One thing you can say for President Trump is that he never makes you wonder what he’s feeling. And nothing makes him break out in a cold sweat quite like the thought of Barack Obama, who has been an obsession for Trump since the moment he took office.

Has there ever been a president who talked so much about the man who preceded him? If you don’t recall Bill Clinton saying “George Bush couldn’t do this, but I did” in reference to every bill he signed, or Ronald Reagan prattling on about how Jimmy Carter wasn’t nearly the president he was, that’s because they weren’t so pathetically insecure about comparisons to their predecessors.

But Donald Trump is. Which is why all it takes is Obama marking the anniversary of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus bill that helped pull the economy out of the worst recession in nearly a century, to set Trump off:

We’re obligated to keep repeating the facts. Trump’s assertion that under his supervision this is the greatest economy in history and it was a disaster under Obama is simply false. The big picture is that the recession bottomed out early in Obama’s first term, and the recovery has been steady ever since.

On some specifics, Obama’s performance, especially in his second term, was better than Trump’s. But overall, when you combine all the different economic measures — GDP, job gains, the stock market and so on — the Trump economy is essentially a continuation of the Obama economy. (See here for more details.)

Nothing demonstrates that more clearly than the unemployment rate, the measure Republicans constantly cite to argue that Trump is an economic genius. Here’s a chart showing January 2009 to January 2020, in which you can see that there wasn’t some sort of transformative effect of Trump taking office:

But Trump is above all a marketer, and marketers know the power of repetition. So he’ll keep saying, over and over and over again, that this is the greatest economy in history, in the hope that people will accept that it must be true.

That might be effective. More importantly, it’s the only thing that makes his reelection even remotely possible. Trump is widely seen as dishonest, corrupt, divisive and uncaring. The only issue on which he gets majority approval is his handling of the economy. Anything that undermines that belief is a mortal threat to his chances of staying in office.

Given that fact, asking people to compare him with Obama is an absolutely idiotic strategy. First, it inevitably results in lots of journalists reciting the facts and putting up charts like the one above. Second, it reminds people that not too long ago we had a president who, whatever you thought of his policy choices, was not a petty, vindictive, corrupt, bigoted, misogynistic manbaby.

When Trump shouts that he’s better than Obama, whether on the economy or anything else, it may please the Republican base that loathed Obama with every fiber of their beings. But is it really a comparison Trump wants to put at the forefront of voters’ minds?

Let’s not forget that unlike Trump, Obama was quite popular. He left office with a 59 percent approval rating; Trump is the first president in the history of polling, dating all the way back to Harry Truman, to have never cracked 50 percent. Obama was the first president since Reagan to win two popular-vote majorities; Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by nearly 3 million votes.

Perhaps more to the point, as a human being Obama is everything Trump is not. What I suspect drives Trump mad more than anything else is that Obama has two things Trump has yearned for his entire life but was never able to buy: class and respect.

This is something every biographer of Trump has emphasized: He has always been desperate for the acceptance and respect of the establishment. No matter how many millions his father put in his bank account, the Manhattan grandees never welcomed Trump, who was raised in a wealthy Queens neighborhood, as one of them. So he turned himself into a walking parody of wealth and success, always fueled by his bitterness at not being brought into their club.

You can see it when Trump talks about the “elite.” Other Republicans use that notion to feed voters’ resentment, telling them Hollywood liberals and college professors look down on them. But when Trump brings up the elite, it’s to complain that he isn’t getting properly acknowledged as one of them. “I’m smarter than they are, I went to better schools than they did, I have better apartments than they have, I’m better educated all around,” he tells his crowds. “I’m not elite?”

Just as he was (supposedly) a billionaire who could never stop telling you how much more money he had than other people, now he’s a president who can’t stop telling you how much more important and accomplished he (supposedly) is than other presidents. And no former president makes Trump feel smaller than Obama. Which is why he won’t ever stop bringing Obama up, no matter how politically inadvisable it might be.

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