News Analysis: Trump’s obsession with Obama turns two-way race into a three-way tangle

While measured in his comments toward President Trump, former President Obama is eager to replace him with Joe Biden.
(Shawn Thew / European Pressphoto Agency)

More than three years after leaving the White House, Barack Obama appears to have taken up renewed residency.

Not within its living quarters but, rather, inside President Trump’s head.

In a barrage remarkable even by Trump’s norm-demolishing standards, the nation’s 45th chief executive has spent a good deal of time lately savaging the 44th.

Suddenly, a two-way race has turned into a three-way tangle.

That may have been somewhat inevitable, seeing as how Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, spent eight years in the White House as Obama’s vice president; an attack on Obama is, by extension, a blow struck against his good friend and former workmate.

But political calculation aside, the volume of attacks from the president and the level of personal vitriol are of a wholly different order, transcending the usual partisan sniping. Among Obama’s trespasses, Trump has accused him — without substantiation or much clarity — of committing “the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA, by FAR.”


Joe Biden’s pledges to ‘change the system’ echo Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and reflect a new American reality.

Trump backers might argue that Obama started the latest round of vituperation.

In a conference call this month with alumni of his administration, the former president described Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as “an absolute chaotic disaster” and criticized the Justice Department for saying it would drop its criminal case against former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

“That’s the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic — not just institutional norms — but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk,” Obama said. With 3,000 people dialing in, he must have known his remarks were bound to leak.

Trump’s eruption soon followed and his molten rage has scarcely let up. In a barrage of Tweets and television appearances, he accused Obama of abusing his office and operating the most inept and corrupt administration ever. “OBAMAGATE makes Watergate look small time!” he wrote, offering a hazy theory implicating the former president in Flynn’s prosecution.

Obama, for his part, has not hidden the contempt he feels toward his successor, though people within his orbit say he does not exhibit the same consuming animus that Trump apparently harbors.

Obama was almost clinically detached in a recent address to graduating students, telling them the pandemic “has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing.” He never spoke Trump’s name and apparently shows the same equanimity in private.

“In my conversations with him, he is surprisingly unbothered by Trump’s persistent attacks,” said David Axelrod, one of the architects of Obama’s rise to the White House. The former president understands Trump’s political motivations, Axelrod said — riling his base, drawing attention from the pandemic — and has never resorted to name-calling. “He’s just not that thin-skinned.”

Axelrod and others said Obama’s public restraint should not be mistaken, however, for a reluctance to engage. “All in,” were the words they used to describe his commitment to the fall campaign.

Throughout his time in office, Trump has harbored a raw and unbridled contempt for his predecessor, seeking to undermine or undo just about anything he, or former First Lady Michelle Obama, touched.

I think he considers him the perfect enemy for his base. He understands his staunchest supporters consider Obama an abject failure, un-American, a phony.

— Michael D’Antonio, Trump biographer

In the popular telling, Trump’s hostility goes back to 2011 and the annual White House Correspondents’ Assn. dinner.

For years, Trump had actively promoted the canard that Obama was born in Africa and, thus, ineligible to be president. Obama responded with a scathing comedic monologue, painting “The Donald” as a kooky peddler of conspiracy theories and a buffoon whose only leadership experience was axing B-list personalities from his reality show, “Celebrity Apprentice.”

“These are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night,” Obama said dryly. “Well handled, sir, well handled.”

Trump, a guest of the Washington Post, smiled tight-lipped as a ballroom’s worth of Beltway grandees laughed uproariously at his expense.

In fact, said biographer Michael D’Antonio, “Trump was predisposed to hate a guy like Obama” — a sentiment that has only deepened since his election to the presidency placed them side-by-side for comparison.

“There’s a physical grace that Obama has that Trump has never had,” D’Antonio said. “There’s an ease in every situation that Trump must envy.”

Moreover, because Trump is someone who “values enemies more than friends,” D’Antonio went on, Obama serves a particularly useful function.

Trump’s reelection strategy is based almost entirely on energizing and motivating his supporters to turn out in November, rather than winning converts. Few offer a greater spur to the polls than the president’s predecessor.

Obama’s choice of a vice president altered the course of Joe Biden’s career. It also is shaping how Biden is going about choosing his own running mate.

The same could be said for many Democrats, who continue to revere Obama.

With his party’s nominating fight over, Obama is in regular touch with Biden and members of his political team and said to be eager to campaign not just for his former vice president but Democrats seeking to win control of the Senate and keep their majority in the House.

People familiar with the former president’s plans cited his performance during the 2018 midterm elections as a template for Obama’s intended approach.

He was scathing at times. “How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?” Obama gibed in his first campaign speech as a former president, referring to Trump’s good-people-on-both-sides response to violence at a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

But Obama did not personalize their differences, or offer a tit-for-tat response to Trump’s taunts.

Even recently, after the president repeatedly inveighed against Obama, accusing him of criminal conspiracy and operating “the most corrupt administration in U.S. history!” the response was measured and notably succinct.

Obama waited several days, then tweeted a single word: “VOTE.”