It was nice to see Samantha Power’s visit well attended. People clearly feel the need to become politically engaged in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election. For some, hearing from someone in Barack Obama’s cabinet is seen as a good way of remembering better times. Power herself alluded to this during her visit, when she joked about how the Obama team has been “aging well” — a comment that drew nervous laughter from the audience. However, it is this attitude of longingly looking at Obama’s presidency and the current day as an abject departure from established American norms that exonerates some of Obama’s failures. It also obscures the ways in which Trump has merely continued Obama-era policies, and inhibits our demands to move beyond defending past achievements.
The differences between Obama and Trump seem to be infinite; besides the rhetoric, composure and grace, many herald Obama for his approach to politics, his fight for social justice and his respectability as leader of the free world. It is our emphasis on Obama’s rhetoric, however, that seems to exculpate him as a “good guy” who spoke about lofty goals of “change” and “unity.”
But this treatment shields him from valid criticism and treats Trump as a radical departure from American foreign and domestic policy. We must compare the notable policies of Trump and Obama so that we don’t fall into the trap of demanding old policies that were devoid of a more coherent vision for our country.
Obama is known for several key policy achievements that seemed to signal radical departures from established U.S. policy norms. Obamacare, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order and the Iran deal were among the most prominent and continue to receive praise in light of current attempts to gut them. A deeper analysis of these “achievements,” however, requires uncomfortable comparisons with present-day circumstances.
The Iran deal, as well as the unfriendly relationship between Obama and the Israeli prime minister, seemed to illustrate a radical departure from U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. However, in many respects, Obama, like Trump, maintained the status quo. He signed the largest military aid package with Israel ever, a $38 billion deal that upheld one of the most troublesome aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Obama also signed a record arms deal with Saudi Arabia of $115 billion. On top of this, the Obama administration stood by as the Saudi-led coalition committed atrocity after atrocity against the Houthis in Yemen and intervened militarily in the Libyan fiasco. While working for Obama, Power was complicit in the campaign against the Houthis and actively pressed for U.S. engagement in Libya. During her speech, Power criticized Trump’s treatment of the Saudi regime without mentioning these troublesome aspects of Obama’s presidency.
While I wanted to focus on how the foreign policy of today mirrors that of the last president in light of Power’s visit, we must also address the similarities in their domestic policies. Protests against Trump’s treatment of DACA, for example, were covered amply, but people seem to have forgotten that Obama was labeled by many as the “deporter-in-chief” for his ruthless immigration policies. The desire to return to an Obama-era immigration policy reflects the lack of a coherent vision on the left and is mirrored in the debate over the Obamacare overturn. While Obamacare was an impressive step in the quest for health care justice, it also relied on subsidies, preserved the private health insurance industry and created new markets, representing the perfect neoliberal compromise. Fighting to save Obamacare has been useful for centrist Democrats, who have recently labeled a single-payer health care system “unrealistic” — even if it is more popular now than ever.
I don’t seek to criticize the nostalgia many feel for the last president as a way of exonerating the horrific policies of the current one. Instead, I want to highlight the dire need to move past preserving the old as a vision of justice. Highlighting the continuities of the past and present is a way of holding our leaders accountable, as well as contextualizing the Trump presidency as a continuation of this nation’s past failures.
Gabriel Levine-Drizin is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.