Pessimism was not in the room when former cabinet members Tom Perez ’83, senior fellow in international and public affairs, and Gina McCarthy, former director of the environmental protection agency, discussed the legacy of the Obama administration on Thursday. The event took place in the List Art Center and was moderated by Director of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Edward Steinfeld P’20. Perez and McCarthy struck a hopeful tone and drew frequent laughter from the crowd, catching some audience members by surprise.
“You’ve both expressed a lot of optimism today about the resiliency of the Obama legacy,” one student in attendance remarked when the discussion was opened to questions from the audience. “That was not what I came in here expecting.”
Perez — who served as secretary of labor in the Obama administration and currently chairs the Democratic National Committee — admitted it is disheartening to see some of his accomplishments chipped away by the Trump administration. “We’ve taken some hits at the Labor Department. Does it break my heart? Yeah. Does it strengthen my resolve? Hell yeah,” he said. “I understand that some people will feel pessimism, but we can either fret, or we can fight.”
Perez noted that the same sense of resolve has driven many people to stand up for their values since Trump’s election, resulting in a string of election victories for Democrats in many levels of government. “When we put hope on the ballot, we win,” Perez said.
McCarthy, who directed the EPA under the Obama administration, said that people are often surprised by her lack of pessimism. “I get the same reaction everywhere. … They think I’m just destitute, in this constant state of depression,” she joked, adding that people shouldn’t let the Trump administration “take away your energy and your enthusiasm and your hope.”
Though the Obama legacy may seem to be under siege, McCarthy said she isn’t worried about much of her work at the EPA being undone, as the Obama administration carefully followed the rulemaking process to enact regulations that could stand up to judicial scrutiny. The Trump administration, on the other hand, “thinks that (it) can rule by executive order and that (it) can do a shoddy job of rulemaking to just confirm what the President of the United States wants,” she said.
“For that reason, I don’t think that they are going to be successful in rolling back the work that we did,” McCarthy said. “They’re simply not working hard enough.”
Perez agreed that the Trump administration’s approach to deregulation has been “ham-handed” and “sloppy.” But he said he does worry for the Obama legacy, noting that some damage will need to be patched up “when we get back in control.”
McCarthy maintained that the Trump administration “is claiming success that is nowhere near the finish line” in its attempts to overturn Obama’s legacy. She expressed more concern about Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, which she thinks will delay action on climate change and damage American leadership around the world. “It’s going to take a long time, but I have to have faith that the United States is going to lead that charge again,” she said.
Perez similarly expressed disappointment that the United States has been swept up in the rising tide of nativism around the world. “What we had, historically, during periods like this was the moral authority of the United States, (but) it’s not there,” he said. “The normalization of ethics violations, the normalization of lying, the normalization of misogyny — this is conduct unbecoming of a president, unbecoming of a person anywhere.”
“The truth matters. Science matters. Civility matters,” Perez said. “I fear that people are going to look at (the Trump administration) and think this is okay. This is not okay.”
McCarthy agreed that civil discourse has taken a hit under Trump. “I worry that (the credibility of government) has eroded to a level where it’s going to take considerable time to bounce back — if it does,” she said. “I worry that … now we’re going to not only have a Congress that doesn’t work, but we’re going to have an executive branch that just undoes what the other one did.”
But McCarthy has found actions taken by state and local governments to be reassuring. “Others step up at a time when Washington is asleep,” she added.
Perez stressed that the United States has overcome division before. “This is a resilient democracy, and I have such faith in the American people,” he said. “We can do this, but (democracy) has to be a full-participation sport. … And the good news is I’m seeing (participation) in remarkable abundance. The energy — it’s not abating. People understand you can’t take democracy for granted any longer.”
McCarthy emphasized that she is “incredibly hopeful” for the future. “I actually see signs that people are beginning to act like they need to act, which is with passion,” she said. “I haven’t been to a march in decades before the women’s march. … If you want to see what America is, that’s what it is. … It’s endless work, but it’s worth it.”
The Trump administration may be the first “whose sole path forward is to go backwards,” McCarthy said. But “there’s no way that I think this administration is going to take down the United States of America.”