In Trump’s telling, Obama and Biden should have fixed it all

Jordan Fabian
Bloomberg News

Faced with crises from the coronavirus pandemic to nationwide protests against police brutality, President Donald Trump is increasingly turning to a favored defense: Blame Barack Obama.

Deriding his predecessor carries twin benefits for the president. It offers an escape from failures such as the botched rollout of coronavirus testing, and it drags down his 2020 Democratic opponent, Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden.

In Trump’s telling, the range of crises bedeviling his administration should have been fixed before he was elected. Obama “never even tried” to stop police abuses of Black Americans, Trump said, falsely, on June 16 as protests raged across the country over the death in police custody of George Floyd.

President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, June 24, 2020, in Washington.

And as American coronavirus deaths climbed, it was a “grossly incompetent” Obama who had left behind a “broken” system for dealing with a public health crisis.

With the nation beset by an economy in crisis, a resurgence of the virus and persistent unrest over race relations as the 2020 election draws ever closer, his rhetoric is only poised to intensify.

On Monday, Trump repeated his claim that Obama spied on his 2016 campaign and accused the former president of “treason,” a crime that Article Three of the Constitution defines as “levying war” against the U.S. and giving its enemies “aid and comfort.” The allegation is stunning, given the prominence of both the accused and the accuser.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Trump ally, is conducting a review of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, but he has not called Obama or Biden to testify, as Trump has urged.

Trump has long defied the traditions and cordialities of his high office, but his insults and criticisms of his predecessors set him apart from every other modern president. He has saved some of his harshest attacks for Obama, the U.S.’s first black president, and fueled his own political rise by questioning whether Obama was born in the U.S.

The president’s frequent assertions that someone else – often, Obama, but also President George W. Bush, a fellow Republican, or unnamed leaders – should have dealt with a problem or accomplished a policy before he did lets Trump deflect accountability, inflate his own achievements and denigrate his predecessors’ records, all in a simple, dismissive phrase.

“If you want to rally your base, you say all these things that are frustrating to them and say ‘I’m going to fix it,’” said Jennifer Mercieca, associate professor in the communication department of Texas A&M University.

“It’s also a way of avoiding accountability. It isn’t his fault this problem exists, because someone should have taken care of it a long time ago,” added Mercieca, author of the book “Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.”

In a statement, White House spokesman Judd Deere said “the American people elected Donald Trump because they saw a problem solver who could get things done and fight for them, instead of someone who apologizes for America, starts endless wars, or implements policies that ship jobs overseas.”

According to Trump, Obama “should have” brokered a trade deal with China, but didn’t. Curing AIDS “should have started in the previous administration,” but “they did nothing,” Trump has said.

Sometimes Trump uses the same tactic to promote his own accomplishments. And Obama isn’t his only target.

Unnamed people “should have” expanded minority business owners’ access to capital, created the Space Force, killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and fired U.S. inspectors general “a long time ago,” Trump has said.

In April, he announced that he had ordered the U.S. government to temporarily halt funding to the World Health Organization because it had been too reliant on information from China about the virus. The cutoff, he said, “should have been done by previous administrations a long time ago.”

“The tone sounds like a put-down. He’s saying they were either too stupid or too lazy to see it, or they didn’t care,” said Vanessa Beasley, an associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University.

Previous commanders-in-chief tended to cite their forerunners’ accomplishments in order to lend credibility to their own policies. During a 2011 speech announcing new AIDS funding, for example, Obama said history would remember Bush’s plan to fight the disease as one of his “greatest legacies.”

Trump’s rhetoric is “the reversal of a more typical presidential speech pattern. And that’s kind of Trump’s style, right? Anything most presidents do, he’s going to do the opposite,” Beasley said.

Trump has employed the technique since his 2016 run in official and campaign speeches, tweets, media interviews and news conferences. But his “should have” condemnations may become even more frequent now that he has fallen behind Biden, his Democratic challenger, in national and battleground-state polls.

Trump has already tried to deflect blame over his handling of coronavirus by linking Biden to his long-running criticisms of Obama, calling him “weak” on China.

“Look under Obama and Biden, they got away with murder,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal on June 17 when asked about former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s claim that he was reluctant to sanction China over its human rights record during trade negotiations. “What I’ve been doing to China should have been done a long time ago.”

Biden’s campaign has sought to undermine Trump’s argument by pointing to Bolton’s account in his new memoir that the president pleaded with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help him win re-election by buying more U.S. farm products. Trump has called Bolton’s book a “compilation of lies.”

The president’s should-have-been-done refrain fits into a pattern of verbal habits he uses to tout his policies. He often cites the number 10,000 to make something appear big, and has repeatedly tried to drum up enthusiasm for policy announcements by saying they’re two weeks away.

In accepting the Republican nomination for president in 2016, Trump described a country beset by crises unaddressed by previous leaders and declared: “I alone can fix it.”

And he has continued to describe his achievements as historic in scope, even when they are not, to make it appear that he is fulfilling that promise.

During a June 16 event in the Rose Garden, Trump signed an executive order urging police departments to adopt better training practices and accused Obama of doing nothing about the issue even though he “could have.”

“President Obama and Vice President Biden never even tried to fix this during their eight-year period. The reason they didn’t try is because they had no idea how to do it,” Trump said.

The Obama administration did attempt to address police misconduct, including through the use of Justice Department “pattern-or-practice” investigations that were curtailed under Trump.

Obama restricted transfers of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, a policy reversed by his successor. And Obama formed a commission that issued a report on police reforms in 2015; in a virtual town hall earlier this month, he urged every city in America to adopt its recommendations.

Trump’s should-have-done-it criticisms can sometimes verge into the absurd.

While the Obama administration spent billions of dollars fighting HIV/AIDS, notably funding a landmark study that showed antiretroviral drugs could prevent transmission of the virus, Trump portrayed his predecessor as idle on the disease in a May 3 Fox News town hall.

“We will be AIDS-free within eight years. We started 10 years. Should have started in the previous administration; they did nothing,” Trump said.

The rhetoric helps Trump maintain his outsider, populist appeal even as his record comes under growing scrutiny after three-and-a-half years in charge.

“Those statements, in a way, condense all of those ideas together and it also allows him to take credit, which is one of his very favorite things,” said Robert C. Rowland, a professor of communications at the University of Kansas.

Trump has even used the phrase when it was effectively impossible for any previous presidents to have acted first. Last November, the president signed legislation that created a coin commemorating the 100th anniversary of women securing the right to vote in 1920.

During the ceremony, Trump turned to then-U.S. Treasurer Jovita Carranza and asked: “So why wasn’t this done a long time ago – years ago?”