- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2020

Forget about Joseph R. Biden. The race for The White House in 2020 looks more and more like a contest between President Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama.

The former president has returned to politics with a vengeance, inserting himself in ways previously unthinkable for those who have occupied the Oval Office and calling his successor a lawless incompetent.

Along the way, Mr. Obama has upstaged his former sidekick and shifted the narrative of the 2020 presidential race from “Biden takes on Trump” to “Obama era versus the Trump years.”

It’s a recast of the contest welcomed by Mr. Trump, who is more than happy to talk about how his administration’s efforts have been held back by the failings and political machinations of his predecessor on everything from the economy to the coronavirus pandemic to the Russia investigation.

In recent days, that’s meant Mr. Trump pushing what he calls “Obamagate,” an unsubstantiated suggestion that Mr. Obama led an illegal conspiracy to persecute and prosecute him and his aides during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The 44th and 45th presidents — both historic in their own ways — have been on a collision course for years, dating to Mr. Trump’s pursuit of the “birther” theories questioning Mr. Obama’s qualifications for the White House in 2008. That then led to Mr. Obama’s skewering of Mr. Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner.

Mr. Obama later watched as Mr. Trump became president and began unraveling the legacy of his eight years in office — freezing U.S. participation in the Paris climate accord, canceling the massive free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership, puncturing Obamacare and attempting to revoke the DACA deportation amnesty for illegal immigrant “Dreamers.”

“President Obama has to be stung at the leveling of his administration’s deeds,” said Mike McKenna, a former top aide in the Trump White House. “Pretty much everything they did, the Trump administration has undone, and usually added in some salt for the wounds. So part of this is personal.”

Plus, Mr. Obama has more skin in the game this time than he did in 2016, with Mr. Biden on the ballot.

“He cares whether Biden wins, that wasn’t the case with Hillary,” Mr. McKenna said.

The Obama team, meanwhile, says Mr. Trump’s obsession with his predecessor “eats him alive inside.”

“Trump’s fact-free fixation on Obama dating back to birtherism is so absurd and stupid that it would be comic if it wasn’t so tragic,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser under Mr. Obama, recently said on Twitter.

Mr. Obama had already been notably more active than most past presidents in criticizing his successor, but with Mr. Biden now the party’s presumptive nominee, Mr. Obama has become more vocal.

First, in a leaked conference call, he said the decision to drop prosecution of former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was an affront to “our basic understanding of rule of law.”

He continued his assault in a pair of commencement speeches over the weekend, blasting Mr. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

“More than anything, this pandemic has fully torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” Mr. Obama said.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, declassified information showing almost 40 top Obama officials — including Mr. Biden himself — sought to “unmask” Flynn in 2017, by tying his name to secretly surveilled conversations with a top Russian official.

“The Obama Administration is turning out to be one of the most corrupt and incompetent in U.S. history,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter.

He added: “Remember, he and Sleepy Joe are the reasons I am in the White House!!!”

Mr. Trump has demanded the Republican-controlled Senate explore his theory that Flynn was targeted as part of a broader Obama administration “deep state coup” to undermine him and his administration, an alleged plot Mr. Trump has dubbed “Obamagate.”

But Attorney General William P. Barr on Monday said he doesn’t see an ongoing Justice Department probe resulting in a criminal investigation of either Mr. Biden or Mr. Obama, though it could snare others.

Kathleen Sullivan, a former Democratic National Committee member from New Hampshire, said Mr. Trump is trying to “smear” Mr. Obama because he feels threatened and has “hated” him since the correspondents’ dinner.

“Cheap psychology? Yes, but Trump has spent three years trying to eviscerate Obama’s legacy,” Ms. Sullivan said. “Also, Trump has a real problem with projection — he obsessively projects his failings onto everyone else.”

Doug Heye, a GOP strategist, said Mr. Trump also sees value in distraction amid the coronavirus.

“Clearly Trump spoils for a fight and when he does he knows the media is going to cover that fight to a great extent,” Mr. Heye said. “So if the conversation for an hour throughout the day on TV is about Obama and Trump fighting each other and not that 89,000 Americans are dead, you’ve changed the conversation, and his base loves it.”

Steve Cochran, a Democratic National Committee member from Virginia, said Mr. Trump is “insanely jealous of Barack Obama because Obama is everything he is not — handsome, respected, popular and an effective leader who brings out the best in people, inspiring them to succeed.”

Both men are aware of the stakes.

“If Obama wins this round, Trump knows he loses,” Mr. Cochran said.

Former Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia said Mr. Obama has taken a more partisan role as an ex-president than predecessors such as George W. Bush, who left office promising to remain mum and did so until deep into the Obama years.

“He stayed out of it, tried to be supportive and he held his tongue,” Mr. Davis said. “That is what people used to do and I think it is an example of how politics has just gotten more polarized and more partisan and this is a reflection of that.”

Mr. Davis said he wasn’t shocked by Mr. Obama’s vociferous emergence, given that Mr. Biden is not the most “dynamic” candidate.

“He gives a fireside chat and the fire goes out,” he said. “His strength isn’t as an exciting candidate. So someone has to excite the base.”

YouGov, a polling outfit, says 56% of Americans have a positive opinion of Mr. Obama, significantly higher than Mr. Biden’s 40%.

Yet at this point in his first term, Mr. Obama’s job approval rating was just 47%, according to Gallup. Mr. Trump bests him at 49% approval.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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