President Obama is increasingly taking on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE, the Republican front-runner in the race to succeed him.
Obama, who is officially neutral in the Democratic race between Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Bernie Sanders' ex-spokesperson apprehensive over effectiveness of SALT deductions MORE and his former secretary of State, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future Popping the progressive bubble MORE, is in prime position to advance his party’s anti-Trump message.
Obama has held a 50 percent or higher approval rating in several recent polls, his highest numbers in months.
Party strategists primarily credit a series of strong employment reports and rising wages, but grudgingly acknowledge that the daily news coverage of Trump is benefiting Obama — possibly by making him look more presidential.
“I wouldn’t want to give any sort of credit to Donald Trump,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who is backing Clinton. “I think it’s more that after a rough couple of years, the White House is firing on all cylinders.”
But Manley added, “maybe in contrast to what the Republicans are saying, they might like [Obama] better.”
Obama is also helped by a Democratic race in which Clinton and Sanders frequently lavish him with praise as they seek to win over black voters and other core Obama constituencies. Nine in 10 Democratic voters have a positive view of Obama.
It’s a sharp contrast from 2014, when the president was a virtual pariah in the midterm elections and Democrats running for reelection to Congress wanted little to do with him.
In an interview with The Washington Post days before the midterms, David Krone, a senior aide to Senate Democratic leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidVoters need to feel the benefit, not just hear the message Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama Mellman: Are independents really so independent? MORE, all but blamed Obama for the election’s results.
Krone accused Obama of paying “lip service” to demands that he help Senate Democrats finance the midterm battle and argued there was little incumbent senators could do given the president’s approval ratings.
“The president’s approval rating is barely 40 percent,” Krone told The Post. “What else more is there to say.”
Less than two years later, it appears Obama may be more welcome on the campaign trail in a number of states, and that he could be a key surrogate for the Democratic presidential nominee.
The White House is already looking ahead to Obama beginning his campaign activities.
They say he’ll urge voters to think about the election as a choice between staying the course on the economy and foreign policy or heading in the opposite direction.
"It will become even more important that the American people understand what is at stake,” said White House spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman.
“This is a choice that the president does not take lightly, and is something he will lay out for the American people with increased frequency in the weeks and months ahead."
When it comes to Trump, White House officials insist Obama hasn’t deviated from his plan to focus on his agenda. If he’s talking more about Trump, it’s because reporters are asking about him.
Still, Obama appears to relish the chance to take on a Republican who has dominated the presidential race — and who for years has lobbed grenades at Obama’s policies and place of birth.
The president has criticized Trump's proposals three times in less than a week.
“Oh, no. It's Trump,” a smiling Obama said when he was asked on Tuesday whether the GOP candidate’s policy proposals are hurting the U.S.’s image in the world.
Then the president turned serious. “I am getting questions constantly from foreign leaders about some of the wackier suggestions that are being made,” Obama told reporters at the White House.
He dismissed Trump’s proposal to force Mexico to pay for a multibillion-dollar border wall by cutting off immigrants’ ability to send money back to their home country as a “half-baked” strategy that would ruin Mexico’s economy and lead to a new wave of illegal immigration to the U.S.
In a recent press conference, Obama called Trump's proposal to allow Japan and South Korea to obtain nuclear weapons an example of the GOP front-runner's lack of foreign policy knowledge.
And he also defended NATO as a "cornerstone" of U.S. and European security after a Monday meeting with the organization’s secretary-general. Trump has called the Cold War-era alliance "obsolete" and said he would be happy to see it dissolve.
The direct attacks are a shift from the White House's approach over the past few months of mostly offering implicit criticisms of Trump.
In his State of the Union address he took a veiled swipe at Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, saying the nation had overcome the fears of those who “told us to fear the future.”
Before the State of the Union, Obama laughed off the idea of Trump becoming president in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show host Matt Lauer.
Asked if he can imagine the real estate mogul in the White House, he responded “I can imagine it in a ‘Saturday Night’ skit.”
The president has since reiterated his belief Trump won’t win in November.
But it also appears Obama is ready to weigh in to tip the scales. That’s an effort that carries some risks.
It could force him to use up some of the political capital he has gained before the general election begins in earnest. It could also motivate Trump and his supporters, who seem to feed off criticism from the president.
“This man has done such a bad job, he has set us back so far,” Trump said of Obama in February after he predicted he won’t become president. “And for him to say that is actually a great compliment, if you want to know the truth."
He also issued a warning to Obama: "You’re lucky I didn’t run last time when [Mitt] Romney ran, because you would have been a one-term president.”
Still, many Democrats say it is time for Obama to voice his criticisms of Trump.
They see the change as a recognition of Trump's staying power in the race and how damaging it would be for Democrats if he won the White House.
“We’re long past the place where we can underestimate Donald Trump,” Manley said. “We are in very dangerous territory. Saying nothing about this stuff is not an option.
Obama and Trump will both be in Los Angeles on Friday — the president for a fundraiser and Trump for a press conference — another opportunity for the president to go after the businessman-turned-presidential candidate.