Donald Trump racked up a notable success on Tuesday: he made Barack Obama go ballistic on him. The president had already made two rather lackluster public appearances since the atrocity in Orlando, but in his third he blew his top. What was slated to be a factual report on the state of the battle against ISIS turned into a riveting spectacle of presidential rage aimed at Trump himself.
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Flanked at the Treasury by his national security team – including, somewhat unusually, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – Obama spoke matter of factly about the military campaign in the Middle East while gathering steam for his blistering response to the political campaign that has unfolded since the carnage in Florida on Sunday.
For the first time, he tackled the complaints voiced by Trump and others about his refusal to use the term “radical Islam” head on: it is a political distraction, he said, not a strategy, nothing more than “yapping.” He lambasted Trump’s demands for a ban on Muslim immigration in even stronger terms: they are dangerous and un-American, he said.
Hillary Clinton also sharpened her assault on Trump’s “bizarre rants” and “outright lies” on Tuesday. Trump "is temperamentally unfit and totally unqualified to be commander in chief”, she said. But Clinton remained cool and collected while Obama deployed his rage.
For his fans, it was the president at his inspirational best. For his critics, it was Obama at his hypocritical worst. After a sustained absence, Obama was back in rousing orator mode. He shed his “no drama” costume and disseminated the kind of sustained anger that Trump seems to have monopolized in recent months.
He called for a banning of the deadly semi-automatic rifle used by Omar Mateen to kill 49 people in Orlando with the same wrath he had after Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and six adults in Newtown in December 2012. He poured fire and brimstone on Trump, who is evolving in his eyes from a political rival to a threat to his legacy and a danger to the very essence of America.
As a presidential candidate, Obama savaged John McCain and Mitt Romney, but he ultimately viewed them as legitimate rivals and American patriots. Trump belongs to another species altogether: he is a rabble-rouser and a hate monger, an ignoramus with shoot-from-the-hip solutions, a demagogue who endangers democracy.
And, of course, there is their personal rivalry: Trump was one of the main propagators of conspiracy theory about Obama’s forged birth certificate. Not only has he not recanted, he keeps questioning Obama’s legitimacy in code words understood by all.
Obama refrained from addressing Trump by name, though he referred to him as the presumptive Republican candidate and alluded to him as a politician who “tweets and goes to cable news shows.” With his temples throbbing, his hands flailing, his face darkening and his tone accusing, Obama punctuated his charges with rhetorical queries: “What would this accomplish? Where does this stop? Do Republican officials actually agree with this?”
Obama knows that many Republicans don’t. A short time before his appearance, House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced Trump’s renewed calls to ban Muslim immigration, saying it ran contrary to the values of the GOP and the country. Many Republicans had hoped that Trump would moderate his provocative statements. They longed to see him respond to the Orlando outrage with restrained assertion.
Instead, Trump went even wilder, from his self-congratulations only hours after the bloodshed in Orlando, through his insinuation that Obama was somehow on the side of the terrorists all the way, to his collective anti-Muslim diatribe in his New Hampshire speech on Monday.
Of course, Obama’s concentrated fury won’t necessarily harm Trump – it might even help him. The very fact that Trump got under the skins of both Obama and Clinton and that both are devoting time and effort to rebutting him is a feather in his cap in the eyes of many rank and file Republicans.
They may have their reservations about their party’s candidate, but their hatred for Obama still burns stronger, as anyone could tell by watching the indignant reactions of the Fox News broadcasters who reacted to Obama’s broadsides.
Obama’s battle cry might rally the troops behind Clinton but it could do the same for Trump as well. The political polarization will simply accelerate at both ends of the divide.
In any case, the speech dominated the headlines, along with the startling news that Russians had hacked the computers of the Democratic National Committee. It will now be dissected and discussed for hours and possibly days, for or against Obama’s disdain for the term “radical Islam” and whether his attack on Trump will influence the campaign.
Inadvertently, the political drama will start to overshadow the human tragedy that sparked it in the first place, in which 49 Americans were killed by a disturbed man who was enticed by the poison peddled by perverters of Islam, as Obama sees it, or by its direct representatives, as his critics assert.