Too Little, Too Late

Barack Obama’s statement on child separation missed the moment.

Barack Obama
Former President Barack Obama in Auckland, New Zealand, on March 22. Simon Watts/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Barack Obama finally commented on the Trump administration’s policy of family separation, in a statement posted to Facebook about World Refugee Day. “Our ability to imagine ourselves in the shoes of others, to say ‘there but for the grace of God go I,’ is part of what makes us human,” he wrote. “And to find a way to welcome the refugee and the immigrant—to be big enough and wise enough to uphold our laws and honor our values at the same time—is part of what makes us American.”

Obama’s statement came only after President Trump had effectively reversed the policy, and after his own absence from the political fray—as stories and images from detention centers flooded the media this week—had become conspicuous. Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton made comments early. Obama retweeted Michelle Obama’s praise of Bush’s op-ed on the separations in the Washington Post, but was otherwise silent, prompting some criticism.

“I think that when the history of this presidency is written,” former Gawker Media executive editor John Cook tweeted last week., “Barack Obama’s strategic and willful silence in the face of a national crisis will be seen as a shameful error.” This statement could have been made in reference to any number of events since Trump’s inauguration that the former president has avoided commenting on publicly.

Defenders of Obama’s reticence generally argue that he richly deserves a long respite from his time spent at the front lines of national politics—the endless frustrations and relentless abuse he endured at the hands of his dishonest, intransigent, and often racist foes. It should be entirely up to him, they say, whether he spends his time now on behind-the-scenes political organizing, speaking to Wall Street firms for pay, developing shows for Netflix, or doing nothing at all.

They’re wrong. The medically trained person is obligated to run to the collapsed man in the street. It doesn’t matter how rough their day has been, or how much abuse they have endured in their career. They have an ethical responsibility to help in any way they can—to, at the very least, see and say what might be done by others, if not themselves. They cannot simply walk by. Barack Obama is the most gifted political orator in at least a generation, a man who commands the respect and instant attention of half the country. He cannot opt out entirely of a public life that he chose, not at a moment in our history that so obviously demands political leadership and moral clarity.

Obama understands this, and has dedicated much of his post-presidency thus far to political and civic work. A statement was thus inevitable. Its content was classic Obama: appeals to civic nationalism and American high ideals and a loftier and more sonorous expression of what Democratic leaders are already saying—that what is happening to these children is not a reflection of “who we are” as a country—augmented with an admirable call to real action. To prove that America is or can be better by pushing for policies that comport with our professed values.

Those policies are not the policies that Barack Obama pursued as president. His administration deported millions of immigrants and detained immigrant families to discourage—for their own safety, he and officials argued—those who considered fleeing their homes to make a new life in this country. This shouldn’t bar him from speaking out against the particular cruelties of the Trump administration’s policies and the racism animating them. To the contrary, Democrats should both commit themselves to more humane policy and make broad indictments not only of the Trump administration but the Republican Party as a whole.

A majority of Republican voters have backed child separation, evidencing once again the right’s willingness to deny rights, empathy, and dignity to those unlike themselves. The attitudes that justify the separation of immigrant children from their parents and their detention in camps—the impulses that drove Laura Ingraham to compare their living arrangements to “summer camp,” that inspired Steve King to suggest that the wailing toddlers we’ve seen and heard over the past week are “prime MS-13 gang material”—are fundamentally incompatible with pluralistic, democratic society.

Barack Obama has never dealt frankly with this. The morning after Donald Trump’s election, an event shattering to tens of millions and terrifying in particular to immigrants, Muslims, those with precarious access to health care, and the poor, Obama said this:

Everybody is sad when their side loses an election, but the day after we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage. We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first. We’re patriots first.

We all want what’s best for this country. That’s what I heard in Mr. Trump’s remarks last night. That’s what I heard when I spoke to them directly. And I was heartened by that. That’s what this country needs—a sense of unity, a sense of inclusion, a respect for our institutions, our way of life, rule of law, and respect for each other.   

As Obama no doubt expected himself, Donald Trump has not fostered unity, a sense of inclusion, or respect for American institutions and the rule of law in post-“scrimmage” action. He has been true to the American way of life only in his revival of strains of racism, xenophobia, sexism, and open corruption that many assumed, before his rise, would not return to our national politics.

Barack Obama is personally committed to the realization of the civic American dream—an America where all are united by a common interest in the well-being of all, despite our differences. He believes that this dream can be realized without bitter political conflict. It cannot. He believes that the Republican Party can be shamed by the indignation its actions arouse in Democrats and the majority of the public into changing. It will not.

The Republican Party should be destroyed. It should go the way of the Whigs. With any luck, historians will record that after a madness took hold within the GOP from the mid-1970s through the first part of the 21st century, the American people, led by the Democratic Party, rallied to put it down forever—as it became clear that beyond its attempts to undermine the right to vote, its work to immiserate the already struggling and enrich the already wealthy, its unwillingness to address open public violence, its willingness to countenance the sexual abuse of women and children, and its frustration of efforts to address an ecological crisis that poses an existential threat to civilization itself, the Republican Party would additionally, by openly embracing racial and religious persecution, march the country toward fascism if left unchecked.

The Democratic Party should be working to erode the power of the Republican Party at least as successfully as the Republican Party has eroded its power. This would require both a long-term electoral vision and ambitious structural reforms, some of which Democrats can pass as soon as they next hold Congress and the presidency. But making the case for this is beyond the capacities of a man who sees heightened political rhetoric and political conflict itself as nothing more than cheap emotional catharsis.