The Trump administration has dissected, denounced, decried and dissolved many of the Obama administration’s actions. That the current president is so set on undoing his predecessor’s accomplishments should not keep those on the left from evaluating the Obama administration as well, especially through the lens of inaction. Why were no top-level bankers prosecuted for their role in the financial crisis of 2008? Why have so few Bush-era officials had to answer for their crimes, ranging from “enhanced interrogation” to the Iraq invasion? When bringing up Obama’s inaction, the standard response is: what else could be done? What would you have done? It is becoming clear that much more could have been done if not for the Obama administration’s lack of political will and optimistic desire to break continuity with the practices of the past. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, a failure to apply it leaves a festering wound, with complications that continue to amass.
In 2009, Obama was asked whether he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and potentially act against Bush officials who had committed crimes. He did not rule out the possibility, but said that his intention was to “look forward.” Very little action was taken until, in the wake of the 2014 torture report, Obama admitted, “We tortured some folks,” and his DOJ issued some memos denouncing extrajudicial interrogation. That was the full extent of action taken, and Obama’s administration went on to commit its own human rights abuses, ranging from escalation of drone warfare to full-scale NSA surveillance on Americans. Afraid of appearing partisan, the Obama administration looked the other way when it came to prosecuting war criminals and torturers. The lack of confrontation is coming back to haunt us.