The Memo: Obama enters battle, enraging Trump

Former President Obama returned to the political battlefield with full force on Wednesday — and immediately got under the skin of his successor.

Obama cast President TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE as an existential threat to American democracy during his speech to the Democratic National Convention. Such an intervention by a former president against his successor is unprecedented in recent history — but merited, in Obama’s view, given the stakes.

“This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win,” Obama said near the climax of his speech.

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The president responded in two all-caps tweets, one accusing Obama of having “SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN” and another asking why Obama had refused to “ENDORSE SLOW JOE UNTIL IT WAS ALL OVER.”

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The first tweet is a reference to the Justice Department’s investigation into contacts between Russia and Trump 2016 campaign officials. As for the endorsement, it is customary for former presidents not to endorse candidates during competitive party primaries.

The larger point, though, is that Obama is putting his weight behind the push to defeat Trump.

At earlier stages in the Trump presidency, liberals were sometimes frustrated by Obama’s reluctance to take on his successor. During that period, Obama often either stayed quiet entirely or veiled his criticisms.

But that has all changed now. The 44th president, having conserved his political capital in the early Trump years, has decided now is the time to use it.

His convention speech scorched Trump on several fronts.

Obama accused him of using members of the military “as political props to deploy against peaceful protesters on our own soil.” He complained about Trump’s propensity to cast critics as “un-American.” And, on the coronavirus pandemic, he said that any successful outcome “depends on a fidelity to facts and science and logic, and not just making stuff up.”

Such criticisms will enrage Trump — not that Obama will necessarily be bothered by that outcome. Obama, almost four years after leaving the White House, remains more popular than Trump, and the kind of attacks that Trump was already mounting on Wednesday evening could backfire.

Trump will almost certainly ramp up his rhetoric against his predecessor, nonetheless. The current president has, for years, exhibited a particularly thin skin — even by his standards — regarding Obama.

Some longtime Trump-watchers insist he retains a grudge from his humiliation at Obama’s hands during a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner almost a decade ago. Enmity toward Obama has been a common thread stretching across the years since then.

In May, NBC News reported that Trump had no plans to unveil Obama’s official White House portrait, even though such a ceremony is a long-standing tradition, even between presidents of opposing parties.

From Trump’s perspective, a clash with Obama could serve some kind of political purpose, too.

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The president and his supporters often appear to draw energy from the belief that they are besieged by enemies. If the election ultimately rests on turning out the base rather than winning over persuadable voters, verbal battles between Trump and Obama could serve both parties’ purposes.

Obama’s excoriation of Trump, delivered from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, overshadowed the rest of the third night of the Democratic convention.

The evening also featured speeches by 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonButtigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice Senate GOP sees early Supreme Court vote as political booster shot Poll: 51 percent of voters want to abolish the electoral college MORE and, accepting the vice presidential nomination, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisButtigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice First presidential debate to cover coronavirus, Supreme Court Harris joins women's voter mobilization event also featuring Pelosi, Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda MORE (D-Calif.).

Harris devoted significant portions of her speech to her own family background, as well as paying tribute to historical trailblazers and contending that she and Biden could “build that beloved community, one that is strong and decent, just and kind.”

Clinton, meanwhile, cast Trump as fundamentally incapable of doing his job.

“I wish Donald Trump knew how to be a president,” she said. “Because America needs a president right now.”

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This theme — that Trump is not merely wrong but incompetent — had been sounded on the first night of the convention by former first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama: 'Don't listen to people who will say that somehow voting is rigged' Michelle Obama and Jennifer Lopez exchange Ginsburg memories Social media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day MORE. Her husband returned to it.

Obama said that when Trump took office, he knew policies would change, but “I did hope … that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously.”

“But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves,” Obama continued. “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t."

Trump has never been able to abide attacks on his competence. His tweets about Obama’s speech are likely just the beginning of his counterattacks.

But Democrats will be fine with that. They have Obama back on the stage. And the message is simple: Game on.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.