It has been a long time since a popular, term-limited president has campaigned vigorously on behalf of his presumptive heir. Bill Clinton famously refrained from campaigning for Al Gore, at Gore’s request, and Ronald Reagan was a surprisingly quiet surrogate for George H. W. Bush. Barack Obama, meanwhile, has hit the trail for Hillary Clinton with an elan that recalls his days as a swaggering presidential candidate in 2008. He has become the Democratic nominee’s most unvarnished and indispensable champion.
Obama’s primary goal, of course, is to help Clinton defeat Donald Trump, so as to cement his own legacy. But the president clearly takes extra pleasure campaigning in battleground states against Republicans who didn’t consider Trump an affront to the conscience until the GOP nominee’s poll numbers tanked.
“I understand Joe Heck now wishes he never said [nice] things about Donald Trump,” Obama said at a weekend campaign event in Las Vegas, Nevada, referring to the Republican congressman who’s running for Senate. “But they’re on tape. They’re on the record. And now that Trump’s poll numbers are cratering, suddenly he says, well, no, I’m not supporting him. Too late. You don’t get credit for that.”
Obama is repurposing a critique he’s been making for years, in public and in private, directed at Republican officeholders themselves. His retooled stump speech is crafted not just to fire up Democratic voters against Trump, but to overwhelm other Republican politicians with a sense of dread by making them recognize the huge mistake they made not listening to him.
Some of these Republicans are only now realizing that Obama was right all along. But, as he’s now saying, it’s too late. Obama’s taking his argument to the voting public, and Trump is precisely the totem he needs to make it stick.
On the stump, Obama now regularly links Trump’s candidacy, and the bind he’s created for down-ballot Republicans, to a greater theory about the way the right has practiced politics throughout his presidency.
“For years,” Obama said in Las Vegas, “Republican politicians and the far-right media outlets have pumped up all kinds of crazy stuff about me, about Hillary, about Harry [Reid]. They said I wasn’t born here. They said climate change is a hoax. They said that I was going to take everybody’s guns away.”
Obama went on:
[T]here are a lot of politicians who knew better. There are a lot of senators who knew better. But they went along with these stories because they figured, you know what, this will help rile up the base, it will give us an excuse to obstruct what we’re trying to do, we won’t be able to appoint judges, we’ll gum up the works, we’ll create gridlock, it will give us a political advantage. So they just stood by and said nothing. And their base began to actually believe this crazy stuff.
So Donald Trump did not start this. Donald Trump didn’t start it. He just did what he always did, which is slap his name on it, take credit for it, and promote it. That’s what he does. And so now when suddenly it’s not working, and people are saying, wow, this guy is kind of out of line, all of a sudden, these Republican politicians who were okay with all this crazy stuff up to a point, suddenly they’re all walking away. “Oh, this is too much.” … Well, what took you so long? What the heck?
It should be alarming to Republican strategists that the outgoing Democratic president has a better handle on what’s happened to their party than GOP politicians and conservative intellectuals—many of whom blame Trump’s rise on the media, or liberal dirty tricks.
“When I was watching the president,” the conservative radio host John Ziegler told Business Insider, referring to the above remarks, “I was struck by how he seemed to understand the problems with conservative media more than any Republican does. It was frustrating to see him be the voice of reason.”
What is striking about Obama’s grand-unified theory of Trump is that a number of related forces have interwoven to make a somewhat complicated story seem simple and obvious. Obama’s popularity, and the end of his presidency, give him a degree of moral authority to make this critique that he wouldn’t enjoy if he were unpopular or fighting for his own reelection. Likewise, if Trump didn’t fit the theory so perfectly, it would not seem so intuitively correct to Ziegler and others today.
But the content of Obama’s argument shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention, because he’s been making it for practically his entire presidency. In January 2010, when health care reform was stuck in limbo, Obama attended the House GOP issues conference in Baltimore, Maryland, and pleaded with Republican members of Congress to be more on the level about their disagreements with him. For his sake and for theirs.
“We’ve got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality,” he pleaded. “I’m not suggesting that we’re going to agree on everything, whether it’s on health care or energy or what have you, but if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don’t have a lot of room to negotiate with me. I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you’ve been telling your constituents is, this guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America.”
That was just one prominent example; Republicans have complained endlessly over the past seven years about Obama’s tendency to lecture them about their internal politics and strategic incentives. Conservatives in general have been hostile to similar critiques, whether they came from Obama or other liberals, rejecting them reflexively as bad-faith concern trolling by people who sought to defeat, not help them. The validity of the liberal critique, and the sincerity of Obama’s desire to govern in concert with a loyal opposition, did not pierce the conservative cocoon until Trump exploited the same false grievances Obama warned them about to terrifying effect.
It is gratifying, in some ways, to watch Obama take this final victory lap. There can be no more fitting repudiation of the the massive resistance strategy Republicans deployed against him than to leave office a political giant, with high approval ratings, and a list of substantive achievements to rival the greatest presidents in U.S. history—while the opposing party’s nominee, the embodiment of the Republican id, loses ignominiously.
Obama’s hope is that the public responds to his barnstorming by defeating Trump in a landslide and taking down as many of his enablers as possible along with him. That may be the only way for the Republicans who survive 2016 to internalize the message that the politics of backlash they’ve practiced aren’t just dangerous, but contrary to their own interests. They’ve been blinding themselves to this same argument for years, after all. Now it will cost some of them their jobs, in an election they could have won, and Obama’s “I told you so” will be the door hitting them on the way out.