Against the Grain

What Trump Learned From Obama

President Obama embraced base-first politics. President Trump is taking a page from his predecessor’s playbook—and may suffer similar midterm losses.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
March 18, 2018, 6 a.m.

President Obama and President Trump have very little in common, except for one important fact: the political dynamic that drove their presidencies. Both came out of nowhere to win the presidency, were celebrity candidates swept into office by a passionate base, and quickly became deeply polarizing figures in office—even as they grew more comfortable driving unconventional policies as they spent more time on the job.

So in assessing the (future) politics of the Trump presidency, Obama’s experience in office offers a very instructive parallel. Obama first got elected by capitalizing on deep-seated disaffection with his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Trump won by exploiting the growing anger that working-class voters had towards the creeping elitism of the Democratic Party under Obama.

Obama got crushed in the midterms, failing to translate his followers’ own enthusiasm for him into support for the Democratic Party’s agenda. Republicans are facing the prospect of a historic repudiation this November in part because many die-hard Trump supporters aren’t reliable Republicans and some won’t show up to vote.

Obama alienated independents by pursuing an aggressively liberal agenda without moderating in response to his party’s regular rejections by the electorate. Trump refuses to move to the middle on any issue of significance despite a job-approval rating that barely hovers above 40 percent.

Obama was able to win reelection by catering to the desires of his passionate base, while portraying the opposition as crazy extremists. Trump’s reelection strategy, likewise, will be dependent on turning out his hard-core backers while portraying his future Democratic opponent as a wide-eyed, left-wing radical.

And just like Trump, Obama quickly grew more comfortable with the job as he learned to wield its power and didn’t need to rely on establishment hands unaligned with his campaign message. Obama initially surrounded himself with seasoned military advisers (like Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Jim Jones) to reassure skeptics he wasn’t as dovish on defense as his detractors feared. He initially supported a surge of troops into Afghanistan—only to decrease troop levels soon thereafter and lead a full-scale pullout from Iraq. He became painstakingly averse to military engagement the longer he spent in office, living up fully to the antiwar message that drove his early campaign rhetoric.

With just over a year in office, Trump now looks eager to break the straitjacket that establishment advisers have been placing on him and fully live up to the populist messaging from the campaign. While he relied on economic adviser Gary Cohn’s counsel early on, he now is eager to threaten trade wars and slap tariffs on steel and aluminum. His establishment-backed secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, provided a counterweight to the president’s hawkish instincts, but successor Mike Pompeo is more likely to forge a more muscular approach to foreign affairs. Trump, who had no experience in government before being elected, is now acting more confidently on the job. Obama surely can sympathize.

The similarity between Obama’s and Trump’s base-first political approaches shouldn’t be much of a surprise, either. Both Obama and Trump were celebrity candidates who didn’t need much help from their parties to get elected. In turn, both reshaped the party they represented in their own image. Obama turned the Democratic Party into a culturally progressive party, winning over millennials and nonwhites even as it lost appeal with its former core of union members and working-class white voters.

Trump has responded by turning the Republican Party into a vehicle for cultural resentments. Republican candidates for office are now running campaigns referencing NFL protests and the scourge of MS-13 gangs. Both Obama and Trump enjoy trolling their opponents: Just as Obama alienated Republicans by stubbornly refusing to reference radical Islam as the source of terrorist attacks, Trump infuriates Democrats by resisting gun control in the wake of school shootings. Obama rarely missed an opportunity to speak out against police misconduct, while Trump embraces law enforcement whenever he can.

Obama and Trump clearly have nothing in common personally, but both understand the tactics of base-first politics. All this suggests that Trump would be well served to follow the Obama model into his reelection effort: stick with your loyalists, slam the opposition, and use the bully pulpit to drive the debate. As one GOP strategist close to the Trump White House told me: “I’m a lot more confident about Trump winning a second term than I am about holding the House.” That would be in line with the Obama way.

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