THE MEMO: Trump seeks to wipe away the Obama brand
President Trump is going in with all guns blazing in an effort to eradicate Barack Obama’s legacy.
The push encompasses everything from the attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to unwinding smaller initiatives that are primarily identified with former first lady Michelle Obama.
On Monday, the Trump administration targeted two of the former first lady’s signature programs.
Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor who is now Agriculture secretary, announced he would relax some of the rules that had been placed around federally funded school lunch programs.
Those rules were part of a broader effort spearheaded by Michelle Obama to combat childhood obesity. Critics characterized the regulations as overly onerous and said children disliked the meals.
The same day, CNN unearthed an administration memo that said the Peace Corps would cease using the name “Let Girls Learn” — also associated with the former first lady — for its efforts to help overcome gender disparity in education in the developing world.
Those moves came on top of a broader push against former President Obama’s policies on subjects as diverse as tax regulations and national monuments.
While Trump defenders argue that there is nothing unusual about a new president of one party moving in a sharply different direction from his predecessor, voices within the Obama camp characterize the Trump approach as petty, especially in relation to the Let Girls Learn initiative and the school meal standards.
Jen Psaki, Obama’s former communications director, said it was “surprising and politically stupid … for this administration to be winding back or trying to dismantle initiatives that are as positive and impactful as Let Girls Learn.”
She added that she believed Trump advisers were “perhaps more focused on the political objectives of dismantling the initiatives of his opponent, more so than doing what is in the interests of the public.”
But to Trump’s defenders, those views miss the crucial overarching point: that he was elected to change things in Washington.
“One of the reasons President Trump got elected was because of a reaction against the whole elitist ‘we know better than you,’ nanny-state mentality,” said conservative strategist Greg Mueller.
The White House has asserted that the substantive elements of Let Girls Learn will remain unchanged.
In response to CNN’s initial report, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told the network that there had been “no changes.” She insisted that the Trump administration “supports policies and programs to empower adolescent girls, including efforts to educate them through the completion of secondary school.”
But the apparent retiring of the title associated with the Obama era is still seen by some as an attempt to eradicate anything linked to the previous administration.
That may not be surprising, given that relations between the Trump team and the Obama camp quickly deteriorated after the transition.
The new president’s now-infamous tweets making the unsupported allegation that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign are only the most dramatic example.
Trump has argued several times that the Obama administration left the nation in “a mess.” He has reversed Obama policies, such as the former president’s support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and is in the midst of a second bid to repeal and replace the ACA.
For his part, Obama was implicitly critical of Trump’s executive order on travel and immigration targeting predominantly Muslim nations. The former president’s office pushed back forcefully against the wiretapping allegations.
Some outside observers argue that Trump could be trying to shore up his own support by taking a scythe to Obama-era policies and programs.
“Even if it has a vindictive edge, politically it works for him,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “It puts attention back on Obama and, for Republicans, on what they don’t like about Obama. Every time he strikes at an initiative — even a small one — it focuses Republicans on what they don’t like about Obama rather than any problems they might have with him.”
One Democratic strategist saw the Trump strategy through a similar lens.
“He needs to hold on to his electoral base,” Hank Sheinkopf said. “And what better way to do that than attacking the person who is hated most [by Trump supporters]? Attacking Obama keeps people’s focus away from the first 100 days of non-accomplishment.”
But conservatives see things very differently. Mueller asserted that Obama had put a drive toward over-regulation “on steroids” and that Trump was making a laudable effort to push that back.
“I think this is all part of freeing the economy up, freeing the people up from Washington,” he said.
Zelizer, the historian, argued that it was not quite as simple as that.
“I think part of it is that he wants to remind President Obama that he is the victor, he is the one in power,” he said. “I also think there is a lot of animosity because he perceives a level of respect accorded to former President Obama that he doesn’t get. I think that’s part of it: ‘I’m the one with influence.’ ”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.