Obama Opened The Way For Cynical Demagogue, Conservative Analyst Says
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And on this final full day of President Obama's term, we are of course far from history's final verdict about him. But the first drafts are being written. One person who believes the president significantly failed in what he set out to do is Peter Wehner of the Ethics & Public Policy Center.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Wehner served three Republican presidents. And this election year, he was an outspoken critic of Donald Trump. His fellow conservatives railed against him for criticizing their nominee and their party. But Wehner had some tough words for Democrats, too - in particular, Barack Obama. Wehner says the president contributed to the current divisions in this country. Here's his conversation with our co-host Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What makes it the president's fault for the divisions in the country?
PETER WEHNER: Well, I don't think that they're all his fault. But it happened on his watch, and he is the president. And he came into office promising to heal the divisions. And he knew the nature of the Republican Party. He knew what he was going into. And really, the core promise of the Obama campaign in 2008 was to transcend the divisions and that he would act in a post-partisan trans-political way. I don't think he did.
But it's not simply that he wasn't able to achieve common ground with Republicans on legislation. It is more broadly that the political culture is rancorous and divided and angry. I don't lay all of the blame on President Obama for that. Republicans have their role in that. Conservatives have their responsibility but so does President Obama. And he used rhetoric that I think, for a president, was unusually divisive. He constantly accused Republicans of putting party ahead of country. And that kind of rhetoric, over a sustained period of time, has consequences. And I think that some of the failures of the Obama presidency led, unfortunately, to the Trump presidency.
INSKEEP: How so?
WEHNER: Well, I think that there was so much alienation and anger in America that it opened the way for a cynical demagogue in Donald Trump to rise up and to win. I wish Trump had not won. I'm - lifelong Republican. I'm a conservative, and I was Never Trump from the moment he announced his campaign all the way through. But he wasn't elected in a vacuum. There was a lot of acrimony, a lot of division. A lot of Americans, particularly blue-collar Americans, felt dishonored and unheard and voiceless during the Obama years.
INSKEEP: Is this a description of what you think happened? This is a president who tried to think technocratically, analytically about policy. And he would reach a conclusion. And if someone reached a different conclusion, he believed that it must have been cynical because the facts were so obvious to him.
WEHNER: Yeah, I think that's a fair description of it. He is a person who has enormous confidence. And when he arrived at a position, he thought it was the only reasonable and rational position. And if you didn't share his conclusion, then it must have been informed by cynical...
INSKEEP: Because you should know better and...
WEHNER: Because you should know better because I arrived at this position. I arrived at it because it was reasonable and it was logical. And everyone who's reasonable and logical should arrive at the same position I do. I think that is exactly what happened.
INSKEEP: How's President-elect Trump done at bringing the country together, in your view?
WEHNER: I think he's been horrible. I think he ran on one of the most divisive and pernicious and demagogic campaigns in American history.
INSKEEP: Well, let's even just talk about his time as president-elect. How do you think he's done there?
WEHNER: As president-elect, I think he's continued to divide the country. He's continued his Twitter wars. He has this propensity to create enemies and to go after them. And he seems to thrive in division. Look, this is supposed to be the easy part, the transition period. This is as easy as it gets. And normally, the president-elect takes advantage of that, and he acts in a way that unifies the country. Donald Trump has not done that.
INSKEEP: So as a person from the Ethics & Public Policy Center, what would you have political leaders do in this situation after Inauguration Day?
WEHNER: Well, I think political leaders need to give President Trump a chance to govern well and to govern effectively. And for critics of President Trump like me, we have to give him the space and the room to prove us wrong. On the other hand, I think that he has shown, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he has problematic tendencies. And I think, therefore, the political institutions in this country and the leaders of those political institutions - in this case, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell...
INSKEEP: The House and the Senate leaders...
WEHNER: ...The House and Senate leaders and the people they represent - have to be prepared to act as a check on Donald Trump.
INSKEEP: Peter Wehner, thanks very much.
WEHNER: Thanks for having me on.
GREENE: That's Peter Wehner of the Ethics & Public Policy Center speaking to Steve Inskeep.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.