen long months, you have stood up, one by one, and said enough to the politics of the past. You understand that in this election, the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result. You have shown what history teaches us – that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens because the American people demand it – because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time.

America, this is one of those moments.

I believe that as hard as it will be, the change we need is coming. Because I’ve seen it. Because I’ve lived it. I’ve seen it in Illinois, when we provided health care to more children and moved more families from welfare to work. I’ve seen it in Washington, when we worked across party lines to open up government and hold lobbyists more accountable, to give better care for our veterans and keep nuclear weapons out of terrorist hands.

Here Obama told a big institutional falsehood. It may not have been a lie–he may have believed it at the time–but it was tremendously damaging. The core of it is the idea that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Washington DC that can’t be fixed by changing the players. For Obama, the problem in 2008 was that the politicians were the wrong people. The story was that if we elected people who were willing to work across the aisle instead of those nasty partisans, we’d be able to do all sorts of things. All the American people had to do was vote for Obama and his friends and they’d get change they could believe in. Obama is the transformational agent. He brings the change to Washington, and our democratic institutions are what facilitate this rather than what impede it.

The political dysfunction in Washington is much more sophisticated than this. It has its roots in perverse structural incentives that force politicians to behave badly. Politicians rely on other people for votes and funding, and they cannot engage in political behavior that jeopardizes either without risking their jobs.  Our political parties have evolved into what they are because they have found that these ideological positions and tactics are what generate electoral success. They only adapt in defeat, and their adaptation in defeat is not necessarily determined by the national interest but by what politicians and party strategists believe is the fastest route back to office.

This is meant to be a feature, not a bug–the system was designed to make parties responsive to the public by tying public office to electoral success. But when the public doesn’t know or care much about policy and is more responsive to lofty rhetoric and bombast than competence or attention to detail, the democratic system will incentivize that behavior and gradually hunt the competent politicians to extinction. It was the Democrats who took the biggest risks in support of Obama’s agenda who tended to pay the heaviest electoral price, as Obama himself eventually came to understand:

But a lot of times it was these young guys who had the most to lose, had the toughest races, a guy like Tom Perriello in Virginia, who were the first ones to say, “This is why I wanted to get elected, I want to help people and I think it’s the right thing to do.” And they almost all lost their seats.

Barack Obama was not a transformational figure who disrupted this process of dumbing down–he was part of it. Compared to George W. Bush or Donald Trump we think of Obama as educated and polished, but his speeches were always focused less on substance and more on emotional appeal. Obama’s education came across more in his multi-syllabic, Greek and Latin-inflected vocabulary than it did in the substance of what he said. This is not to say that Obama isn’t an intelligent guy who knows policy–of course he is–but this is not what got him elected president. He got in on rhetorical flourishes, and the members of congress who tried to sell his policies on their merits couldn’t get through to a voting public that wasn’t interested in lengthy explanations. Obama’s rhetorical politics ultimately killed his policies. His speaking skills secured him re-election, but his Democratic legions were decimated in congress and in the statehouses. He served his second term as a general without an army, speaking softly into the void. And out of that void came a screaming Donald Trump.

Trump’s campaign has a lot more in common with Obama’s than we might think. Like Obama, Trump tells a simple story about what’s wrong with politics that’s focused around his ability to be a transformational agent. Like Obama, Trump will tell you that change doesn’t come from Washington. Like Obama, Trump will tell you that we can’t stick with the same people–Clinton’s just another Washington politician, she’s been at this for 30 years, what good will another 4 do?

But there is one big difference. Obama told the American people he would transcend party politics by bringing the parties together. Trump tells us he will transcend party politics by smashing the parties and draining the swamp. By defeating Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, two dynastic politicians who embody the political establishment in the eyes of most Americans, he has already been able to give the appearance of accomplishing this even before taking office. Obama’s change message was optimistic and hopeful. Trump’s message is that same optimism inflected with a cynicism learned through hard experience. But both politicians and both movements remain obsessed with the power of the transformational agent, the hero who comes to save the day.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the Obama presidency has played host to a series of vacuous superhero movies that glorify the transformational agent’s ability to transcend institutional limits with magic powers:

By contrast, what did Hillary Clinton do? She attempted to channel that cynicism by promising less and ridiculing the promises of others as impractical at best and destructive at worst. But winning American politicians have been telling Americans that transformational agents can make a difference for years, that the only thing wrong with our political system is the set of people currently in office. And who has been in office an awfully long time? Hillary Clinton. She was a candidate perfectly designed to lose to the type of messaging employed by both Obama and Trump. All you need to do is send me and my friends to Washington instead of that same old band of fat cats. We alone can solve. We’re the heroes, they’re the villains.

But just as Hollywood only makes superhero movies because it’s what people pay to see, politicians only invoke the transformational agent because it’s what voters want. So even Obama can’t really be blamed for this–in the Darwinian struggle to take and hold office, you must play to public foolishness or face political oblivion. The worse the voters are, the worse the politicians necessarily become. Garbage in, garbage out.

The biggest problem with Obama is not that he was a cause of Donald Trump, it’s that he is a symptom of the same disease–us.