There is a fundamental difference between Donald Trump and Barack Obama that does not receive sufficient attention—probably because thinking about it shows just how disturbing the current reality is.
We tend to treat Trump’s decisions as standard decisions from a president. Because in a sense, they are. Any president could pull out of multinational agreements, start trade wars, and jockey with volatile nuclear powers. The decision gets made and then we read the news to learn about consequences.
Although Trump is another president whose decisions are backed by vast institutional power, there is something distinctive about him. So before we debate consequences, it is worth stepping back and noting the fundamental and simple difference between Trump and Obama:
Only one of them makes informed decisions.
Regardless of whether you ultimately agree with the decision, it cannot be argued that only one seeks out information, spends time thinking, consults with true experts, and is able to articulate his decision with reasons. Again, this is a purely procedural point, not about the decision itself. It is nonpartisan.
Whether about the Iran Deal, the tax bill, tariffs, Obamacare, DACA, the opioid epidemic, or the Constitution, Trump simply does not know much at all about the world he is changing. Even Trump supporters tend not to dispute this point—or touch it at all. Instead they, at least implicitly, maintain that lack of nuance and expertise is what makes a good statesman. Trump’s ignorance is somehow a strength. (Note that this is not the claim that Trump is stupid.) His supporters are getting what they wanted: an administration not concerned with policy, ideas, or quality governance in general.
None of this is actually news. We all, Trump supporter or not, know it at some level. But I worry that we do not have the cognitive political wherewithal to grasp it fully. As a result, it isn’t as prominent in our public discourse as it should be. For example, Democrats don’t talk about it.
My point is that it is therefore mistaken and irresponsible to compare Trump to Obama (and other presidents) on the quality of their presidencies. Why? Because it should be a precondition for consideration that a president be informed and take an interest in improving the lives of people other than himself. We are being distracted by the formal legitimacy of Trump’s actions, so we forget to consider the fact that he is content to put no deep thought into the actions. We need presidents who contemplate, recognize their shortcomings, study options, learn, and plan ahead. We need presidents who read. Perhaps just as important, we need presidents who can communicate their thinking to the public.
We currently do not have that type of president. It is unprecedented. So we struggle to see that evaluating Trump’s decisions relative to other presidents involves misunderstanding what Trump’s presidency actually is. We evaluate the decisions on the basis of reasons and evidence. But that stuff did not enter into the picture in most cases. More strongly, the concept of reason- and evidence-based decision making was simply not at play. So our evaluations skip over the most important point of evaluation: the president fundamentally failed to behave how a president should. Even if the decision happens to work out well, the fundamental failure and disrespect for the office remains.
We can be forgiven for filtering the Trump presidency through argumentation. That is how public discourse should function. It is important to point out where Trump and his supporters go wrong. But pause and take note that, already in the framing, we have given Trump too much credit. We have presupposed that he is operating on the level of evidence and arguments. At that level, it is perfectly fair to compare him to Obama. The question would be about who had the better argument.
But we are not on that level. Only one had arguments. So we cannot compare them. All we can say is that one took an interest in governing well and the other does not. Both are presidents formally. Only one was a president morally and intellectually.
I am aware that people make careers supplying arguments on behalf of Trump. Those are worth engaging with. My idea is about the Trump administration itself, which exists in total isolation from the nominally intellectual arm of the GOP. We cannot lose sight of the valuable ideal that our most powerful leader should understand the world and give us reasons for his thinking. We currently do not have one. The less we acknowledge that, the more the ideal slips away.