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Trump's risky new re-election strategy: Waging war with Obama

Brandishing conspiracy theories, the president is trying to rile up his base by leaning into a battle with a predecessor whose popularity exceeds his.
President Barack Obama talks with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office
President Obama with President-elect Trump in the Oval Office on Nov. 10, 2016.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — A war of words between President Donald Trump and his immediate predecessor is escalating after Barack Obama tore into U.S. leadership with veiled jabs at the administration.

Trump's decision to lean in to the battle has elevated Obama’s presence in the national conversation as his former vice president, Joe Biden, claims the Democratic nomination for this fall's presidential contest. In doing so, Trump is pitting himself against a man whose popularity exceeds his own.

Obama left the White House with a 59 percent job approval rating, which rose to 63 percent one year later, according to Gallup. By contrast, Trump’s approval rating has averaged in the low-to-mid 40s for most of his presidency.

Americans rated Obama the best president of their lifetimes in a June 2018 Pew Research Center poll — he landed 21 points ahead of Trump among first preferences. YouGov surveys find that Obama is tied with former President Jimmy Carter for the most popular politician in the country.

Trump's attacks frame the 2020 election as a proxy war between himself and Obama — a contrast that Democrats welcome as the former president, who has largely stayed out of the political fray since leaving office, expects to campaign for Biden.

"It's hard to overstate how big a mistake it is: Obama is more popular than Trump nationally, that margin is even larger among the persuadable universe, and Trump won in 2016 because 4 million people who voted for Obama in 2012 stayed home," said Dan Pfeiffer, a former top adviser to Obama. "Every moment that Trump spends obsessing about Obama is one he isn’t spending defeating Biden."

The tactic is part of a pattern for Trump in crafting nefarious claims or conspiracy theories to discredit political opponents and keep his core supporters energized. His latest attacks on Obama have become a talking point in Trump-friendly TV outlets, news websites and social media as the coronavirus death toll in the U.S. tops 90,000 and voters question the president's handling of the pandemic.

It represents a bet that he doesn't need to persuade voters who view Obama favorably and may be turned off by the attacks, but that boosting turnout among his base is the key to getting re-elected. Battling Obama is more effective at ginning up his supporters than discussing soaring unemployment and the deepening economic calamity.

"Trump is at his best when he has an enemy," said Republican strategist Matt Gorman. "And even more than Hillary [Clinton] or Biden, no person riles up the base of our party more than Barack Obama."

'An absolute chaotic disaster'

The clash between the presidents began with leaked audio of Obama telling his former staff on a private call that the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic was “an absolute chaotic disaster.” Although he didn’t mention Trump, the president seemed to take offense.

Two days later, on May 8, Trump tweeted “OBAMAGATE!” and devised a conspiracy theory to suggest Obama and Biden should be jailed for committing the “greatest political crime in the history of our country.” When asked, he wouldn’t explain what the crime was.

In the last week, “Obamagate” has appeared in 11 Trump tweets and the evidence-free claims have taken root on conservative websites and social media.

The narrative pertains to routine intelligence procedures that led to the exposure of Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, for communications with the Russian government that he later pleaded guilty to lying about to the FBI. Flynn has recently sought to withdraw the plea, arguing that the government was behaving with vindictiveness.

"People should be going to jail for this stuff," Trump said in an interview with the Fox Business Network, adding that "many people" were involved. "This was all Obama, this was all Biden. These people were corrupt, the whole thing was corrupt, and we caught them."

The remarks mean that the current U.S. president has now appeared to suggest imprisoning his predecessor, his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, and his likely 2020 rival.

Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden's campaign, pushed back.

"Donald Trump's mismanagement has cost almost 90,000 American lives and put the booming economy he inherited from us on the road to a depression," he said in a text message. "Sadly, it's not surprising that now, more than ever, Donald Trump would lash out at a predecessor who stands for competence, our best aspirations and dignity."

Obama added to his criticism of U.S. leadership over the weekend, again without mentioning Trump.

“Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy — that’s how little kids think. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grownups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way. Which is why things are so screwed up,” he told high school graduates in a virtual commencement speech over the weekend.

Trump responded on Monday by calling his predecessor "an incompetent president."

"I think President Obama was one of the worst presidents in the history of our country," he said.

Trump's calls for investigations into Obama have faced resistance even from allies like Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who suggested it'd be unwise and set a bad precedent.

Attorney General William Barr said Monday he doesn’t expect either Obama or Biden to be investigated, and vowed that the U.S. justice system "will not be used for partisan political ends."

"We live in a very divided country right now, and I think it is critical that we have an election where the American people are allowed to make a decision, a choice between President Trump and Vice President Biden based on a robust debate of policy issues," he said. "And we cannot allow this process to be hijacked by efforts to drum up criminal investigations of either candidate."