What Trump and Obama Have in Common
Not such a long time ago, in our very own galaxy, an unlikely candidate startled his party’s establishment by coming from seemingly nowhere to win its nomination for president. Putting together a surprising coalition of alienated and frustrated voters, he won the White House over a Washington icon and claimed a mandate for swift and dramatic change.
But the new president, unaccustomed to Washington’s ways, made a huge mistake. He concluded that his election was a transformative moment that would sweep aside all entrenched interests. He believed he could unite his party and get his political enemies to cooperate, or at least back down, through the sheer force of his personality.
Everyone had agreed it was time for change, the new president reasoned. After all, his campaign crowds were huge and wildly enthusiastic. Surely the opposition would fall in line.
That candidate was Barack Obama.
For far too long, he tried and failed to make deals with Republicans on Capitol Hill who had sworn to block his entire agenda, and he ended up looking naïve and weak. “When almost two million show up for your inauguration, it’s enough to turn your head,” a close associate later said.
Eight years later, another unlikely winner is making the same mistake.
President Trump seems to have convinced himself that he was the leader of a mass movement (“the single greatest movement in the history of this country,” in fact) and that his very ascension to the presidency marked a turning point in politics that would render the Democrats powerless and rally the Republican majorities in Congress in uncritical support of his agenda.
There are differences between the two presidents, of course. Obama got to the White House despite the lingering racism in American life and politics. Trump stoked that racism and gleefully rode it into Washington.
Obama was too confident in his own powers of persuasion. Trump’s belief in his powers of persuasion is so inflated that it amounts to narcissism.
Obama was distrusted by American corporate leaders. Trump is one of them.
Obama came to Washington to govern. Trump came to preen.
Obama had a specific agenda with actual legislative proposals. Trump has tweets.
Obama showed a detailed understanding of policy issues. He could talk about them with authority and was thoroughly steeped in history. Trump doesn’t seem to know the first thing about much of anything, past or present.
“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he famously said as people who did know that were hard at work on Capitol Hill coming up with a proposal to replace Obamacare that failed spectacularly last week and left Trump looking like a fool (to everyone except himself).
Then there were the moments when he didn’t seem to know who Frederick Douglass was, and shared with the world his conclusion that slavery was “not good” (although to be fair he amended that later to “really bad”).
Obama rolled up his sleeves and did the hard work on the big issues. Trump announces that a problem is going to be solved, brushes his hands and moves on. Sometimes he invents problems — like his recent announcement that he would put an end to the “uncontrolled entry” of people into the country. It’s a neat trick because fixing a nonexistent problem doesn’t require actual work.
But as new presidents, Obama and Trump share that debilitating belief in their own public relations. Obama got over it eventually. Will Trump?