Is Donald Trump the anti-Obama?

In an 'opposites attract' theory for presidential elections, voters grow tired of the personalities of incumbents, and they turn to candidates who have opposite characteristics.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally at Muscatine High School in Muscatine, Iowa, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016.

Here’s a new theory that might explain Donald Trump’s political rise: He’s the anti-Obama.

This idea comes from someone who knows President Obama well: David Axelrod, former senior strategist for the Obama campaign and current director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.

In a New York Times op-ed that’s getting lots of attention from D.C. pundicrats, Mr. Axelrod insists that the whole thing is so obvious he’s embarrassed he missed it. Back in 2006, he drew up a memo for then-Senator Obama that emphasized an “opposites attract” model for presidential elections. This holds that voters grow tired of the personalities of incumbents, particularly over two terms. They then turn to candidates who have opposite characteristics.

Circumstantial historical evidence for this is strong. Young, vibrant John F. Kennedy followed the older and deliberative Dwight D. Eisenhower. Moralistic Jimmy Carter succeeded the discredited Richard Nixon (Gerald Ford was a placeholder, in this view). George H.W. Bush was even a contrast to Ronald Reagan – an intense, technocratic replacement for the cowboy Gipper.

Barack Obama – cerebral, articulate, and restrained – replaced George W. Bush, a syntax-mangling shoot-from-the-hip sort of president. But now Obama has been president seven years, and his personal qualities grate on many Republicans. They see his deliberation as hesitancy and his patience as weakness, according to his own ex-strategist.

“[W]ho among the Republicans is more the antithesis of Mr. Obama than the trash-talking, authoritarian, give-no-quarter Mr. Trump?” writes Axelrod.

A number of commentators think Axelrod may be on to something with this analysis. National Journal columnist Ron Fournier tweeted on Monday that he subscribes to the same theory. John Podhoretz, right-leaning editor of Commentary, called it a “fantastic piece.... Illuminating.”

Well, it’s probably true that when it comes to demeanor, Trump and Obama are yin and yang, right and left, the North and South Poles of American politics. It is hard to imagine Obama saying, as Trump did recently, that he could shoot somebody and his poll numbers would not go down.

And there’s quite likely some larger truth here in the way the US electorate changes its attitudes every four or eight years.

But there are a couple of aspects of Trump’s rise this may not explain. For instance, among US voters as a whole, The Donald remains a very unpopular figure. That could change – his favorability ratings have risen among Republicans in recent months. But right now, his popularity is limited to a particular slice of the GOP.

America has not swung from a nation excited by nuance to one more interested in bombast. At least not yet.

Trump voters may well be anti-Obama, but isn’t it likely they never approved of the current president to begin with? They haven’t wearied of him. They probably opposed him in 2008.

In any case, Trump is not the only Republican hopeful whose personality is very different from that of the Oval Office incumbent. Chris Christie comes to mind – he’s pretty belligerent himself. Why is Trump leading the race, and Governor Christie lagging?

The obvious answer is that Trump is leading because of what he is being belligerent about. His policies are more in tune with the angry mood of a large portion of Republicans.

In that context, many traditional Republican Party figures and activists remain flummoxed by the real estate tycoon’s rise. A great Byron York piece from New Hampshire in the Washington Examiner captures this well.

Mr. York talked to many Granite State GOP figures over the weekend, and most said they don’t know anyone who supports Trump. A few knew one or two. They did not doubt that Trump supporters exist. But those supporters seem to exist outside the usual structure of New Hampshire Republican politics.

New Hampshire went to Mitt Romney four years ago. In 2008, the state’s GOP voters picked Sen. John McCain. Today, a man who’s dissed Senator McCain’s war hero status is some 20 points up in primary polls, with voting only a couple of weeks away.

“For Trump to really be on the verge of victory, wouldn’t that mean the state of New Hampshire somehow had a total political personality transplant in the four years since Romney’s victory?” York writes.

Hmm. Maybe the Trump-is-Obama’s-opposite theory fits after all.

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