Two days in, lots of prominent Republicans have complained about Barack Obama’s speech on Friday calling Donald Trump’s presidency a betrayal of America and a threat to its core — but they haven’t said he’s wrong.
Most prominent on that list is Trump himself, who, for a man his aides have often held up as someone who punches back, has so far said less to attack Obama than he has previously about the FBI, Steve Bannon, LeBron James or pretty much anyone else.
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Even the president’s Twitter feed has been relatively quiet, despite rainy days in Washington keeping him off the golf course. He retweeted his social media director Dan Scavino’s post of a video Obama made during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s show a few weeks before the 2016 election, sneering that Trump would never be president. He quoted former Rep. Jason Chaffetz on Fox News saying that Obama (initially misspelling the first name as “Barrack”) had never delivered on the economy like this White House. But since then, Trump has wandered off onto other topics.
Vice President Mike Pence called it “very disappointing” that Obama broke with the recent presidential tradition of not criticizing successors, and in an interview on Fox News on Sunday he scoffed at “the same tired arguments that he and liberals have made over the last eight years” — though he was presumably referring to the last 10 years, since Obama’s first campaign. “The truth is, the American people in 2016 rejected the policy and direction of Barack Obama when they elected President Donald Trump,” Pence said.
Much of Obama’s speech, which launched his campaigning for the midterm elections, was a condemnation of attacking American institutions, journalists, the Justice Department and decades of global leadership while refusing to condemn Nazis or dishonesty. Neither Pence nor other leading Republicans disputed that these are hallmarks of Trump’s presidency.
“What President Trump provides for this country every day is strong and decisive leadership in the Oval Office,” Pence said, in another pre-taped appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation. “The truth is, I think President Donald Trump is the most accomplished president of my lifetime and I think already one of the most successful presidents in American history.”
Many Republicans landed on similar responses — that Obama should remember that he lost and Trump won, that he should think about how he created the backlash that led to that win, and that his own record was full of much of what he was complaining about now.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has struggled since the 2016 GOP primaries to distance himself from Trump while also knocking Democrats, woke up on Saturday after the speech with seven tweets trying to thread the needle of that argument. According to one of them:
“Pres. Obama is right. It is wrong for a President to use divisive language, such as:
1. Call all opponents of same-sex marriage bigots
2. Call the Pro-Life movement a ‘War on Women’
3. Call all immigration enforcement advocates racists
4. Call the GOP the enemy of Hispanics.”
Trump isn’t right, Rubio appeared to be suggesting, but neither was Obama. He quoted the former president’s making fun of Nancy Reagan and defending his heavy use of executive orders instead of legislation, and pointed to Obama’s dismissive attitude toward critics of his policies on immigration and the Iran deal.
A pox on both their houses and everyone else, according to Rubio.
“We should ALL, the Dems, the GOP, the media, admit our role in turning politics into theatre,” Rubio tweeted. “Being outrageous equals clicks, viewers & therefore ratings & $ for media & fame for politicians. Being normal gets you ignored & a primary challenger for being ‘too weak.’” Rubio won his Senate seat in 2010 by running a tea party challenge to Charlie Crist, Florida’s Republican governor at the time.
Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Trump ally, made the same argument, not defending the president but condemning Obama along with him.
“I find it richly ironic that he talks about the fact Trump is a symptom, not the cause,” Christie said on ABC’s “This Week,” centering on one of the key lines from Friday’s speech. “If he’s right and Donald Trump is the symptom of a cause, well, Donald Trump got elected in 2016 after eight years of Barack Obama as president. He can’t detach himself.”
Christie said nothing, however, to dispute the broader point that Trump is an avatar of a politics that’s gone wrong.
Trump himself on Friday appeared to be most upset by Obama’s asserting that he should be given the credit for today’s strong economy, since the upturn that Trump is enjoying started years before he was elected.
Pence didn’t dispute the numbers. He disputed the perception of the numbers.
“I know he said that, but I don’t think too many Americans noticed it,” Pence told CBS’ Margaret Brennan when asked about the claim.
Obama’s focus on Trump’s attacks on journalists provided the most openings for calls of hypocrisy.
He said that “it shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say that we don’t threaten the freedom of the press because they say things or publish stories we don’t like. I complained plenty about Fox News, but you never heard me threaten to shut them down, or call them enemies of the people.”
He left out, however, that his administration prosecuted reporters as part of leak investigations, and that he himself regularly ducked the press. Even during his stop at a café in Urbana, Illinois, after the speech he looked at one reporter and said, “Hey — I’m not going to answer any questions.” And when another asked whether he was enjoying being back on the trail, he responded with a pat on the arm and shaking his head about engaging.
Obama’s approach to the meda was the only part of his speech that Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor and reliable bulldozing defender, pushed back on in her appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “You know that President Obama was investigating journalists,” she told Jake Tapper.
The main theme running through Republican responses to Obama’s return is excitement to have him to run against again, given how much damage Trump’s presidency has done to the GOP’s efforts to hold on to power in the fall.
“Obama demonstrating once again that his chief priority is Obama, not the success of the Democratic Party,” tweeted Ben Shapiro, a conservative radio host and The Daily Wire’s editor-in-chief. “If he cared at all about his party, he’d shut up and go away. Now he’s uniting Republicans against him.”
That earned agreement from Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush: “If Obama knows what’s good for Republicans, he’ll retake the field and be highly visible this fall.”
And, some Republicans argued, that’ll also be good news for Trump himself.
“The more President @BarackObama speaks about the ‘good ole years’ of his presidency, the more likely President @realDonaldTrump is to get re-elected,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who used to call Trump crazy and dangerous and now condemns anyone who calls the president as crazy and dangerous. “In fact, the best explanation of President Trump’s victory are the ‘results’ of the Obama Presidency! The Obama years were dominated by higher taxes, slower growth, big government, a broken military, and a pathetically weak foreign policy. The voters found in Hillary Clinton more of the same. They wanted a better way.”