It was only a few weeks ago that President Donald Trump was praising his predecessor and vowing to follow in his footsteps on a series of policies. But after Barack Obama returned home from an island vacation to adoring crowds and standing ovations, everything changed.
Trump began to criticize him – and he hasn’t stopped. He blamed him for the angry protests at Republican lawmakers’ town hall meetings. He accused him of releasing inmates from Guantanamo Bay only to see them to return to the battlefield. He blasted Obama and his supporters as responsible for many of the leaks crippling his administration.
And, of course, Trump famously accused Obama tapping his phones at Trump Tower in the days leading to the inauguration. After FBI Director James Comey said Monday that he had no evidence to support that stunning allegation – leading in part to some pundits declaring it the worst day of Trump’s presidency – Trump just moved on to another attack. He claimed that Obama may have known the agency was listening in on ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s calls with the Russian ambassador.
Trump can’t seem to stop talking about Obama. When meeting recently with Americans who said they had been hurt by the Affordable Care Act, he compared the health care plan to Obama, who clearly was on his mind.
“It’s a little bit like President Obama.” Trump said. “When he left, people liked him. When he was here, people didn’t like him so much.”
He seems to have an unnatural fixation with Obama. There’s just a certain behavior that I think we as Americans have come to expect, and to act this way to a predecessor, that’s very personal and disturbing.
Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia
The relationship between the two presidents is, in some ways, predictable.
Trump is thin-skinned and tends to say – or at least tweet – whatever comes to his mind. Obama won’t go away, staying in Washington until his daughter graduates from high school and embarking on a more politically active post-presidency than perhaps any other previous U.S. leader in modern times.
“This is inevitable,” said John Feehery, a veteran Republican strategist. “President Obama is the new leader of the opposition. President Trump doesn’t like that very much.”
Obama, 55, departed the White House as a relatively young man with high approval ratings and an unusual plan to stay in town, which has left him in the middle of today’s political fights and in Trump’s face.
Obama had repeatedly said he planned to honor a tradition of former presidents not criticizing their successors. But he has pushed back publicly on Trump twice, denying the wiretapping accusation and opposing Trump’s sweeping travel ban, now blocked in the courts, on citizens of half a dozen Muslim-majority nations.
Jonathan Felts, who served as White House political director for President George W. Bush, said Obama and Trump are used to and enjoy being the center of attention. “Obama knows he can get under the president’s skin,” he said.
Trump’s reaction has led to far more than just a friendly competition between former rivals. It has distracted from his biggest initiatives, including the Republican health care plan and the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch, and has cost him credibility when his statements have been disproved.
“He’s still, in many ways, fighting the last campaign,” said Leon Panetta, a longtime Washington insider who served as both Obama’s defense secretary and CIA director. “The more he’s fixated on the past, he tests the patience of the public.”
After the election, they met in person twice and spoke on the phone several times as they worked on transitioning the government from one administration to another. Trump spoke often about how well the two of them got along.
But he and Obama have not spoken since the inauguration, according to the White House, though Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and Obama’s former chief of staff Denis McDonough have spoken by phone, said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
In his first weeks in office, Trump said Obama had helped pave the way for several of his contentious initiatives: He cited Obama in justifying which countries were subject to his sweeping temporary ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations, he met criticism of his reorganization of the National Security Council by saying Obama had done much the same and he deflected criticism of a miliary raid in Yemen that left one Navy SEAL dead by saying the planning had occurred under Obama.
By the standard Obama set – blaming Bush for most all evil for the entire eight years – seems like the president is not even close to being focused on Obama.
Dave Carney, President George H.W. Bush’s White House political director
But things changed when Obama came back from his vacation in Palm Springs, California, and the British Virgin Islands, appearing rested and relaxed while Trump has been mired in one controversy after another.
“Obama looks good. . . . He looks to be enjoying his post-presidency,” said a Republican familiar with the situation who declined to speak publicly in order to be candid. “Donald Trump is never going to be that. It reflects a deep insecurity that he’s never going to be the cool kid or the popular kid.”
Since late February, Obama – sometimes with former first lady Michelle Obama or eldest daughter Malia – has received warm welcomes in Washington and New York.
He was greeted with cheers on the street after leaving the New York office of Simons Foundation, which reportedly contributed to his presidential library. He and Michelle Obama garnered applause when leaving the National Gallery of Art and received a standing ovation in a restaurant a few days later when they lunched with U2 frontman Bono. He and Malia Obama were spotted dining at Emilio’s Ballato, dubbed one of New York’s hippest establishments, and later attending the revival of Arthur Miller’s “The Price” on Broadway with actors Danny DeVito and Mark Ruffalo.
It’s a tragic moment, frankly, for a new president to make an assertion of a past president and refuse to retract that story.
Leon Panetta, former defense secretary and CIA director
By comparison, Trump has not traveled much outside Washington, aside from spending most of his weekends at his own Florida resort and staging a few rallies filled with supporters. He even canceled a trip to Wisconsin after it was reported that he could face a large number of protesters angered by his travel ban.
“What we’re witnessing is a bruised ego continually lashing out at perceived threats to his own sense of being a winner,” said Lynda Tran, a Democratic strategist who worked for the Democratic National Committee under Obama. “He can’t stand the adoring crowds around Barack Obama, who inspires more enthusiasm walking out of a Starbucks than Donald Trump can muster serving as leader of the free world.”
Obama is quietly working to rebuild his beleaguered party, to mentor and train young people and to lobby for state redistricting maps that could allow Democrats more chances to win seats. He and Michelle Obama stunned the publishing world when they recently landed a joint book deal with Penguin Random House for $65 million.
Some Republicans say that what Trump is doing is no different from what Obama did when he constantly blamed his Republican predecessor for many of the problems he inherited when he first came into office.
“By the standard Obama set – blaming Bush for most all evil for the entire eight years – seems like the president is not even close to being focused on Obama,” said Dave Carney, who was President George H.W. Bush’s White House political director.
Obama just jetted off to French Polynesia, where he will reportedly spend up to a month at a luxury resort. Will Trump change course again now that the former president is out of sight?