Nearly eight years after he was last on the ballot, Barack Obama (pictured) is emerging as a central figure in the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats are eagerly embracing Obama as a political wingman for Joe Biden, who spent two terms by his side as vice president. Obama remains the party’s most popular figure, particularly with black voters and younger Democrats, and Biden’s campaign is planning for him to have a highly visible role in months to come.
For President Donald Trump, that means an opportunity to focus on one of his favourite political foils. In recent days, Trump and his allies have aggressively pushed conspiracy theories about Obama designed to fire up the president’s conservative base, taint Biden by association and distract from the glut of grim health and economic news from coronavirus.
“Partisans on both sides want to make this about Obama,” said Ned Price, who served as spokesperson for Obama’s White House National Security Council.
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The renewed political focus on Obama sets the stage for an election about the nation’s future that will also be about its past. As Biden looks to Obama for personal validation, he’s also running to restore some of the former president’s legacy, which has been systematically dismantled by Trump. The current president is running in part to finish that job.
Yet Trump’s anti-Obama push also frequently takes on a darker, more conspiratorial tone that goes far beyond differences in health care policy and the US role in the world. His current focus is on the actions Obama, Biden and their national security advisers took in the closing days of their administration, as they viewed intelligence reports about Michael Flynn. Flynn had a short stint as Trump’s national security adviser before being fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his interactions with Russia’s ambassador to the US.
Trump’s administration acknowledged on Wednesday that Obama advisers followed proper procedures in privately “unmasking” Flynn’s name, which was redacted in the intelligence reports for privacy reasons. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, though Trump’s Justice Department moved last week to drop the case against him.
Despite there being no evidence of wrongdoing by Obama, Biden or other administration officials, Trump is eagerly pushing the notion of an unspecified crime against the former president, branding it “Obamagate.” He’s being backed up by Republican allies, including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley who took to the Senate floor this week to ask of the Flynn matter: “What did Obama and Biden know, and when did they know it?”
Trump’s zeal has sparked fears among some former Obama and Biden advisers about how far he may be willing to go in using the levers of government to push his case against them in an election year. The Justice Department is conducting an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe that ensnared Flynn and other Trump associates.
Trump’s renewed focus on Obama comes as Republicans grow anxious that coronavirus deaths and cratering economy will damage his re-election prospects in November. Over 84,000 Americans have died from the virus, and 30 million have claimed unemployment.
Biden’s campaign drew a direct connection between the president’s attacks on Obama and the twin crises battering his administration. “It’s no surprise that the president is erratically lashing out at President Obama, desperate to distract from his own failures as commander in chief that have cost thousands of Americans their lives during this crisis,” said TJ Ducklo, a Biden campaign spokesman.