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Obama: Trump capitalizing on resentments

During a speech at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, former President Barack Obama says that each time progress is made, there is a backlash from people fearful of change.

Posted: Sep 9, 2018 7:56 AM
Updated: Sep 9, 2018 7:56 AM

Just as Barack Obama was warning that America is in the grip of a politics of fear that undermines norms and political accountability, President Donald Trump was unleashing his latest assault on traditions of governance that underpin the nation's democracy.

"These are extraordinary times. Dangerous times," Obama warned in an extraordinary indictment of the behavior of a successor to whom he handed power in January 2017 and who has torn at the conventions that restrain presidents ever since.

It was a revealing moment in an enthralling clash of philosophy, temperament and style that unfolded Friday between a current and former president who epitomize opposing currents in an epochal political moment and are now in direct conflict ahead of the midterm elections.

The campaign trail face-off between Obama and Trump also capped a consequential week that saw the awakening of the Washington establishment after John McCain's funeral turned into an indictment of Trumpism and in which Trump battled an enemy within his own administration.

Obama, ditching his self-imposed political exile, warned of a moment of unique national peril, in which demagogic forces -- aka Trump -- are undermining the structures of democratic government to build their own omnipotence.

"They start undermining norms that ensure accountability and try to change the rules to entrench their own power," Obama said in a major speech in Illinois.

"It shouldn't be Democratic or Republican to say that we don't pressure the attorney general or FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents -- or to protect members of our own party from prosecution just because an election's coming up," he said.

At almost the same moment, aboard Air Force One, the current President told reporters he wanted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to hunt a senior official within his administration who sent the White House reeling with a devastating anonymous New York Times op-ed that branded him unfit for power.

"Here's criticism where you can't fight back. 'Cause you have somebody doing it anonymously," Trump said, after he effectively ordered the criminal investigative functions of the state to purge an opponent who has not committed a crime but has merely exercised a First Amendment right.

It was far from the first time Trump has appeared to shun conventions designed to shield the instruments of justice from political interference. He has spent months lambasting the FBI and the Justice Department over the Russia investigation. Earlier this week he complained that Sessions should not have allowed two Republicans to be indicted over corruption allegations.

Friday's competing appearances were the latest intense intersection of two giant, idiosyncratic political opposites who are again waging a struggle for the political soul of their nation.

Ever since Trump made the birtherism conspiracy his bridge to politics from the tabloid life of a tycoon and real estate star, he and Obama have been locked in a mutually antagonistic embrace, as opposites in decorum and ideology.

That mirror image was on show Friday.

Opposing styles

Obama, serene and intellectual, chose the conventional medium for a politician, a long, reasoned, multi-layered speech, to frame a political problem -- the conditions that led to the rise of Trump -- and to give Democrats a battle plan to restore America's ailing democracy.

He bemoaned missing checks and balances in Washington, the indifference of Republicans to Trump's power grabs, the predominance of bullies, and walls being put up around America, and he diagnosed a "backlash from people who are genuinely, if wrongly, fearful of change."

In signature style, he called on young people to vote, campaign and fight for their democracy, and argued that despite everything there is a unifying American "common ground."

At times, he appeared to be renewing his own faith in a brand of politics that shot him to power from nowhere in 2008 but whose effectiveness has been called into question -- even by some more radical Democrats -- as Trump crushes his legacy and the GOP monopolizes power.

Trump, the king of the barbed tweet, who reinvented the way to win the White House, brawled on social media, sparred with reporters and in a stream-of-consciousness campaign speech of his own displayed his more gritty, authoritarian and aggressive political methodology

He mocked Obama's approach. "I watched it, but I fell asleep. I've found he's very good for sleeping," Trump said in Fargo, North Dakota, before reeling off a list of his administration's achievements and slamming America's foreign trade partners.

"I don't want to be taken advantage of by other countries in the world," he said.

The thrust of Obama's argument was that America is a great nation that has slumped into crisis because its core values are being trampled. Trump's -- in line with his strongman's instincts -- was that he inherited a humbled and disrespected country and he had already redeemed it.

He told his crowd that a strapping man had come up to him at his event with tears rolling from his eyes and said: "I want to thank you, Mr. President, for saving our country."

Same aim

In essence, Trump and Obama were trying to do the same thing -- electrify grass-roots voters and drive turnout in midterm elections that both view as the most crucial for decades and that will be crucial to the fate of the Trump presidency.

Obama is a singular political figure. While he won two impressive general election victories, he found it more difficult to bestow his appeal to Democrats in midterm elections, when he was not on the ballot. It may be even more difficult to do so when he is out of power.

