Meh. I think this is a silly thing to worry about given how Biden’s preparing to weaponize Obama against Trump. He already has, in fact. It was just a few days ago that O called Trump’s coronavirus response an “absolute chaotic disaster” on a fundraising phone call that mysteriously leaked to the press. Obama will be a factor in the campaign. Trump has to deal with it somehow.
Plus, nothing but nothing gets righties motivated to vote like reminding them how much they dislike Obama. Trump has always imagined his path to reelection running through massive turnout among his base, not winning over swing voters. Making Obama his main foil is a logical way to facilitate that.
But yeah, there are risks to the “ObamaGate” strategy too.
Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers believe that there isn’t a downside in attacking Mr. Obama, who is vastly more popular than Mr. Biden. They argue that Mr. Trump challenged Mr. Obama’s record throughout the 2016 campaign, and they take Mr. Trump’s victory as affirmation of his approach.
But the president is now attacking Mr. Obama’s integrity, not just his policies, a move that makes some of Mr. Trump’s advisers anxious. In a survey of voters in 17 battleground states commissioned by the Republican National Committee in March, Mr. Obama was deeply popular, especially compared with current elected officials. Sixty percent of respondents said they viewed Mr. Obama favorably, compared with 36 percent who said they saw him negatively, according to a person briefed on the data.
Right, Obama is popular according to polling, but he was popular in the final few months of his presidency too and that didn’t stop Trump from winning the presidency. No risk for POTUS in attacking him again then, right? I don’t know. Biden’s a very generic Democrat; Hillary Clinton was … Hillary Clinton. The Trump vs. Hillary election truly was a Trump vs. Hillary election, even with O cheering her on, as the Clintons have their own distinctive political brand. A Trump vs. Biden election could end up as a de facto Trump vs. Obama election because Biden doesn’t have his own distinctive brand. And Trump vs. Obama is not a good match-up for the GOP given their respective favorable ratings.
Second, for obvious reasons, Obama has heavy influence with black voters. Not as much influence as he’s cracked up to have, maybe: He stumped for Hillary in 2016 yet African-Americans still showed up for her at a smaller clip than they did for O, which may have doomed her in swing states. But the more personal it gets between Trump and the first black president, the greater the risk that black voters will take it personally too, and not just in terms of higher turnout. Nonwhite voters are one of the few groups with whom Trump has made some gains in polling this year. If war with O alienates them, those gains could be reversed. And Trump needs every new voter he can get given his slide lately among senior citizens.
The main risk of the “ObamaGate” offensive doesn’t involve racial politics, though. It’s the “what the hell is he talking about?” factor. The saga of Mike Flynn and his plea bargain and the FBI and the Russian ambassador and “unmasking,” etc etc etc, is now sufficiently deep in the weeds that most voters might not be able to follow it. That was a solid criticism of the impeachment saga too — for all the attention paid to it, it was sufficiently complicated and far afield from voters’ core concerns that people largely tuned it out. Fox viewers will invest heavily in “ObamaGate,” plus a segment of the right’s activist class that’s Very Online, but remember that Trump got 63 million votes in 2016 and on a good night something like four or five million watch Fox. Even to most Republicans, said David Frum in a piece a few days ago, the ObamaGate stuff may not be galvanizing so much as mystifying. And mystification is a bad look in the middle of a pandemic and economic collapse in which Dems are already attacking Trump for not being focused.
[T]he most important thing to notice about the Trump-Fox blizzard of mania is how remote it is from anything that real-world voters care about. In 2015, Trump apprehended that most Republicans were talking about things that Republican voters did not then care about: deficits, taxes, productivity, and trade. In 2015, Trump apprehended that nobody was talking about things that Republican voters did care about: immigration, drugs, the declining status of less educated white men.
That Trump is gone. Today’s Trump has lost the plot. He’s talking about things most voters could not even understand, let alone care about. Yes, Flynn lied to the FBI. But you have to see, the FBI’s interview was not properly predicated …
Meanwhile, the country is on track to lose more people to the coronavirus than the Union lost in battle in the Civil War. Meanwhile, 33 million Americans have filed unemployment claims.
One could say that Trump’s just being opportunistic in seizing on the “ObamaGate” message. His DOJ dropped the case against Flynn a few days ago, so there’s some renewed public attention to the circumstances of Flynn’s prosecution. The president is leveraging that. We could also say, a la making Obama a foil, that it’s great turnout material. If you’re going to win with your base, give the base a reason to be angry at Democrats. That’s the Flynn case.
Frum’s point, though, is that ObamaGate is in the weeds even by “base turnout” standards. It’s not Republicans writ large who are particularly interested in it. (Senate Republicans don’t even want to follow up on it.) It’s Republican activists, people who are so ardently pro-Trump that they really would vote for him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. They’re going to support him this fall no matter what, in which case he may not be gaining anything by spending time on it. To the contrary, by seeming distracted from the pandemic he may be losing some voters who are otherwise considering supporting him. His bizarre lashing out at Joe Scarborough a few days ago is of a piece with that. It’s not that anyone’s going to vote for Biden because Trump was mean to poor “Morning Joe.” It’s that people might vote for Biden because they’re left thinking, “Where the hell are this guy’s priorities?”
Anyway. Here’s McConnell reminding Trump’s daughter-in-law a few days ago that Obama started it — which may have been O’s goal, of course. If he’s trying to bait Trump into making him a foil for strategic reasons, it’s working.