WASHINGTON – Nearly eight years after he was last on the ballot, Barack Obama is emerging as a central figure in the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats are eagerly embracing Obama as a political wingman for Joe Biden, who spent two terms by his side as vice president. Obama remains the party’s most popular figure, particularly with black voters and younger Democrats, and Biden’s presidential campaign is planning for him to have a highly visible role in the months to come.
For President Donald Trump, that means an opportunity to focus the spotlight on one of his favorite political foils. In recent days, Trump and his allies have aggressively pushed conspiracy theories about Obama designed to fire up the president’s conservative base, taint Biden by association and distract from the glut of grim health and economic news from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Partisans on both sides want to make this about Obama,” said Ned Price, who served as spokesperson for Obama’s White House National Security Council.
The renewed political focus on Obama sets the stage for an election about the nation’s future that will also be about its past. As Biden looks to Obama for personal validation, he’s also running to restore some of the former president’s legacy, which has been systematically dismantled by Trump. The current president is running in part to finish that job.
Yet Trump’s anti-Obama push also frequently takes on a darker, more conspiratorial tone that goes far beyond differences in health care policy and America’s role in the world. His current focus is on the actions Obama, Biden and their national security advisers took in the closing days of their administration, as they viewed intelligence reports about Michael Flynn. Flynn had a short-lived stint as Trump’s national security adviser before being fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his interactions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
Trump’s own administration acknowledged on Wednesday that Obama advisers followed proper procedures in privately “unmasking” Flynn’s name, which was redacted in the intelligence reports for privacy reasons. Flynn ultimately pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, though Trump’s Justice Department moved last week to drop the case against him.
Despite there being no evidence of wrongdoing by Obama, Biden or other administration officials, Trump is eagerly pushing the notion of an unspecified crime, branding it “Obamagate.” He’s being backed up by Republican allies, including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who took to the Senate floor this week to ask of the Flynn matter: “What did Obama and Biden know, and when did they know it?”