URBANA, Ill. — Barack Obama went hard. Donald Trump hardly responded.
Friday was the day Republicans and Democrats and pretty much every reporter and political obsessive have been dreaming of — the two presidents who couldn’t be more different, who are both the throbbing hearts of their own bases and the nightmare of the others’ — going head to head.
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Two months before the midterms that are existential for both of their visions of the future, Obama unleashed for the first time with an indictment of Trump and Republicans that stopped just short of calling them traitors to the American ideal. Trump, who’s been swiping at Obama on Twitter and other appearances almost every chance he gets and months ago said Democrats who didn’t clap for his state of the union address had committed treason, made a joke about sleeping through it. A few hours later, he congratulated himself for the joke.
“That seems to be the quote of the day, by the way, which I sort of figured,” Trump told donors in South Dakota.
Obama delivered some choice quotes of his own during his speech at the University of Illinois. “How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?” he asked. Later, he called Trump’s Twitter feed “electronic versions of bread and circuses.”
People close to Trump say he has long complained about the fawning coverage and adulation that he believes Obama has received, even after leaving the White House. The dynamic has only bolstered his deep-seated belief that he’ll never be treated fairly or given credit in establishment Washington.
But Trump also sees Obama as a much more formidable political opponent than Hillary Clinton, the one he actually beat, and Trump’s allies have privately worried that the 44th president could get in his successor’s head. Obama, while publicly dismissive of Trump, has been vexed by Trump for years, from the lies about his birth certificate, to the deliberate attempts to undo his signature achievements, to worries about how much he’s responsible for the backlash that helped Trump get elected.
To Obama, Democratic and Republican voters need to band together to overlook their differences and stand up for America against Trump and complicit elected Republicans. To Trump, voters need to see Democrats in office as a threat to America because they won’t work with him.
Where Obama appealed to civic duty and common decency, Trump focused on the hard-line planks of his agenda.
“We have to be tough,” Trump said.
Obama leaned back from the podium at one point and marveled about how every country in the world has signed on to the Paris climate accords, except America, because Trump pulled back from the international agreement. Trump bashed NATO, the World Trade Organization, NAFTA and all the other international norms that Obama holds dear.
Trump flew to North Dakota and South Dakota, where his party is strongest, and gave another pair of speeches bragging about his record, talked briefly about the candidates he was there to support and brought them onto the stage.
Obama flew to central Illinois, spoke about American history and what the country is supposed to stand for, then walked into a local coffee shop and introduced his candidate one by one to the voters surprised to see them there.
Obama aides were giddy to be back out, watching him give the speech that they have also been waiting for. They were all smiles as he stopped by a café afterward for a campaign stop with gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker, where Obama made a show of ordering tiramisu and telling people there that he couldn’t take selfies with all of them.
Asked what they had to say about Obama’s attacks on Trump — coming at the end of head-exploding week in the middle of the darkest period of his presidency so far — multiple Trump White House aides and people close to him said they didn’t want to get into it, letting the president’s words speak for themselves.
Democrats have been flooding Obama’s office with requests for him to come see them.
Republicans, outside of the reddest states — which notably, include several of those where Democratic incumbents are scrambling to hold on — have been ducking questions on Trump for the entire year.
“You saw that Governor [Bruce] Rauner ran away from his president. I’m thrilled that we had President Obama here,” said Pritzker, needling his incumbent Republican opponent after Obama had left the café.
Trump’s public schedule on Friday put him at a disadvantage in terms of hitting back at Obama. The president had two speeches scheduled at fundraising events in North Dakota and South Dakota, but neither were in front of the massive crowds that reliably rev him up.
Still, “Isn’t this much more exciting than listening to President Obama?” Trump asked the crowd at his first event.
All three cable networks carried Obama’s speech live and in full, including Fox News, which is often blaring in the president’s cabin on Air Force One, and replayed clips of Obama’s speech. CNN didn’t carry Trump’s remarks in North Dakota live, MSNBC cut away quickly and even Fox News went to commercial before the president wrapped up. None of them carried Trump’s full speech in South Dakota later in the day.
Trump was speaking to wealthy donors at the fundraising receptions. Obama deliberately chose an auditorium full of students at the University of Illinois for his address.
Trump, at one point, acknowledged he was speaking to a largely affluent crowd, remarking that a coal mining executive he brought up on stage to praise his efforts to revive the coal industry was likely rich.
“I signed his hat,” Trump joked. “The guy’s probably loaded and I’m signing hats.”
Obama, walking around the café after his speech, asked one student, “How did you become interested in actuarial science?” When he heard another person was getting a PhD in rhetoric, Obama leaned in and waxed about “the impact of the digital world, because it lowers restraints and empathy.”
Trump riffed, as he always does. Obama spent the flight to Illinois fiddling with a pen on a printed-out copy of the speech, changing words and then changing them again.
Once it was done, Obama, per his custom, barely went off script — though he said he couldn’t help himself from a digression to take credit for the economy that Trump cites as his biggest success.
“Let’s just remember when this recovery started,” Obama said. “Suddenly Republicans are saying, ‘It’s a miracle!’ I have to remind them that those job numbers are the same as they were in 2015, 2016.”
Pushing back on that sensitive point was the only moment when Trump brought out a pre-written document. He produced four sheets of paper listing his accomplishments, running through them one-by-one in front of the crowd to argue that he’d been the one who salvaged the economy.
“Sometimes the backlash comes from people who are genuinely, if wrongly, fearful of change. More often it’s manufactured by the powerful and the privileged who want to keep us divided and keep us angry and keep us cynical because that helps them maintain the status quo and keep their power and keep their privilege,” Obama said at one point. “It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.”
By the end of the day, Trump settled on this response to his predecessor’s critique: “If that doesn’t get you out to vote for the midterms, nothing will.”
But there’s always Twitter to say more.