“It did not start with Donald Trump,” former President Barack Obama said last week in his melodramatic speech on the current divisions in American politics. “He is a symptom, not the cause.”
If Obama had stopped there, he might have been right. He was trying to describe American politics as suffering a crisis of “division and resentment and paranoia.” Indeed, it is, and indeed it didn’t start with Trump.
It didn’t start with Obama either. But Obama played a key role in making it much worse than it had been before him. Obama governed as an uncompromising ideologue and a hard partisan for eight years. And his desire to antagonize political enemies, above and beyond the meeting of his policy goals, was a critical factor in the election of President Trump.
If you have ever wondered how someone with a 38 percent approval rating on Election Day could become president, this is an important part of the story. Obama’s unprecedented failure to work with the opposite party in any constructive manner, or even to try, combined with his gratuitous persecution of the politically undesirable, left about half of America with the distinct impression that religious freedom, freedom of speech and association, gun rights, and a number of other constitutional rights would vanish if another Democrat succeeded him.
Obama’s snubbing of GOP lawmakers began with his stimulus package, on which he brushed off their suggestions with a simple rejoinder about the election: “I won.” Obama then rejected the advice of his chief of staff to chart a more moderate and sustainable course on healthcare reform (a simple Medicaid expansion) that might have drawn Republican votes across the aisle — and which probably would have averted the Democratic defenestration that followed.
Obama also pushed for a completely ruinous partisan bill imposing carbon caps on the U.S. economy. The measure would not have slowed the pace of global warming, but it would have put large numbers of Americans out of work to enjoy the cool weather — especially in the coal-producing regions that he had promised to “bankrupt” during his campaign.
To this day, many liberals adhere to the myth that Obama tried to work with Republicans, who just wouldn’t reciprocate. But the facts show otherwise. Obama biographer Jonathan Alter included an incredible little detail about the night Republicans won their House majority in 2010. It turns out that not one person on Obama’s staff even had House Republican Leader John Boehner’s cellphone number so that the president could call and congratulate him. That says it all.
In 2011, having lost control of Congress, Obama began a campaign of governing unilaterally wherever possible — and often where not possible — with executive actions, many of them illegal. As he did this, the power-hungry president demonized Congress for failing to enact the very policies that voters had elected them to oppose, arguing that “we can’t wait” ... apparently for democracy and the constitutional order required for new laws to be passed.
Obama used the opportunity to enact many divisive policies, including on immigration, the environment, and the imposition of transgender ideology on young children in the bathrooms of public K-12 schools.
Where Trump merely talks a big game against the media, Obama took action. He barred administration officials at one point from even appearing on Fox News because it failed to meet ideological standards. He spoke publicly to delegitimize it as a news gatherer. Probably not coincidentally, his Justice Department later labeled one of its reporters an "unindicted co-conspirator" in an indictment for merely doing his job.
Speaking of the media, Obama’s Justice Department also ignored existing protocol and monitored incoming and outgoing calls on the phones of multiple Associated Press reporters as part of a fishing expedition to expose a government source. For all of his screaming about CNN and leakers, Trump has not yet stooped to that.
Obama’s administration gratuitously and unforgivably persecuted the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns, for refusing to violate the tenets of their faith and pay for birth control under a completely unnecessary contraception rule created after Obamacare’s passage. Obama insisted inflexibly upon enforcing the rule, rejecting the advice of his vice president, Joe Biden, to live and let live. Left them in a position that no one in a free country should ever face — as their attorney put it, "they can adhere to their religious beliefs and pay millions of dollars in penalties, or they can take steps that they believe to be religiously and morally objectionable.” Fortunately, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled against Obama's position.
Obama’s Labor Department also tried to dictate to a dictate to a Protestant church whom it could hire as a minister. This also led to a unanimous Supreme Court decision against Obama.
Western landowners, with their annoying insistence upon their property rights, are nearly as much of an irritant to progressives as are Christians. Hence the Obama EPA’s attempt, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, to keep in permanent limbo homeowners who just wanted to develop their land in an already-populated area. This also led to a unanimous decision against Obama.
Obama also tried to usurp congressional power by illegally recess-appointing officials when the Senate was not in recess. In doing this, he created a genuine constitutional crisis, not the phony kind that liberals scream about every time Trump unleashes a few unhinged tweets. In the end, this also led to a unanimous Supreme Court decision against Obama.
Finally, with his late-presidency Clean Power Plan, Obama memorably intensified his war on coal. Coal was on its way out anyway, but Obama couldn’t resist a chance to pander and virtue-signal to his white urban leftist base, at the expense of beleagured voters in Appalachia. The latter group responded predictably to the middle finger that Obama had pointed at them. Not only did West Virginia finally become a Republican state in 2014 after the better part of a century in Democratic hands, but key regions of Ohio, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania went for Trump two years later, helping throw him the election.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways Obama tore this nation apart as president. But he tested the limits of his power again and again and tried to impose social norms that divided the country more than ever before, and he created divisions that keep getting deeper and resentments that still fester.
Trump is a historically divisive figure, it is true. But after his sharply partisan and power-hungry presidency, Obama lacks the standing and statesmanship to give the kind of grand address he intended last week. The reality is, one can draw a straight line between the arrogant edicts he once delivered with such confidence from the pulpit, and the wild ramblings of the successor voters chose to undo Obama's work.