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Why Trump’s Fight With Obama Might Backfire

For the past few weeks, President Trump has been picking a peculiar fight with his predecessor. The specifics of “Obamagate” are messy and hard to follow, but at its core, Trump alleges that former President Barack Obama was part of a deep-state effort to frame him for colluding with Russia to win the 2016 election.

Only there isn’t any evidence to support these claims.

This has led many to draw parallels with what fueled Trump’s birther movement in 2011: an obsession with delegitimizing and “othering” Obama. Then it was about questioning Obama’s citizenship and whether he was actually born in the U.S. Now it’s about assigning blame for Trump’s political problems while continuing to question the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency.

It’s also an opportunity for Trump to divert attention from his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But continuing to attack Obama is probably not a smart move, given that Obama is far more popular than Trump.

According to four recent polls that asked respondents whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of a variety of politicians, Obama consistently got higher marks than Trump. In fact, of the four recent polls we could find, there wasn’t a single one in which the majority of adults had a positive view of Trump. Obama, on the other hand, had a net positive favorability rating (the favorable rating minus the unfavorable rating) in all four polls.

Obama is far more popular than Trump

Net favorability rating (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) of Obama and Trump in recent polls

Net favorability
Poll Obama Trump
Economist/YouGov +14 -6
Harvard/Harris +22 -9
Monmouth University +23 -13
Emerson College +23 -14

The Economist/YouGov poll was conducted May 17-19, 2020; the Harvard/Harris poll was conducted May 13-14; the Monmouth poll was conducted April 30-May 4; and the Emerson poll was conducted April 26-28.

Source: Polls

This is, in large part, due to Obama’s better standing among independents. In the four polls we looked at, between 45 and 58 percent of independents said they had a favorable view of Obama, whereas only 29 to 39 percent of independents said the same of Trump. Additionally, in most of these polls, Obama enjoyed greater cross-party appeal than Trump. In that Harvard/Harris poll, for instance, 27 percent of Republicans said they had a favorable opinion of Obama compared with 14 percent of Democrats who had a favorable opinion of Trump. In that Emerson College poll, 22 percent of Republicans had a favorable opinion of Obama compared with 12 percent of Democrats who said the same of Trump. And in that Monmouth University poll, 19 percent of Republicans had a favorable opinion of Obama compared with just 5 percent of Democrats who said the same of Trump. Only in the Economist/YouGov poll was Trump’s support among Democrats about equal to — in fact, one point higher than — Obama’s support among Republicans, 15 percent to 14 percent.

For sure, some of Obama’s popularity has to do with the fact that presidents tend to have higher approval ratings once they’re out of office, which might be one reason why Republicans are more likely to give Obama higher marks than Democrats give Trump. It also might be why Obama tends to lead Trump in hypothetical matchups.

But there’s also evidence that Americans think Obama was just a better president than Trump is. Granted, this poll was conducted in May 2018, but a CNN/SRSS poll that asked whether Trump was a better president than Obama found that 55 percent of registered voters thought Obama was better compared with 39 percent who said Trump. Obama also enjoyed greater cross-party appeal than Trump in this poll. Eighteen percent of respondents who leaned Republican said Obama was the better president compared with 5 percent who leaned Democratic and said Trump was better.

Obama is also just a really popular former president. A number of recent polls have found that he is many Americans’ No. 1 president. A Jan. 2019 Public Policy Polling survey that asked voters who they thought was the best president in the past 40 years found, for instance, that 31 percent said Obama — the most support received among any of the seven presidents PPP asked about. (By contrast, only 15 percent said Trump, although he did come in third, behind Ronald Reagan, who got 26 percent.) In a June 2018 Pew Research Center poll that asked Americans for their first and second choices for the best president in their lifetimes, Obama led on this metric too. Thirty-one percent picked Obama as their first choice, which was the most support any president received. (Trump came in fourth, at 10 percent, after Reagan and Clinton, respectively). And a March 2018 Quinnipiac University poll that asked voters to name the best president since World War II found that 24 percent said Obama and just 7 percent said Trump, although in this case, it was Reagan — not Obama — who got the most support overall, at 28 percent.

Trump’s latest attacks on Obama ultimately aren’t that surprising, though. Obama has long been a target of Trump’s, and with this latest conspiracy theory, it’s clear that the president is trying to rally at least some of his supporters. But given Obama’s continued widespread popularity, Trump might want to rethink his strategy.


FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Does Trump Really Want A Fight With Obama?

Likhitha Butchireddygari is a politics intern at FiveThirtyEight.

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