A lot of conservative pundits have been blaming the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican primary on President Obama. Their reasoning is that this President has been so liberal and divisive (read: Black) that he ignited a backlash among voters. Of course, that’s nonsense.
But in some ways, David Axelrod makes a similar case. He goes back to a memo he wrote to then-Senator Barack Obama in 2006 making the argument for why he should enter the race.
Here’s the gist. Open-seat presidential elections are shaped by perceptions of the style and personality of the outgoing incumbent. Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have. They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.
Then he explains how Donald Trump is the antithesis of Barack Obama.
Beyond specific issues, however, many Republicans view dimly the very qualities that played so well for Mr. Obama in 2008. Deliberation is seen as hesitancy; patience as weakness. His call for tolerance and passionate embrace of America’s growing diversity inflame many in the Republican base, who view with suspicion and anger the rapidly changing demographics of America. The president’s emphasis on diplomacy is viewed as appeasement.
So who among the Republicans is more the antithesis of Mr. Obama than the trash-talking, authoritarian, give-no-quarter Mr. Trump?
His bombast allows no room for nuance or complexity. He proudly extols his intolerance as an assault against “political correctness,” and he vows to bring the world to heel, from Mexico to China to Syria and Iraq…
Relentlessly edgy, confrontational and contemptuous of the niceties of governance and policy making, Mr. Trump is the perfect counterpoint to a president whose preternatural cool and deliberate nature drive his critics mad.
That would certainly explain why candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich haven’t caught on with Republican voters. Selling themselves as the thoughtful/reasonable alternatives to Donald Trump make them look too similar to what the base of the party is reacting to in President Obama. As many have noted, Marco Rubio is becoming more anti-Obama when it comes to his persona as all of this unfolds.
What Axelrod doesn’t explore is whether or not the candidacy of Bernie Sanders represents the same phenomenon to his supporters on the left. Certainly it is not fueled by the nativism and racism we see in the Trump campaign. But Sanders has been clear that he thinks President Obama has been “naive” in his attempts to work with Republicans. That critique of President Obama resonates strongly with his supporters. Certainly the specter of an angry Sanders shaking his fists at “the establishment” is the antithesis of “no drama Obama.”
Beyond the policy differences, Axelrod makes the point that, “attitudes toward President Obama will shape the selection of his successor.” Will a majority of the electorate want a “third Obama-like term,” or something that represents the opposite? Here’s what President Obama told Glenn Thrush about that:
But my bet — and I may end up being wrong about this – my bet is that the candidate who can project hope still is the candidate who the American people, over the long term, will gravitate towards. And early on in these — in a campaign season, defining yourself by what you’re not is the fastest way to consolidate a base…But when you start getting later into the process, people want somebody who can give them an optimistic vision about where the country is going to be.