Obama and Trump: Polar Opposites

Republicans who have been unhappy with Donald Trump as their party’s presidential nominee have been known to blame his ascension on President Obama. That is not terribly surprising. We’ve all seen how the so-called “party of personal responsibility” is loath to examine how their own history led to the creation of this Frankenstein-like candidate.

But there are times when the “Thanks, Obama” meme actually deserves some examination. If you start from the premise that Trump’s rhetoric and support springs from anger (bordering on hatred) stemming from Obama Derangement Syndrome, it will come as no surprise that the GOP is about to nominate someone who is the polar opposite of the object of that anger.

There are some obvious ways that Obama and Trump are opposites. One is a Black man born to humble beginnings. The other is a White man born to wealth and privilege. When it comes to political positions, Trump has been all over the map while Obama has been strikingly consistent over time. Obama emerged on the national political scene with a speech that was all about uniting Americans across our differences. Trump’s political career was launched with birther accusations about our first African American president. A couple of things have emerged recently about Trump that take the comparison a little deeper. I’d like to highlight some of them that are the most important to recognize.

Decision-Making

Apparently Donald Trump doesn’t like to read – which is a reflection of his decision-making style.

Trump’s desk is piled high with magazines, nearly all of them with himself on their covers, and each morning, he reviews a pile of printouts of news articles about himself that his secretary delivers to his desk. But there are no shelves of books in his office, no computer on his desk.

Presidents have different ways of preparing to make decisions. Some read deeply, some prefer to review short memos that condense difficult issues into bite-size summaries, ideally with check-boxes at the bottom of the page. But Trump, poised to become the first major-party presidential nominee since Dwight Eisenhower who had not previously held elected office, appears to have an unusually light appetite for reading.

He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

We all know that President Obama is a voracious reader. But beyond reading for enlightenment or entertainment, Michael Shear recently wrote about how he uses his precious hours alone after dark.

Almost every night that he is in the White House, Mr. Obama has dinner at 6:30 with his wife and daughters and then withdraws to the Treaty Room, his private office down the hall from his bedroom on the second floor of the White House residence.

There, his closest aides say, he spends four or five hours largely by himself…

By 8 p.m., the usher’s office delivers the president’s leather-bound daily briefing book — a large binder accompanied by a tall stack of folders with memos and documents from across the government, all demanding the president’s attention. “An insane amount of paper,” Mr. Kass said…

“He is thoroughly predictable in having gone through every piece of paper that he gets,” said Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser from 2010 to 2013. “You’ll come in in the morning, it will be there: questions, notes, decisions.”

Attack vs Counterpuncher

Josh Marshall has done a good job of capturing Donald Trump’s style.

Part of making sense of the current Trump campaign is understanding that Trump is continually trying to take the hyper-aggressive bullyboy tactics he learned from his father in the New York City real estate world and apply them to national politics. That style might fairly be described as sell, sell, sell and attack, attack, attack. In particular, as a New York City real estate pro described here, it’s largely about getting inside other people’s heads with over-the-top aggression that knocks them on their heels and leaves them unprepared to fight back. Some of this is simply what I’ve called “dominance politics”, an idea I’ve developed in various posts over the years, and which I described back in March as being based on “the inherent appeal of power and the ability to dominate others.”

That contrasts with how President Obama describes himself as a “counterpuncher.”

Off-the-Cuff vs Thoughtful

The reason Trump’s campaign team has been trying to get him to use pre-written speeches that he reads off a teleprompter is that he likes to go off-the-cuff and say outrageous things. That worked pretty well for him in the Republican primary. But the Clinton campaign has shown how it can also be a liability.

On the other hand, take a look at how President Obama reacted to a question from Ed Henry about why he didn’t express outrage at Wall Street bonuses sooner.

Self-Absorption vs Curiosity

Donald Trump’s ghostwriter Tony Schwartz provided us with this tidbit.

Schwartz thought that “The Art of the Deal” would be an easy project….For research, he planned to interview Trump on a series of Saturday mornings…. But the discussion was soon hobbled by what Schwartz regards as one of Trump’s most essential characteristics: “He has no attention span.”

….“Trump has been written about a thousand ways from Sunday, but this fundamental aspect of who he is doesn’t seem to be fully understood,” Schwartz told me. “It’s implicit in a lot of what people write, but it’s never explicit—or, at least, I haven’t seen it. And that is that it’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes, and even then . . . ” Schwartz trailed off, shaking his head in amazement.

I was reminded of a fascinating account by Julie Hirschfeld Davis about how “a restless Obama finds an intellectual escape.”

In a summer when the president is traveling across the country meeting with ordinary Americans under highly choreographed conditions, the Rome dinner shows another side of Mr. Obama. As one of an increasing number of late-night dinners in his second term, it offers a glimpse into a president who prefers intellectuals to politicians, and into the rarefied company Mr. Obama may keep after he leaves the White House…

In Rome in March, Mr. Piano said, the president seemed happy to talk about something other than politics and current events. “I think he was refreshed to sit down in a beautiful place, with good food, and talking with serenity about important things,” Mr. Piano said. He recalled that Mr. Obama, who once had dreams of becoming an architect, had many questions about Mr. Piano’s work.

“It was a real curiosity of a real man who was trying to explore how things happen,” Mr. Piano said.

Dominance vs Partnership

Once again, Josh Marshall nailed it in describing the dynamics that came into play with Trump’s VP selection process.

Trump’s handling of his vice presidential pick casts him in an extremely unflattering light. And yet the heaviest weight undoubtedly falls on Pence. It is simply no accident that those who come into his orbit, who join with him, are rapidly visited with a string of indignities that stand in a bracing contrast to the power and status they earlier enjoyed. On the field of other political actors, other would-be ‘alpha males’, for Trump you are either his enemy or his property.

As I have studied Barack Obama over the course of his presidency, the one thing that has stood out to me is his embrace of the power of partnership. Because it infuses everything he does, it is difficult to come up with just one example or quote to summarize. Perhaps it was best described by his 2008 slogan, “Yes We Can.” But it is also captured by something he said during his speech in Cairo back in 2009.

For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

Of course, there were also these words that he spoke at the 2012 Democratic Convention in a discussion about the meaning of citizenship.

We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

I suppose that if you think that this country has been brought to the brink of disaster by having a president who is a counterpuncher, is thoughtful and curious in his decision-making and believes in the power of partnership, then perhaps Donald Trump is your guy. But for the rest of us, those qualities are exactly the kinds of things we’ll be missing when he’s gone and will be looking for from his successor.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .