WASHINGTON – Blaming President Barack Obama for the rise of Donald Trump is popular among Republican leaders. They don’t want to take responsibility for the choices made by their own voters or their complicity in tolerating and even encouraging the extremism Trump represents.
They also don’t want to face the fact that many Trump ballots were aimed at them.
It should be said that many conservatives are resisting the Blame-Obama-First temptation by trying to come to terms with what has happened to their cause. National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru offered an admirably sober assessment of his side’s role in Trump’s emergence that included this observation: “We have come to reward the expression of resentment and anger more than the mastery of public policy.”
This is an accurate and powerful critique of a movement that once claimed to have all the new ideas.
Now their main insight is that Obama is wrong about everything. The Wall Street Journal drew on dialectic to editorialize on the Obama-leads-to-Trump concept: “Every thesis creates its antithesis.”
Just last Friday, Barry Sternlicht, a big-time investor, said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that “Obama basically apologized for us” on the world stage, and that Americans are “tired of apologizing.” Trump, he explained, has tapped into a “deep vein,” the desire of the United States to win.
Now it’s true that every president ends up with responsibility in some way for everything that goes awry on his (or, someday soon perhaps, her) watch. And you can make a case that Democrats, in the brief period under Obama when they held a filibuster-proof Senate majority – they lost it, remember, in January 2010, after Ted Kennedy’s death – should have done more to stimulate the economy, lift working-class incomes and thus reduce the level of anger in parts of the electorate.
But what’s maddening here is not just the incongruity of indicting Obama for the success of the man who denied his very right to be president. It’s also that Obama has consistently stood for the things that conservatives say they want liberals to stand for – starting with a robust patriotism.
No one who heard Obama’s 2015 speech in Selma, Alabama, could doubt his belief that the United States is a special place, “strong enough to be self-critical” and thus capable of extraordinary moments of self-improvement and self-correction.
But it goes beyond this. Obama’s commencement address earlier this month at Howard University, which has received less attention than it deserved, was a compendium of arguments that conservatives have wanted to hear.
Conservatives worry that liberals, on university campuses and elsewhere, are inclined to shut down speech they disagree with. Well, Obama is worried, too.
“There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally,” Obama said. “Don’t do that – no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths. … If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”
Don’t conservatives want to argue that to deny racial progress is to ignore what’s happened over the last 50 years? Obama thinks this, too.
“Let me say something that may be controversial, and that is this: America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college. … If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, ‘young, gifted, and black’ in America, you would choose right now.”
“To deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers … your mothers and your dads, and grandparents and great grandparents, who marched and toiled and suffered and overcame to make this day possible.”
Conservatives regularly criticize self-righteous moralism on the part of progressives. Well, Obama insisted that “change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing. … In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.”
“Listening to those with whom you disagree.” Now there is a bracing idea at a moment when the politician getting all the media attention is famous for attaching nasty adjectives to the names of his opponents and urging his followers to strong-arm dissident voices out of his rallies.
Blaming Obama for that guy is like condemning someone who’s trying to stop the fight for starting it. It’s sad. Very weak, too.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.