Barack Obama, though, apparently believes that the moment calls for something else entirely — and he upped the ante significantly Tuesday.
Obama and his wife, former first lady Michelle Obama, have stepped away from this protocol in recent months, particularly at the Democratic National Convention in August, when both went after Trump in very direct ways.
The former president’s speech Tuesday in Orlando moved the ball even farther. Obama seemed to be making a concerted effort to troll the troller-in-chief president. He attacked Trump in very personal ways, his comments often dripping with incredulity. He seemed to want to elicit a reaction from his successor — a reaction he soon got.
“What’s his closing argument? That people are too focused on covid. He said this at one of his rallies: ‘Covid, covid, covid,’ he’s complaining,” Obama said, referring to Trump’s regular gripes about the media’s focus on the coronavirus. “He’s jealous of covid’s media coverage.”
Obama pointed to the twin outbreaks in the White House, the first apparently stemming from the announcement of Amy Coney Barrett as Trump’s Supreme Court pick last month, and the second this week inside Vice President Pence’s office.
“I lived in the White House for a while,” Obama said with a smile. “You know, it’s a controlled environment. You can take some preventive measures in the White House to avoid getting sick. Except this guy can’t seem to do it. He’s turned the White House into a hot zone."
Obama went on, going after Trump for his April comments about whether disinfectants could be injected into people — which Trump maintains were a joke, though at the time his demeanor suggested otherwise.
“Last week, when Trump was asked if he’d do anything differently, you know what he said? He said: Not much, not much. Really?! Not much? You can’t think of anything that you might be doing differently, like maybe you shouldn’t have gone on TV and suggested we might inject bleach to cure covid?” Obama said. “That’s not something you said, you know, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said that?’"
Obama attacked Trump for his recent retweets that suggested a massive conspiracy theory surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden.
“You’re not going to have to worry about what crazy things they’re going to say, what they’re going to tweet,” Obama said of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). He added with particular exasperation about the death of the world’s leading terrorist, which occurred on his watch: “I mean, listen, our president of the United States retweeted a post that claimed that the Navy SEALs didn’t actually kill bin Laden. Think about that. And we act like, ‘Well, okay.’ It’s not okay.
“I mean, we’ve gotten so numb to what is bizarre behavior.”
Obama also turned to Trump’s jobs record, which he compared unfavorably with his own.
“Donald Trump likes to claim he built this economy,” Obama said. “But I just want to remind you that America created 1.5 million more jobs in the last three years of the Obama-Biden administration than in the first three years of the Trump administration. That’s a fact; look it up. And that was before Trump could blame the pandemic. He, in fact, inherited the longest streak of job growth in American history, but just like everything else he inherited, he screwed it up.”
Obama added: “The economic damage that he inflicted by botching the pandemic response means he will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to actually lose jobs — first president since Herbert Hoover back in the ’30s. That’s a long time, people. That’s almost 100 years ago.”
Obama’s numbers on both claims check out. More than 8 million jobs were created from 2014 to 2016, vs. more than 6.5 million from 2017 to 2019. And while many jobs have returned in recent months, Trump is still a few million short of where he started.
Both claims deserve nuance — the first in that it’s tougher to create jobs once you approach full employment, as America saw before the pandemic, and the second in that we’re still recovering economically from a massive pandemic that has also hit many other countries’ economies extremely hard.
Of course, Trump has frequently included job losses from the recession that Obama inherited in Obama’s own economic numbers, so why would Obama give him the same benefit of the doubt and such caveats?
It was a good distillation of the apparent recognition, by Obama and others, that fire must be fought with fire. When Trump fails to acknowledge or deal with such nuance and attacks his opponents in such personal terms, you can either “go high,” as Michelle Obama once said, or you can try to play the game as it’s been set up. Her husband didn’t go full Trump in these attacks, by any means, but it seemed a concerted effort to needle the incumbent president and — perhaps most strikingly — hold him up as a laughingstock. The latter is a strategy regularly employed by groups such as the Lincoln Project, which has regularly seemed as interested in getting Trump’s goat as in defeating him.
And as with the Lincoln Project, the message seemed to be consumed by one particularly attentive cable news viewer.
“Now @FoxNews is playing Obama’s no crowd, fake speech for Biden, a man he could barely endorse because he couldn’t believe he won,” Trump said, before responding to another of Obama’s attacks on his taxes.
But Fox News’s programming decision was easy to understand: It was good TV, something that could elicit visceral and newsworthy reactions — including from the man whose reaction it seemed to beg for.