World·Analysis

How history could make strange bedfellows of Obama and Trump: Keith Boag

There might come a day when Obama will be grateful it was Trump and not a purebred Republican who became the custodian of his legacy, Keith Boag writes.

New president might have tough time reversing Obama's key policies

President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on erasing much of what Barack Obama considers key accomplishments from his time in office. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
Don't expect that in his inaugural speech today Donald Trump will bother with a hat tip to Barack Obama for the outgoing president's contribution to his success, although maybe he should.

And while it sounds farfetched now, there might also come a day when Obama will be grateful it was Trump and not a purebred Republican who became the custodian of his legacy.

At the moment, they represent two profoundly different Americas, have little in common and would be unlikely friends, but it's possible that years from now each will see himself as having benefited in some important way from the other.

After all, it's possible without President Obama there would be no President Trump.

Two men joke around while wearing rubber masks of Trump and Obama. The two leaders have been bitter rivals, but history might eventually tell a different story. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)
The president-elect built his political career years ago on a lie about Obama's birthplace — a lie that would have been impossible to perpetrate so effectively against any other president.

"Birtherism" — the movement to cast in doubt that Obama is a natural-born American and therefore to brand him as ineligible to be president — was used by Trump in a disgraceful play for the affection of gullible Americans hungry for any excuse to deny legitimacy to the country's first black president. And it served its purpose.

His embrace of birtherism told us nothing about Obama but much about Trump. For a start, it taught us he'd say almost anything. A New York magazine profile of Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and key adviser, reports the president-elect never actually believed what he was saying about Obama.

But the sheer number of people — tens of millions — who fell for the hoax confirmed to Trump that there was political gold in the racial resentments buried in a vein of the Republican base far away from the party mainstream. And he mined it.

So Obama begot Trump, in a way, though from a purely human standpoint it will be a tragic moment when the subject of the hoax looks on as the hoaxer swears the oath of office.

Job not as advertised

But that moment will pass and Obama can take comfort in knowing what only a former president can really know: there is a frustrating difference between what the job appears to be and what it really is.

"The office is kinda like the little country boy found the hoochie-koochie show at the carnival, once he'd paid his dime and got inside the tent: 'It ain't exactly as it was advertised,'" Lyndon Johnson told incoming president Richard Nixon, who would discover the truth of that folksy warning to his everlasting regret.
President Lyndon Johnson, right, warned president-elect Richard Nixon what the job is really like. (Associated Press)

Trump has already made the same mistake Obama did years ago by overestimating the power of the office and boasting about how he will direct the future: jobs will flood back to the U.S., ISIS will be crushed and health care will be better and cheaper.

Difficult to keep promises

Disappointments surely lie ahead. Already Trump is finding that "repeal and replace Obamacare" — one of his favourite campaign slogans — was an easier promise to make than to keep, especially for him. He doesn't have Republican reflexes or the instincts of a conservative and has said things that fall outside the mainstream of his party.

For instance, Trump surprised Republicans last week when he promised in a newspaper interview that his replacement for Obamacare would provide "insurance for everybody."

This is the issue closest to Obama's heart and he knows that a President Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, or even Paul Ryan, would never have pledged to create a program of that size. But Trump, the former pro-choice, liberal democrat did and might have inadvertently put himself on track to save Obamacare. 

Suspicion grows around Washington that whatever Trump has in mind to replace Obamacare will have to look a lot like Obamacare if he's to keep his promises. If so, that will bring a smile to Obama's face and leave Republicans pulling their hair out.

Top Democrats held a press conference earlier this month after a meeting with Obama on congressional Republicans' effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In fact, the outgoing president seemed confident in his final news conference this week that the new president will find it more challenging than he imagined to undo several of his policies.

He said he expects Trump will find there are few simple solutions to complex problems and that "may lead him to some of the same conclusions that I arrived at once I got here."

No running commentary

Obama is only 55 years old, so he can reasonably expect to be a part of the conversation for a few decades yet and to see how everything turns out in the long run.

He has said he won't provide running commentary on how the Trump administration is faring, but will speak out if core values around race, voting rights, free speech and the right to dissent are threatened.

Obama holds his final press conference at the White House. He said he won't provide running commentary on how the Trump administration is faring. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In the meantime, his approval rating has soared into the upper 50s, joining the likes of Bill Clinton, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan as the highest-rated outgoing presidents since the Second World War.

That's a stunning turnaround for Obama and a stark contrast to Trump's approval rating, which stands around 40 per cent and is the lowest in polling history for an incoming president.

So there's that comparison, too, for the history books.

About the Author

Keith Boag

Washington Correspondent

One of the CBC's premier political reporters, Keith Boag is currently based in Washington, D.C., following stints in Los Angeles and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.