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Trump's Obama obsession drives his foreign policy

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Speaking to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, President Trump mentioned his immediate predecessor four times in the first five minutes of a 20-minute interview. CNN's Michael Warren explores why President Trump often references Barack Obama when discussing foreign policy.

Posted: Jan 7, 2020 6:50 AM
Updated: Jan 7, 2020 6:50 AM

As President Donald Trump and his allies explain the recent decision to launch a fatal strike on Iranian military leader Qasam Soleimani, one name continues to pop up: Barack Obama.

Speaking to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh on Monday, Trump mentioned his immediate predecessor's name four times in the first five minutes of a 20-minute interview.

Obama was also on the mind of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday, when, speaking to CNN's Jake Tapper, he argued that the strike was justified in part due to the actions of the former President.

"Team Obama appeased Iran, and it led to Shia militias with money, Hamas, the PIJ, hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed by Soleimani himself," Pompeo said. "This was the place we found ourselves in when we came in."

If there is one overarching principle in Trump's ad-hoc approach to foreign policy, it's that he must clean up the messes made by past US presidents. And the blame often falls on Obama.

In Trump's view, the economy needed to be fixed, because of Obama. The country was overrun with illegal immigrants, because of Obama. China was eating our lunch, because of Obama. America had become a joke to the rest of the world, in large part because of Obama.

In response, Trump has withdrawn from two major international agreements -- the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords -- brokered by Obama. He has pursued bilateral trade deals in explicit opposition to the Obama-supported Trans-Pacific Partnership. And he has attempted to negotiate with North Korea, in direct opposition to Obama's policy of "strategic patience."

Trump has even threatened allies once embraced by Obama, most notably blasting Western European countries for not paying "their fair share" in funding the NATO alliance, which he has threatened to leave on several occasions.

"His general approach is to do exactly the opposite of what Obama did," said Jen Psaki, the former White House communications director under Obama and a CNN contributor. "Even the way they describe their strategy is in opposition to the previous president."

Trump has been lambasting Obama for years, even before he ran for the top job. Recently, though he's been doing it more often. A November analysis from CNN's Daniel Dale shows Trump has mentioned Obama and the Obama administration by name more frequently in the past 18 months than he had in the first 18 months of his presidency.

"Through October, Trump had mentioned Obama by name 537 times during 2019 as a whole -- an average of 1.8 times per day," Dale wrote.

Michael Anton, the former top national security council spokesman for Trump, told CNN that Obama's own decisions are a factor for Trump but denied it was driven by reflexive animus. The President, he argued, thinks in terms of correcting the mistakes of not just Obama but George W. Bush and even earlier presidents.

"It's him saying, okay, we got to this point because of which particular past mistakes, which should be avoided in the future so we don't keep making those mistakes," said Anton. "I don't think it's just because he wants to undo Obama."

But the 44th President looms large in Trump's own diagnosis of what has ailed American foreign policy. Obama has also become a rhetorical crutch for Trump to defend his own decisions.

Anti-Obama on Iran

Perhaps in no other area has Trump defined his own administration's policy as the reverse of Obama's than with Iran. From the beginning of his presidential campaign, he has dismissed the Iran nuclear agreement as the "worst deal ever negotiated." As President, Trump pushed hard for leaving the deal despite objections from his national security team. He eventually declined to recertify Iran's compliance in October 2017 and then formally left the agreement the following May.

Anton said Trump has a "visceral dislike" of the Iranian regime borne out of his memory of the 1979 revolution and the hostage crisis the following year.

"For whatever reason, 1979 did not seem to resonate with [Obama] as it does for a boomer like Trump," Anton said. "He watches the Obama administration come in and just hand them the store, and that offends his 1979 sensibilities."

Even Trump's recent warning about targeting 52 Iranian cultural sites -- "representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago," he tweeted -- carries a symbolic connection to 1979.

Trump has abandoned the Obama-era attempts at rapprochement with Tehran in favor of engaging with the Iranians' regional rivals in Saudi Arabia. He has also aligned himself very closely with Israel and its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu -- who had clashed with Obama over Iran, among other issues.

More than just political

It's not remarkable that as a Republican, Trump would pursue a sharply different foreign policy than his Democratic predecessor. But Trump's obsession with Obama goes beyond ideological differences between the parties. At times, it seems personal.

"It's not based on an overarching global view and foreign-policy strategic approach," Psaki said.

In 2008, Obama campaigned hard against his Republican predecessor, running against everything from the Iraq War to the Bush administration's handling of climate change and the financial crisis. But once in office, he rarely invoked the name of George W. Bush.

In a few cases, such as deploying troops to Afghanistan and extending middle-class tax cuts, Obama even reoriented his policies in ways that affirmed some of Bush's positions.

"There was a recognition on his part that he had to take steps in contradiction with how he ran," she said.

Trump, however, appears to have made no such recognition in his own presidency.

For his part, Anton argues that Trump's rejection of the foreign policy legacy reaches beyond the eight years Obama was in the White House.

"There's more of a conscious effort to move beyond the foreign-policy consensus from the previous three decades," he said. "He's running against the post-Cold War consensus."

But for Trump, that post-Cold War consensus often has just one name: Barack Obama.

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