President Obama is making a point of ignoring the Republican presidential debates, but the candidates’ campaign rhetoric is obviously hitting a presidential nerve or two.
Time and again in recent weeks, Mr. Obama has launched into an unsolicited, spirited defense of his record, in a tone that sometimes betrays a deep annoyance with the Republicans’ attacks against him.
“I’m going to hold up my record up against anybody,” Mr. Obama told a hand-picked audience of progressive state legislators at the White House last week. “When you look back on these last seven years, we’ve made enormous progress.”
After pausing for the guaranteed applause from the adoring crowd, the president went on to complain that the Republican presidential candidates were attempting to rewrite history and deny him credit for his achievements.
“You’re not going to hear that progress acknowledged from the folks on the other side who are running for this office at the moment,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s the nature of politics. But somehow they’ve invented a reality that everything was terrific back in 2007, 2008 — when the unemployment and the uninsured rate were skyrocketing, and when our economy was shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs every month, and we were mired in two wars, and hopelessly addicted to foreign oil, and bin Laden was still plotting. Apparently those were the good old days before I came in and messed things up.”
Some analysts say Mr. Obama is campaigning for his legacy, like many other lame ducks, while competing for airtime against the Republican candidates and headline-generating emergencies such as Syria’s civil war.
“We have a deteriorating international disaster in the Middle East, crime running rampant in our big cities, a flailing economy, and nationwide malaise, so the president is trying to shift blame for failures and absorb as much credit for whatever limited successes might have happened on his watch,” said Republican strategist John Feehery. “He doesn’t want to see the Republicans win the White House because that would tarnish his legacy more than anything else.”
With so many presidential candidates and the political atmosphere in Washington so polarized, there has been no shortage of harsh criticism leveled against the president. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, has accused Mr. Obama of engaging in a “megalomaniacal, imperial presidency” partly because of his extensive use of executive orders.
“Barack Obama has become the president Richard Nixon always wished he could be,” Mr. Cruz said.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said Mr. Obama “reminds you of a psychopath, because they tend to be extremely smooth, charming people who can tell a lie to your face.”
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump seems to have irritated Mr. Obama the most with his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and his claims that the American dream died on Mr. Obama’s watch. The president, who has exchanged public taunts with Mr. Trump over the years, tried to set the real estate mogul straight during a speech to the Business Roundtable last month.
“America is great right now,” Mr. Obama said, without mentioning Mr. Trump by name. “In the echo chamber that is presidential politics, everything is dark and everything is terrible. [Republican candidates] don’t seem to offer many solutions for the disasters that they perceive, but they’re quick to tell you who to blame.”
After the Business Roundtable meeting, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president wasn’t singling out Mr. Trump. He said Mr. Obama’s comments “apply to a significant number of candidates in the Republican field.”
He said the president wanted to warn Republican candidates not to “fritter away” the economic progress made during his administration since the Great Recession.
Some observers say the increasingly polarized nature of U.S. politics is making it more difficult for Mr. Obama to write his legacy because his agenda included highly partisan issues such as Obamacare, Wall Street regulation and climate change. It also involved much unilateral action, cutting Congress out of the loop and embittering Republicans.
“Many of the things that the president touts as his most significant accomplishments are the very same issues that stoke the greatest Republican opposition,” said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “And that’s been the case for the last seven years. The president is now clearly in a very active effort to define his accomplishments, and the Republican primary creates a very active foil for that. It’s an elevated conversation now.”
Mr. Grumet said the free trade deal completed this week among the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim nations provides Mr. Obama with perhaps the best opportunity of his presidency to rise above that narrative.
“Trade is really the first moment in the conversation where the president is anchoring his legacy in something that breaks out of that simplistic partisan division,” Mr. Grumet said.
Mr. Obama told NPR this week that he is heavily involved in building support in the U.S. for the trade deal “not because it’s a legacy added for me, [but] because it’s a legacy added for America.”
But that opportunity will clash with the political calendar. Congress will vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership early next year as the presidential primaries are in full gear.
Several Republican candidates are on record opposing the deal, and the two Democratic presidential front-runners — former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont — have sided with liberal groups and labor unions and come out against it.
“The lose-lose proposition [for Mr. Obama] is if the progressive side of the Democratic Party opposes it on concerns about its labor impacts and the conservative wing of the Republican Party opposes it because they want to oppose the president’s legacy,” Mr. Grumet said. “Both parties are going to be driving away from the kinds of accomplishments that really substantively create presidential legacy. If the president is able to bring together a coalition that defines the edges of both parties and advances the trade deal, that will be seen appropriately as a legacy accomplishment.”