With the furor over Newt Gingrich’s attack on fellow Republican Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan dominating the political chatter these days, the cacophony caused many to miss the audible sigh of relief emanating from the White House Monday following Donald Trump’s decision not to run for president in 2012.
No one was happier to see Trump opt out of the race than President Obama. To be sure, the president was not worried that Trump might beat him. Chances of that happening were slim to none. But what Trump could do, and already had done so effectively, is demonstrate an uncanny ability to get under Obama’s skin and irritate the hell out of him.
Had Trump joined the race, he would have driven the president nuts with his pithy one-liners aimed at what he apparently sees as Obama’s oversized vanity and inept management. They would have all been amplified by a celebrity-addicted news media that find the business magnate/TV personality great copy no matter what they think of him as a presidential candidate.
And each zinger would have forced the president to break stride, get off his daily message and respond, as he petulantly did when Trump got on his back over the birth-certificate issue.
For more than two years, the president was able to dismiss those who believed he was not born in the United States as a bunch of kooks who were part of the GOP’s radical-right-wing fringe.
But when Trump picked up the beat, and the media marched in step, he couldn’t play that game any longer. It was not that Trump is any less kooky than the birthers; it is that Trump is a celeb the media can’t and won’t ignore.
Obama knew that as long as Trump continued to talk about the birther issue, it would not go away. So he issued his long-form birth certificate and put it to rest. But not before he revealed in two petulant public displays just how much Trump rankled him.
“We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers….We do not have time for this silliness,” an obviously miffed Obama said April 27 in the White House briefing room as he made his birth certificate public.
Three days later, at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Obama departed from the usual custom of the president making fun of himself to aim his barbs at Trump, who was seated in the audience, and several other potential Republican rivals.
“Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than ‘The Donald,’” Obama snapped. “And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter –- like, did we fake the moon landing?”
There were more jokes at Trump’s expense, a sure sign that this president was bent on publicly intimidating (if Trump can be intimidated) a potential rival with the temerity to toe-to-toe, ego-to ego against him. That’s a sure sign of a thin skin.
Looking back, Obama never publicly responded, but he must have been steamed in mid-April when Trump accused him of not authoring the first of his two best-selling books, Dreams from My Father, because Trump thought it was much better written than Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope.”
“The difference was like chicken salad and chicken sh*t,” Trump said at a Tea Party rally in Boca Raton, Fla., much to the delight of the partisan crowd.
The president also must have ground his teeth when Trump said in an April AP interview that he heard Obama was a “terrible student” in high school.
“How does a bad student go to Columbia and Harvard?” Trump asked.
“I don't understand. I have so many Jewish friends that are big Obama fans. And they are supporting Obama and giving tremendous amounts,” Trump said.
Indeed, had he joined the race, every Trump criticism of the president would have been blaring news, while the remarks of his rivals for the GOP nomination would be relegated to the back pages of the newspapers, TV and the Internet, if they were reported at all. And Obama would have been beside himself.
Too bad. Chances are Obama would have beaten Trump easily. But a president constantly irked by an upstart would have added some much-needed spice to what is shaping up as a bland race.
Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches journalism and politics at American and Georgetown universities.
Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at Georgetown University. As a reporter, Benedetto covered every presidential campaign since 1984.