Donald Trump and Barack Obama: Examining off-the-cuff American history lessons from our two most recent presidents

May 3, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 3, 2017

I was tickled to my cynical core Monday morning when I learned that President Donald Trump had bloviated about Andrew Jackson, one of his antecedents in the Oval Office, and the Civil War. After all, who better than Trump — who in February became the first to discover, regarding health care policy, “It’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated” — to lecture the American public on history?

In an interview with SiriusXM’s Salena Zito that aired Monday, Trump said the following about the nation’s seventh president:

I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

There are plenty of analyses of (this edition of) Trump’s dunderheaded comments; see, for instance, this Jeet Heer joint at The New Republic. But it got me wondering: Did Trump’s predecessor, Barack Hussein Obama, ever speak extemporaneously about Andrew Jackson or the Civil War? And if so, had he ever made such dumbfounding remarks?

Obama, as far as I could ascertain after several web searches, never referred to Jackson in an interview during his two terms in office. But he did speak twice about the Civil War in interviews*. (I focused solely on exchanges with reporters; weighing Obama’s prepared remarks against Trump’s interviews would be like comparing apples to, well, oranges.)

The first occasion on which Obama discussed the Civil War in an interview came in a wide-ranging discussion he had with George Stephanopoulos in April 2010. (The transcript runs to nearly 3,800 words.) After mentioning a recent Confederate History Month proclamation by then-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell that was widely criticized for failing to make any reference to slavery, the ABC anchor asked the president for his reaction.

Well, you know, I’m a big history buff. And I think that understanding the history of the Confederacy and understanding the history of the Civil War is something that every American and every young American should, should be a part of. Now, I don’t think you can understand the Confederacy and the Civil War unless you understand slavery. And so, I think that was a — an unacceptable omission. I think the governor’s now acknowledged that.

And I think it’s just a reminder that when we talk about issues like slavery that are so fraught with pain and emotion, that, you know, we, we’d better do [some] thinking through how this is going to affect a lot of people. And — and their sense of whether [they’re] part of a commonwealth or part of a — of — of our broader society.

This is not the 44th president at his most eloquent. Still, I would contend that the president’s core points — that every American should know about the Confederacy and Civil War, and that it’s impossible to understand them without also knowing about slavery — are unimpeachable.

Nearly six and a half years later, in September 2016, Obama went on Steve Harvey’s morning radio show to discuss the presidential election. This interview featured Obama at his most nakedly political; he praised Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state and would-be successor, and criticized Donald Trump.

Toward the end of the conversation, Obama promoted a Democratic National Committee website that publicizes voting information. While doing so, he attempted to emphasize the importance of casting a ballot in the upcoming election. (The following remarks begin around the 9:25 mark of the audio clip on this page.)

If we don’t vote, we can go backwards. There’ve been times in our history where, right after the Civil War, everybody was feeling pretty good about the course we were on and then suddenly, next thing you knew, Jim Crow was in place, and the few African-Americans who had been elected, suddenly they were purged, and suddenly people couldn’t vote again. History doesn’t always just go forward. It can go sideways and sometimes it can go backwards. And it all depends on the degree to which people are active and involved. So Make sure you’re registered, tell your family, tell your friends, and understand that if you do not vote, you’re voting for Trump. And if you vote, then you’re voting, even if I’m not on the ballot, you’re voting for the work that all of us have done together, making sure that is locked in and making sure that’s sustained.

As with the Civil War remarks Obama gave to Stephanopoulos, these comments are rather rambling and unfocused — hardly top-notch rhetoric from a Columbia and Harvard Law graduate who’s renowned for his articulacy. And strictly speaking, these comments aren’t even about the Civil War; rather, they concern American history in the aftermath of that conflict.

Still, I would again content that Obama’s main points — that social progress can be wiped out, that voting for Clinton would be voting to preserve the president’s health-care reform and other progressive legacies, and that failing to vote would be as good as voting for Trump — are more or less sound. While the third point is not precisely true, thanks to the electoral college, the first point seems all but self-evident, and the second point was made by Trump himself†.

The important thing, however, is really that Obama managed to speak off the top of his head not once but twice without signaling a strange ignorance or interpretation of basic historical facts. It’s more confirmation of Alex Shepard’s cutting observation that “the most damning thing you can do to Trump is publish a transcript of his own words.”



* I made this determination after running a number of ProQuest searches with queries like (interview NEAR/30 “civil war”) AND (Obama NEAR/30 “civil war”) AND (Obama NEAR/30 interview) NOT (syria syrian yemen).

† For instance, on July 29, 2016, Trump told a Colorado crowd, “If Hillary gets in, it’ll be four more years of Obama, and nobody wants that.”

One Response to “Donald Trump and Barack Obama: Examining off-the-cuff American history lessons from our two most recent presidents”

  1. xKickz Says:

    Some very well written points in this piece. I enjoyed reading thanks!

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