vision 2020

Barack Obama Haunts Donald Trump’s Attempts to Win Black Votes

President Barack Obama greets President-Elect Donald Trump prior to his inauguration on January 20, 2017. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

It’s no secret that President Trump is making a concerted reelection pitch to black voters, who backed Hillary Clinton over him by a staggering 80 percentage points in 2016. Sunday’s Super Bowl ad touted his commutation of Alice Marie Johnson’s prison sentence — which he did in 2018, at the request of Kim Kardashian West, after issuing a series of pardons including those to a neofascist sheriff, an Iraq War criminal, and a culture warrior known for making deceitful documentaries about Trump’s political enemies. The ad further boasted about Trump’s signing criminal-justice-reform legislation when no other president would; that such a bill reached his desk at all is attributable to Speaker Mitch McConnell, who had killed a similar bill in 2016 hoping to deny then-President Obama a legislative win. According to the New York Times, these efforts are the brainchild of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law turned advisor, who has become convinced that the president can peel off some black voters in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin simply by educating them more about his policies.

If black voters aren’t abundantly familiar with the president’s policies by now, it isn’t due to his lack of effort. Trump has repeatedly taken credit for economic growth that began under Obama and recast it as a singular commitment on his part to improving black people’s lives. The results, to hear him tell it, are soaring incomes and unbridled optimism marked by historic lows for black unemployment and unprecedented investment in black neighborhoods. He submitted these claims and others during Tuesday night’s rally-like State of the Union address. Unmentioned was the persistent employment gap between black and white Americans in the cities where most black people live and the fact that “Opportunity Zones” — which Trump described as “wealthy people and companies … pouring money into poor neighborhoods or areas that have not seen investment in many decades, creating jobs, energy, and excitement” — are basically a scam to give rich investors tax incentives for building high-end hotels and residences in gentrifying areas where such investments were planned anyway.

But Tuesday’s speech laid bare another incongruity complicating Trump’s appeals to the black electorate, one that’s both overlooked and perhaps more predictable than Trump’s flagrant bigotry and tendency to cast majority-black countries, cities, and neighborhoods as filthy hellholes: Trump’s political career is predicated upon smearing and disparaging Barack Obama, his black predecessor. And Obama is overwhelmingly popular among black Americans. This dynamic was as clear during the president’s career-launching “birther” campaign — when he spread the conspiracy theory that Obama had secretly been born outside the U.S. — as it was on Tuesday, when Trump prefaced his remarks about the economy by denigrating the White House’s former occupant yet again. “If we had not reversed the failed economic policies of the previous administration, the world would not now be witness to America’s great economic success,” Trump said.

There were other tacit rebukes of Obama during the speech. Perhaps the most flagrant was the presence of Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing talk-radio host who recently revealed his diagnosis with lung cancer. In an overture to his conservative base, Trump awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Limbaugh was a bombastic, wildly racist detractor of the Obamas when they lived in the White House, most famously referring to one of Michelle Obama’s trips to Spain as “vacation affirmative action” and describing the America heralded by her husband’s governance thusly: “You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety. But in Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, ‘Yeah, right on, right on, right on.’”

But few match the anti-Obama measures Trump had spent years pursuing before he took the stage on Tuesday: rolling back environmental regulations, fighting to undo health-care policies, reversing the Justice Department’s stance on a variety of civil-rights issues, and more. Nor has any of this been subtle or facially neutral in intent. Trump spent his entire 2016 presidential campaign promising to destroy what his predecessor had accomplished. Meanwhile, Obama enjoyed an 86 percent approval rating among black Americans shortly after he took office in 2009 and left the White House with a 92 percent approval rating four years later. His personal cachet is so potent it has even rubbed off on politicians and Cabinet members with whom he associated, polling suggests. And it has worked against those who opposed him: Hillary Clinton’s popularity among black Americans plummeted when she competed against Obama for the presidency in 2008 but soared again when she joined his administration. Joe Biden was significantly more popular a vice-president than either Al Gore or Walter Mondale; his polling lead among black voters in the 2020 primary is widely pegged to his affiliation with Obama, which he evokes persistently. What’s more, however, warm feelings for the former president are attributable primarily to his status as a figure and symbol — assessments of what his policies did for black Americans specifically tend to be more mixed.

This would seem to present an opening for Trump and his appeals. But Trump’s strategy seems ill equipped to reckon with the fact that he is less in a war of ideas with Obama’s legacy than in a popularity contest with the most popular living president in America, according to YouGov, especially among black people. Polling from the Washington Post and Ipsos indicates that nearly 80 percent of black Americans don’t think Trump deserves credit for the recent economic growth; only 4 percent think his policies have been good for black communities. These numbers leave the president at a considerable deficit when trying to win the black votes he clearly covets. His very presence in the White House is predicated on casting the widely beloved Obama as unfit for citizenship, let alone the presidency. His State of the Union address pursued this reasoning again with renewed vigor. As ever, the president is in a war of his own making with his predecessor, and this time, it seems poised to undermine his endgame more than help it.

Barack Obama Haunts Trump’s Attempts to Win Black Votes