Trump is also unique, and it is not clear whether he will be any more successful in transferring his magnetic appeal with the grass roots to Republican candidates in midterm polls.

Obama found out how a presidency can be crippled by the loss of the House of Representatives. Unless Trump can buck history, he may experience an even more painful defeat, given the multiple political and legal storms already battering his White House.

Their combat on Friday opened up intriguing new possibilities for the fall campaign, and risks for both.

Obama had stayed out of the spotlight for the last 19 months for a reason, apart from honoring the tradition that presidents don't usually criticize their predecessors. He knows that he has now given Trump the political target he has often lacked during his presidency.

Obama, who is reviled by many Trump voters, could become an organizing catalyst for grass-roots Republicans as well as Democrats.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham spotted the opening for Republicans and for Trump in 2020, by tweeting: "The more President @BarackObama speaks about the 'good ole years' of his presidency, the more likely President @realDonaldTrump is to get re-elected."

On the other hand, many Democrats and others who remember Obama's presidency and conduct in the White House fondly have often wondered why he has not been more vocal in taking on Trump. There is still no Democrat with the capacity to frame a political problem, distill a message and deliver it as well as Obama.

Still, his re-emergence was not universally welcomed by serving Democratic lawmakers.

Delaware Sen. Chris Coons told CNN's Wolf Blitzer he was worried that the midterms could become fixated on personalities rather than the needs and concerns of voters.

"We have got a President who is really adept about making the day about him, day in and day out. My concern here is President Obama may be simply feeding that dynamic where it is all about President Trump," he said.

But one thing is clear: With Obama and Trump going at it, the fall campaign just got a lot more interesting.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 117617

Reported Deaths: 3302
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds8050179
DeSoto728580
Harrison549185
Jackson480088
Rankin404686
Madison386194
Lee366582
Forrest311878
Jones296684
Washington2627100
Lafayette255043
Lauderdale2546135
Lamar231940
Oktibbeha204855
Bolivar203979
Neshoba1868111
Lowndes181962
Panola172040
Leflore170688
Sunflower164349
Warren156156
Monroe153873
Pontotoc150620
Marshall148430
Lincoln143359
Pike140656
Copiah139336
Scott127029
Coahoma125837
Union125825
Yazoo123434
Simpson123149
Grenada122939
Tate121039
Itawamba117226
Leake116342
Pearl River116360
Holmes115060
Adams109445
Prentiss109220
Alcorn104512
Wayne102722
George101719
Covington98829
Marion95943
Tippah94924
Newton87227
Hancock86828
Chickasaw86727
Tallahatchie85526
Winston85221
Tishomingo82741
Attala80527
Clarke77053
Clay71022
Jasper69617
Walthall64427
Calhoun63313
Noxubee60217
Smith60216
Yalobusha56416
Montgomery55823
Lawrence54414
Claiborne53916
Tunica53717
Perry52423
Carroll50312
Stone49114
Greene48118
Humphreys45117
Amite42813
Quitman4236
Jefferson Davis42112
Webster37813
Benton36710
Wilkinson34221
Kemper33315
Sharkey28715
Jefferson27910
Franklin2513
Choctaw2096
Issaquena1074
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 160380

Reported Deaths: 2713
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson23769383
Mobile17039318
Tuscaloosa10539141
Montgomery10435199
Madison946798
Shelby756365
Baldwin674369
Lee662465
Calhoun468962
Marshall445251
Etowah436552
Morgan426335
Houston421234
DeKalb351229
Elmore326558
St. Clair307042
Limestone295131
Walker285593
Talladega273937
Cullman260025
Lauderdale237143
Jackson221917
Autauga210331
Colbert208232
Franklin207732
Blount198825
Russell19763
Chilton190932
Dallas188127
Coffee182611
Dale180852
Covington176729
Escambia175331
Clarke138017
Chambers137047
Pike135514
Tallapoosa135387
Marion110331
Barbour10459
Marengo103522
Butler101541
Winston94313
Geneva9357
Lawrence87733
Pickens87418
Bibb85615
Randolph84316
Hale78030
Cherokee76114
Clay75812
Washington75412
Henry7286
Lowndes71728
Monroe66010
Bullock65017
Crenshaw61130
Perry5966
Fayette59413
Cleburne5779
Wilcox57112
Conecuh56513
Macon54120
Lamar5165
Sumter47721
Choctaw39412
Greene34616
Coosa2143
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