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The ‘Imagine if Obama…’ Meme Exposes the Futility of Political Nostalgia

While it’s by no means universal, there’s a solid consensus in America that Donald J. Trump is doing a terrible job as president. But it’s not just that. On top of pursuing repulsive policies and botching his basic duties, Trump tends to make about a dozen unforced errors per week. You know, like when he called the White House “a real dump,” then accused Golf Magazine of being fake news for reporting the comment.

These Trumpian gaffes, which always seem to be without precedent, allow liberals and critics to indulge in their new favorite thought experiment: “Imagine if Obama did that.”

In point of fact, Obama rarely (if ever) did anything like this in office. Whatever you want to say about his politics, you have to admit he was polished — so polished that opponents were forced to attack him for laughably insignificant mistakes, like wearing a tan suit at a press conference or saluting with a cup of coffee in his hand. If Fox News could gin up an entire outrage cycle about this stuff, the thinking goes, then they’d have had a field day with Obama lying about a phone call from the head of the Boy Scouts. But, because it’s Trump who told that whopper, they turn a blind eye to the story.

Like a lot of the hypotheticals tossed around on Twitter by the anti-Trump crowd, it’s not entirely clear what we’re supposed to take away from the “Imagine if Obama” game. Yes, Obama was treated unfairly by the conservative press, and yes, it had a lot to do with race. Yes, Trump is a buffoon who can’t utter a public statement without stumbling ass-over-coif into the Freudian nightmare of his own psyche. There are double standards and a very different set of expectations in play. So what good does it do to envision Obama as incompetent when he wasn’t? As if to underscore the tedium and futility of such an exercise, we now have multiple Twitter accounts that do nothing else.

Luckily, the internet has a way of recycling useless clichés into amusing memes. While plenty of horrified Democrats are still earnestly imagining what would happen if Obama behaved like Trump, the rhetorical tic is slowly but surely becoming a point of mockery.

The meme’s breakthrough came courtesy of a viral tweet by writer Eve L. Ewing, who suggested we stop casting Obama as Trump in favor of much cooler — though no less outlandish — fantasies about the 44th president. I think we can all get behind this idea.

Look, I miss Obama, too. It was thrilling to have a leader who was not just respected but openly admired around the world. I’ve been scrolling through the #ObamaDay hashtag — trending on the occasion of his 56th birthday — and reliving an era of prosperity that feels a lifetime ago. (It’s no coincidence that most posts include cuddly portraits by former White House photographer Pete Souza, who has lately made his Instagram account an instrument of Obama hagiography.) And I’ll probably choke up reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power.

The history is crucial, but the same can’t be said of our rosy nostalgia. Reflecting on what we had won’t halt the Trump agenda; recalling Obama’s poise gets us no closer to winning in 2018, 2020, and beyond. The “imagine if” game is another expression of the “I would’ve voted for him a third time” mentality. We need to move past Obama for the same reason we can’t: There will never be another like him.

That’s why the memeification of this concept is a heartening development: It means we are rejecting idle counterfactuals — like how Hillary or Bernie could theoretically have won the election — and dealing with reality instead. We needn’t imagine having a deranged, impulsive, bone-crushingly stupid commander-in-chief; we’ve got one. Our time may be better spent in trying to imagine what the hell he’s going to do next.