As Trump’s excesses mount, it’s time to reckon with the darker side of Obama’s legacy

The former president deported more than 2.5 million undocumented migrants from the US.

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So, what’s been going on while I’ve been gone?” joked the 44th president of the United States on 24 April at the University of Chicago, in his first public speech since leaving office.

Obama is (officially) back in the public eye, doing more events, accepting more awards, dipping his toe into anti-Trump waters. It is difficult not to miss the sane, sober, eloquent former law professor in an age of insane and incoherent rants, and “alternative facts”. Nevertheless, the horrors of the Donald Trump era should not blind us to the myriad ways in which his Democratic predecessor helped lay the groundwork for it. The truth is that 44 was an enabler for 45.

Take deportations. “The detention and deportation of non-criminal immigrants – including kids – might be one of the most underrported [sic] stories of the Trump era,” tweeted Jon Favreau, who was a speechwriter for Obama, in late April.

Yet his former boss deported more than 2.5 million undocumented immigrants. In fact, Obama removed more people from the US in his two terms in office than all of the presidents of the 20th century combined. An analysis by the New York Times in 2014 found “two-thirds of… [deportation] cases involve people who had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all.”

And Trump has never shied away from cynically invoking Obama’s record to defend himself. “Nobody talks about it,” Trump said during the presidential campaign. “But under Obama, millions of people have been moved out of this country.”

Take the “Muslim ban”. “[Obama] fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion,” a spokesman for Obama wrote on 30 January, responding to President Trump’s executive order banning entry into the US for nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Libya and Yemen. Yet the then White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, claimed a day earlier that it was Obama, and not Trump, who originally listed those seven as “countries of particular concern”.

Spicer was for once telling the truth. It was President Obama who, in the wake of the San Bernardino terror attack, signed a bill into law in December 2015 restricting travel to the US for people who lived in or visited those seven countries, even though neither of the two attackers had ties to any of them.

Take Trump’s bombing of Syria. Plenty of liberals applauded Trump’s air strikes against the Assad government on 6 April but many of them also slammed the president for doing so unilaterally. “His failure to seek Congressional approval is unlawful,” declared Senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate. Yet Kaine, in July 2011, when Obama’s Libya war was in full swing, was “noncommittal” on whether the president was legally obliged to seek Congressional approval, and defended Obama’s “good rationale” for air strikes.

Is it any surprise, then, that a Trump administration official told CBS News the day after the air strikes that this president’s rationale for launching them without Congressional approval was “similar to what President Obama used in 2011 to use force in Libya”? Oh dear. Again and again, Trump and his acolytes hide behind decisions Obama made; again and again, Democrats stick their heads in the sand and pretend they never happened. Yet the double standards are glaring. How can you criticise Trump for filling his administration with Goldman Sachs alumni, for example, without also acknowledging that Obama raised more money from Wall Street in 2008 than any previous presidential candidate, and then praised the bosses of Goldman Sachs and JP Chase Morgan as “very savvy businessmen”?

How can you criticise Trump for issuing 30 executive orders in his first 100 days in office without admitting Obama issued more orders in his first 100 days – 19 – than any president since LBJ? How can you criticise Trump for sucking up to dictators without recalling how Obama literally bowed to the king of Saudi Arabia and hailed him, when he died, for his “vision” and “bold steps”?

Don’t get me wrong: not a day goes by in which I do not pine for the presidency of Barack Obama, warts (or should that be drone strikes?) and all. Nor does a day go by when I don’t feel scorn towards some on the left, such as the actress Susan Sarandon and Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, who inanely suggested that Trump, Obama and Hillary Clinton were all as bad as each other. That was nonsense on stilts. From climate change to healthcare to race relations, they were always worlds apart.  And Trump has already gone above and beyond anything Obama ever did on any of these issues: from ramping up deportations against those charged – and not just convicted – of criminal offences, to introducing an actual ban – and not just travel restrictions – on immigrants from six (originally, seven) Muslim-majority countries.

I am also well aware that “Obama did it, so why can’t I?” is an easy excuse for the sitting president, who would undoubtedly have done all the things he has done so far whether his Democratic predecessor had set a precedent or not. Trump, after all, is Trump.

Yet it is nevertheless disingenuous for supporters – and former employees – of Obama to attack Trump for doing things that the 44th president either did himself or opened the door for his successor to do. It also undermines their very legitimate critique of Trump’s egregious excesses. It would be great if liberals could reflect on the eight years that came before Trump. There has to be a reckoning with the darker side of the Obama legacy. To borrow a line oft-quoted by the former president himself: “If not now, when?” 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue