“The Whitelash”: Was Eight Years of Obama Worth Four of Trump?

Illustration by Lucinda Drake

In the wake of the 2016 election, many Democrats scrambled to understand what was happening to the nation. Since then, analyses have varied; was it Trump’s novel persona that carried him forth, or perhaps Clinton’s failures that did in the Dems? Was it a revolution from the moral majority or an inability of Democrats to connect with voters of color? That night, CNN commentator Van Jones offered a perspective that has stayed with many. “This was a whitelash against a changing country,” Jones lamented. “It was whitelash against a black president in part. And that’s the part where the pain comes.”

Jones’s comments introduce the theory that the election of Donald Trump was largely the result of a nation-wide reaction to the prior eight years under President Obama, a racial-division fueled backlash from parts of white America that resulted in a conservative, bigoted, and at times blatantly racist president. It is impossible to know for certain how true this is; many factors undoubtedly led to Trump’s victory. But there is certainly some credence to the theory. The White House often switches party alignments after a two term president has vacated the office. The reason is simple; after eight years people want a change. George W. Bush created such frustration by the end of his second term that in the 2008 election, Washington was overcome by a blue wave as the Democrats took control of both branches of Congress as well as the executive office. Obama’s time in office was no exception, and by his second term, the divided government made it clear that national sentiment had shifted generally out of his favor. After Obama’s many progressive social changes, a red wave was somewhat expected. We will never know what would have happened if Obama had been replaced by another white man, albeit an equally progressive one. But it seems reasonable to assume that to some degree the conservative outcome of 2016 was caused by a discomfort with Obama, with his progressive stances, and with having the first black president.

So perhaps without Obama, there would have been no Trump. Or at least, no successful Trump. This mere possibility leaves many Democrats with a resounding question: was eight years under Obama worth four under Trump?

Obama’s progressive accomplishments are many. He signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), increasing healthcare access for millions of Americans. He helped establish the Iran Nuclear Deal, working towards more peaceful relations with the Middle East. He created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), allowing many immigrants to reside in and contribute to the U.S. lawfully. He worked toward closing Guantanamo and rolled ceased Bush-era torture methods used on detainees. He appointed progressive justices Kagan and Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. He got rid of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy of the U.S. military, allowing for more equality and opportunity in the armed forces. And he increased environmental regulation, steering the country towards more sustainable practices.

But Trump has reversed many of these advancements. Trump has worked tirelessly to repeal the ACA, a fundamental promise of his campaign. He discarded the Iran Nuclear Deal, increased military involvement in Afghanistan, and repealed DACA. In his campaign, Trump promised to bring back torture, but has yet to officially do so. He appointed conservative justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. He instituted a ban on transgender people serving in the military. And he downsized environmental regulation, withdrawing from international agreements and tampering with the Environmental Protection Agency. So Trump has undone a lot of Obama-era progress, but he has certainly not taken the country back to the Bush days. The ACA still stands, and many of Trump’s other reforms are being heavily contested in courts.

And Obama had another accomplishment even greater than his policy. He provided overwhelming hope for many Americans, lifting the country out of a recession and into a new progressive age. He demonstrated that America had truly changed for the better in the past decades; not only had a change finally come, but more changes were surely on their way. His central campaign message remains the great message from his eight years in the oval office: hope for an ever-more perfect union.

Can Trump ever undo such an accomplishment? Maybe being the first black president is an irrevocable, irreplaceable legacy of greatness and hope. But Trump’s reign is also a sign of something larger—a growing threat to democracy in America and around the globe. Trump has propelled the nation further and further towards becoming an autocracy. He refuses to abide by ethical standards upheld by previous presidents, both in his actions, his appointments, and the way he treats other public figures. He has gone to war with the free press, verbally attacking journalists and attempting to manipulate fact itself to his advantage. He has lied consistently since taking office, and has been decidedly benevolent towards some of the world’s autocratic leaders. If Trump is the beginning of authoritarianism in America, perhaps the legacy of Obama can be the antidote—the legacy left by a president who respected the rule of law, recognized the rights of the people, and worked genuinely to give hope to Americans.

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