December 17, 2018

Obama’s legacy: Trump

When protesters nationwide express their opposition to America’s new president this weekend on the occasion of his inauguration, I wonder how many of them will ask: Why did so many Americans vote for Donald Trump?

It can’t be that Trump voters are all racist bigots or cynics who want to be entertained by a blustering and impulsive reality television star in the world’s most powerful house.

That would be too easy.

The elephant in the room few Trump opponents want to talk about is that the majority of Americans clearly didn’t like the direction of the country under President Barack Obama.

“Every single poll shows that more than six in 10 Americans feel the country is on the wrong track,” wrote James Holman of the Washington Post on Sept. 16, 2016.

To get a better feel for the numbers, Holman spoke to Democratic pollster Margie Omero, who told him: “Gallup continues to show voters naming ‘dissatisfaction with government’ about as big of a problem as ‘the economy in general.’ And barely half consider themselves ‘extremely proud’ to be American–a new low. There’s this sense that our country is adrift, our politics are beyond repair.”

Should a president be held responsible for these kind of sentiments?

Obama lovers, naturally, would rather blame voter dissatisfaction on anything but their man. But there’s one thing they conveniently overlook: Obama himself promised very big things, including his vision of fixing “broken politics.”

Here’s what he said in his exploratory committee announcement in 2008:

“America's faced big problems before. But today our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common-sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. That's what we have to change first. We have to change our politics and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans.”

It sounded grand and beautiful, and most Americans bought it. As Chris Cillizza wrote recently in the Washington Post, “There was a belief that we, as a country, might be on the verge of something new, different and better.”

And yet, as analyst Peter Wehner notes, “[Obama] leaves office with America more conflicted and cynical than when he took office. More than 70 percent of Americans say the country is either more divided or no more united than it was in 2009. Race relations are the worst in decades, and our nation is as polarized as it has been in the modern era.”

Should we let Obama off the hook because he’s popular and charismatic, or because his promises were too grand and idealistic?

It is precisely his idealism that helped get him elected. To win the White House, Obama had no problem presenting himself as a great savior. As Ross Douthat wrote this week in The New York Times, Obama “took the presidency’s already overlarge role in American life and magnified it further—raising, through his own transformational-bordering-on-messianic political style and reluctant-but-substantial embrace of the imperial presidency, both perfervid fears and unsupportable expectations.”

Savior begets savior. Obama put the “savior taste” in America’s mouth. We became easily seduced by the notion of a transcendent leader who can transform the country and fix our problems. It even felt very American—the lone hero who comes to save the day and rescue us.

So, if one savior disappoints, we might as well try a new one, preferably as different as possible from the previous one. Enter new “savior” Trump, the very antithesis of Obama who ran on repudiating his predecessor’s agenda.

While there are multiple factors behind the rise of Trump, we should not discount the Obama backlash. As Douthat writes, Trump’s rise “might have been prevented had Obama promised less grandly, eschewed imperial temptations when stymied in his ambitions, and dressed his technocratic liberalism in less arc-of-history nonsense.”

In other words, a more humble Obama might have created less of an appetite for a Trump. But when you’re so desperate to sell a legacy policy that you dish out inflated falsehoods like, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it”—named the 2013 Politifact Lie of the Year– it shouldn’t come as a shock if many voters feel like punching back. Trump was their punch.

When so many people are in a foul mood, when they feel their “country is adrift” and their “politics are beyond repair” and they don’t have much left to lose, they’re more likely to overlook a candidate’s personal flaws for the sake of radical change.

It's more than a little ironic that the last man who promised “hope and change” delivered not much hope and one huge change: President Donald Trump.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at