John J. Pitney Jr.
The contrast between the 44th and 45th presidents in a single day could not have been more dramatic. Barack Obama on Monday published a carefully reasoned article about police violence and mob violence, advising his fellow Americans how to restore peace and justice. Donald Trump, meanwhile, ranted at the nation’s governors by phone. He said most of them were “weak” and urged them to use the military to “dominate” the protesters.
Like other conservatives, I voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney and I criticized President Obama. But if I had to choose between him and his successor, I’d take Obama in a nanosecond.
The two presidencies are not even in the same category. Criticizing Obama was like calling fouls in a basketball game. Criticizing Trump is like calling 911 to report a crime spree.
I did fault Obama for raising expectations that he could not meet. Early in the 2008 campaign, he buttressed his support for campaign reform by pledging to stay within the public financing system for the general election. He then backtracked and instead relied on private contributions. The reversal was mildly embarrassing but totally lawful.
Trump horror show is unfolding now
By contrast, Robert Mueller’s report found that Trump’s 2016 campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” In preparation for the 2020 campaign, Trump pressured the government of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden — the offense for which the House impeached him.
When Obama took office, his first major initiative was an economic stimulus package that would purportedly support “shovel-ready projects.” After the results fell short, he acknowledged, “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.” He also promised that the Affordable Care Act would enable all Americans to keep the doctors and insurance plans that they liked. It did not work out that way.
On these issues and others, there was plenty of room for legitimate fault-finding. But Obama was hardly the first politician to over-promise and under-deliver. His policies did not amount to a revolution, but they were not a horror show, either.
The horror show is unfolding before us. Despite repeated warnings from his own administration and outside experts, Trump wasted precious time dismissing the coronavirus pandemic. “And again, when you have 15 people,” he said Feb. 26, “and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” He said the next day: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” More than 100,000 deaths later, these false assurances sound ghastly.
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Critics like me enjoyed flyspecking Obama’s factual inaccuracies. In 2010, for example, I noted that he had misstated the scope of Social Security coverage in the 1930s. Such an error is a microscopic droplet in comparison with the flood of falsehoods gushing from the White House today. By one count, Trump made more than 19,000 false or misleading statements between his inauguration and late May of this year. For instance, he blamed Obama for “bad” and “broken” tests for COVID-19, even though scientists first discovered the virus nearly three years after Obama had left office.
Friendly call with Russia’s Putin
Republicans went after Obama after an open microphone caught him telling a Russian official that he would have more negotiating flexibility after the 2012 election. They also expressed indignation at his acknowledgment that countries other than the United States believe that they are exceptional.
But Obama later made clear that he believed in American exceptionalism after Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned of its dangers. Trump then weighed in — on the Russian side. He said Putin’s view “made him look like a great leader” and “if you’re in Russia, you don’t want to hear that America is exceptional.”.
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Obama, like Ronald Reagan and other presidents, was stressing that our exceptionalism stemmed from our ideals. In scorning that view, Trump rejected an essential element of our national identity — which is perhaps why Putin wanted him to win in 2016.
On Monday, the same day that he had his contentious call with American governors, Trump had a friendly call with Putin.
From a conservative standpoint, Barack Obama was not an ideal president. But he was decent, honorable and patriotic. Donald Trump is none of these things.
John J. Pitney Jr. Is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of “Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump.” Follow him on Twitter: @jpitney.