While the previous president has generally declined to make direct interventions into US politics since his departure from office in January 2017, he’s been more active than ever behind the scenes, especially now that his number 2 for eight years is the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee to run against Trump in the November election.
Behind closed doors, Obama’s criticisms cut like a knife, especially as he makes the case to some high profile - and deep-pocketed - donors. The New York Times reported on Thursday on some of those conversations.
During one fundraiser with J.B. Pritzker, the billionaire Democrat and governor of Illinois whose family owns the Hyatt hotel chain, Obama railed against Trump’s political base, which he warned has had its worst tendencies fanned and encouraged by the president’s hateful rhetoric and is once again motivated to turn up at the polls this fall.
“It’s just glued to Fox News and Breitbart and [Rush] Limbaugh and just this conservative echo chamber,” Obama said of Trump’s political base, “and so, they’re going to turn out to vote.”
“What he has unleashed and what he continues to try to tap into is the fears and anger and resentment of people who, in some cases, really are having a tough time and have seen their prospects, or communities where they left, declining. And Trump tries to tap into that and redirect in nativist, racist, sexist ways,” Obama continued, according to the Times.
During another conversation with Reid Hoffman, the billionaire founder of LinkedIn and a major bankroller of the Democratic Party and its many political initiatives, Obama blasted Trump for stoking “anti-Asian sentiment,” particularly by using terms such as “Kung Flu” for the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Trump often makes a point of noting that China was the location of the first major COVID-19 outbreak at the start of the pandemic, and has claimed Beijing purposefully allowed it to spread to the US, where more than 150,000 people have died from the illness in the last six months.
“That still shocks and pisses me off,” Obama told Hoffmann. “We already saw this guy win once. After he bragged about physically assaulting women - and that didn’t seem to matter. So, enough said. Let’s get to work.”
While Trump’s overtly anti-Chinese comments are exceptional among US leaders, they fit into a larger context of rising hostility toward China by the United States. In 2018, the Pentagon identified “inter-state strategic competition” with Russia and China as its primary strategic focus, a sharp pivot from the 17-year-long, asymmetric War on Terror. However, this pivot was presaged by Obama’s own “Asia pivot” in 2011, which included the restaging of US military forces from the Atlantic and Middle East to the Pacific and the resumption of arms sales to Taiwan, leading him to call himself “America’s first Pacific president.”
However, despite Obama’s fearful rhetoric, Biden is continuing to pull away from Trump in poll after poll, especially as the weight of heavy police repression of protesters and the administration’s crumbling response to the coronavirus pandemic become more acute.
A Quinnipiac University poll published in the middle of July found Biden with a 15-point lead over the president - twice the lead the college pollsters found a month prior. That said, a recent CBS poll noted a pronounced “enthusiasm gap” between Trump and Biden supporters, with between 2% and 9% more Trump voters, depending on the state, saying they were “very enthusiastic” about the idea of voting for their candidate in November.