Inside the White House, poetic justice looks a lot like Donald Trump.
Past and present aides to President Barack Obama are gloating that a Republican leadership they say defined itself by blustery opposition — and used it to win the House, then the Senate, and stand in the White House’s way at every turn — is getting devoured by a candidate personifying the anger agenda.
Obama insiders would rather have immigration reform signed than lament knowingly on Sunday talk shows that the Republicans will keep losing elections until they deal with the issue. They’d rather have a longer-term approach to government spending, or more of the entitlement and tax reform deals Obama said he was eager to cut.
But on everything from guns to reproductive health to opening up Cuba, Obama’s team says it has been battling for years the very politics that paved the way for Trump’s ascendance this election cycle.
“It’s not so much a reaction to Obama,” said one person familiar with the president’s thinking about the Trump phenomenon. “It’s more of a reaction to their strategy that, ‘We’re just going to be antithetical to everything [Obama] stands for.’”
According to people in the White House, Obama doesn’t talk about Trump much. When he does, it’s with a combination of amusement and disgust at the rhetoric, occasionally mentioning his amazement at GOP leaders’ inability to understand Trump’s supporters and the long-term damage the president thinks Trump is doing to the party with the groups of voters who will decide future elections.
“Coming out of 2008 and the demographic changes in the country, Republicans needed energy, and instead of reaching for new ideas and new leadership, they reached for the political equivalent of Four Loko,” said Hari Sevugan, a senior spokesman for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “Sure it gives a shot of energy, but it eventually rots your brain and kills you.”
But it’s more than told-ya-so. It’s personal.
The West Wing still burns over Trump leading the birth certificate charge in 2012, forcing an official rebuttal from the White House and the release of the president’s long-form birth certificate. Aides say Trump played into fears and racism and encouraged voter distrust of the president, as he’s doing now on the campaign trail.
Obama administration alumni remember hearing what they call the “those people” strain of politics when they were knocking on doors in 2008. It was evident at rallies for Sarah Palin and at tea party events in the first term of his presidency. Americans weren’t wrong to think Obama’s election in 2008 meant the country had changed — the president himself bought into it and was frustrated in the early years to see how slowly it translated into policy accomplishments.
Still, Obama’s team refuses to see Trump’s political success as some kind of backlash against the president.
“In the long sweep of history, this chapter is all pretty simple: The country actually switched from one dominant culture that was in charge for 240 years to one that’s multicultural,” said one Obama campaign veteran. “And that wasn’t going to go easy. But now we’re in the middle of it, so it seems chaotic and complicated.”
They also won’t concede that Trump might win. The billionaire real estate developer’s six months atop the GOP primary race have coincided with arguably the most successful year of Obama’s presidency — scoring deals with Iran and Cuba and on climate change and trade, and seeing previous efforts on Obamacare and gay marriage secured by the Supreme Court. That this all happened simultaneously with Trump’s rise demonstrates how little support Trump politics has in the country, Obama’s aides say.
“It’s not that the country has changed, it’s that a narrow band of mostly white, low- and middle-income Americans are supporting a candidate who is speaking to their anxiety about being left behind in this economy,” said Bill Burton, a former deputy White House press secretary. “Under no circumstances could Trump get a majority of Americans to support the nonsense and intolerance that he espouses.”
After all, Burton said, there’s not a lot of overlap between the people showing up at Trump rallies and the ones who had HOPE posters pinned on their walls eight years ago.
“What we are seeing play out in the Republican primary is a conversation between the GOP and itself about what kind of party it wants to be,” said Brent Colburn, the communications director for Obama’s reelection campaign. “No one who has ever worked for President Obama is surprised by the fact that there is a deeply divisive wing of the Republican Party. That was true in 2008, it was true in 2012, and, sadly, that is turning out to be true in 2016.”
But it’s not just about the GOP. White House aides say they are legitimately concerned that Trump is damaging America’s reputation around the world. It’s more than just Trump’s rhetoric playing into ISIL recruitment, they say; to people watching overseas, he’s eating away at ideals of what America’s supposed to stand for.
Going into next year, Obama will be speaking out against Trump, as he did indirectly in several pro-immigration speeches earlier this month and by name in an interview with NPR last week, when he argued that the Republican front-runner is exploiting the fears of “particularly blue-collar men [who] have had a lot of trouble in this new economy.” And pushing back against Trump will be a central theme of Obama’s international engagement.
“The nature of American politics is that all these statements are consumed around the world,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “When there are statements that could present challenges in terms of perceptions of America’s openness to people of different faiths and America’s inclusiveness, the president is going to speak out on that.”
Obama loyalists like to point out that Trump’s been good at two things in his career — sales and bankruptcy. So when asked what Trump’s rise says about Obama’s America, the president’s team likes to note that Trump hasn’t won a single vote yet.
“The rise of Trump says more about the lack of progress in the GOP since 2008 than the progress the country has made since the president came into office,” Sevugan said. “But there’s only one way to find out if the country has changed: Nominate Trump.”
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