Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
You could write an encyclopedia about the ways in which Barack Obama is different from his successor, Donald Trump. On Saturday, Michelle Obama provided a more concise explanation for what distinguishes the two presidents from one another: Obama put country first; Trump puts himself first.
The former First Lady, while speaking at an event to promote her new book, “Becoming,” explained the genesis behind the line she famously delivered at the 2016 Democratic National Convention: “When they go low, we go high.”
As Mrs. Obama explained, “That motto is his motto,” referring to her husband. She continued, “I say that because that’s how Barack operates,” adding, “I mean there’s so many times when I just want him – like I know all of you – to just curse them out.”
So why didn’t her husband go full Trump as president and personally demean and ridicule his opponents on social media and at rallies? As Mrs. Obama explained, the reason why a person would go “low” is simple: “Oftentimes, going low means you’re acting from a place of ego. You’re really just satisfying your immediate need to lash out.”
Then she shared two key lines that summed up her husband’s guiding philosophy on why he avoided going “low” in response to his critics: “The president isn’t the president for his own ego. The president is the president for the entire country.”
That, my friends, crystalizes one of the primary differences between the 44th and 45th Presidents in a simple yet effective way. While Obama strived to put his ego second and be the president for all Americans first, Trump is the opposite. Trump is all about Trump. He’s the king of personal victimhood and lashes out whenever his ego demands, be it attacking the media as “fake news” or going after late-night comedians for being “unfair” to him.
Recently we saw Trump battle several reporters at a press conference for asking questions he didn’t appreciate – including CNN’s Jim Acosta, who pressed Trump on the migrant caravan. Trump angrily responded to Acosta’s questions, “That’s enough. That’s enough. That’s enough. That’s enough,” telling the reporter to, “put down the mic.” Trump later lashed again at Acosta, saying, “You are a rude, terrible person.”
Trump even had Acosta’s press credentials taken away later that day. Thankfully a (Trump-appointed) federal judge on Friday granted a temporary injunction to reinstate Acosta’s press access.
In contrast, look what happened in 2012 when a reporter for the right-wing Daily Caller heckled President Obama during a speech in the White House’s Rose Garden by yelling out, “Why’d you favor foreigners over Americans?”
Did Obama angrily berate the reporter or revoke his press credentials? No, instead Obama responded calmly, “Excuse me, sir, but it’s not time for questions.” And then when the President concluded his remarks, he politely responded to the reporter, “In answer to your question, sir – and the next time I’d prefer you’d let me finish my statement before you ask that question – is this is the right thing to do for the American people.”
But if you pay attention to Mrs. Obama’s words, the contrasting responses make sense. Trump has never tried to be anything more than the president of his base. And he seems happy to be just that. He knows his base loves the way he lashes out at the media, Democrats like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California) and anyone who dares to not give him the tribute he believes he’s entitled. It’s the same reason Trump continually serves his base the same red meat he served on the campaign trail from wanting to build a wall to ginning up fears of brown immigrants.
Trump, as president, never pivoted to the center to reach out to more Americans – because it’s never been about reaching all Americans. It’s always been about maintaining his grip on power and surrounding himself with people who praise him accordingly.
Indeed, even after Trump’s GOP got trounced in the midterm elections, we didn’t see Trump say, “I’ve heard the message of the American people and will try to find more common ground with the other party,” as Obama did after loses in the 2010 midterms or George W. Bush did after losing fewer House seats in 2006 than the GOP did this year. Instead, Trump declared it was an “incredible” night for the Republicans, slammed the media as “hostile” and even mocked Republicans who lost for refusing to “embrace” him.
Given that Trump seems unable to evolve, we can expect to see even more of his philosophy of “When they go low, we go lower.” The only question is how much lower will Trump go before he’s out of office.