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Donald Trump’s 2016 win caught many Americans off guard—including then-President Barack Obama and his second-in-command, current President Joe Biden.
The outgoing Democratic leaders spent the next four years growing more and more concerned about the new Republican president—and the fate of the country, my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere tells me.
I caught up with Isaac, an Atlantic staff writer who covers elections and the author of the upcoming book Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats’ Campaigns to Defeat Trump, to discuss how Biden’s and Obama’s respective approaches to the 45th president have changed over time.
The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s start with 2016. Can you tell me a little bit about what happened on Election Night?
Obama and Biden were not together. Obama was in the White House, and Biden was in the Naval Observatory.
The widespread assumption in the White House was that Hillary Clinton was going to win. Biden so much assumed that Hillary was gonna win that he wasn’t even paying attention to the presidential results.
Initially, President Obama seemed pretty restrained when commenting on the 45th president. What was going on behind the scenes?
Obama definitely did not think Donald Trump was qualified to be president. He had a very cautious approach in public to what he said about Trump. But people would push him. Staff members and donors were trying to get him to talk about what he thought about Trump.
And occasionally, he would let something slip and he would say things like, Trump’s a “fucking lunatic.” Or “I didn’t think it would be this bad.” Or even “I didn’t think we’d have a racist, sexist pig.”
At one point, he’s seeing the news reports about when Trump had the Russian ambassador into the Oval Office, and he says, “corrupt motherfucker.”
I don’t think anybody ever imagined that Barack Obama was a Trump voter. But the clarity and the harshness of his view was surprising to many people.
Now let’s talk about President Biden. How much of a role did Trump play in Biden’s decision to run for office in 2020?
Until August 2017, when Charlottesville happened, he was interested in running—not giving up on the dream. But it was kind of being written off. And then after Charlottesville, he felt like somebody had to beat Trump. This wasn’t a question anymore.
How did Biden’s approach to Trump change over time?
It clicked up in notches. Charlottesville was a huge click up. Then there was the phone call—the carrying on that Trump did about Hunter Biden—that led to the first impeachment. That hit Biden very, very close.
Then it was the “suckers” and “losers” article that Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg published. Biden was just so deeply offended by that, on behalf of his late son, Beau, who had served in the National Guard.
For Biden, it’s this arc of going from I don’t like this guy to He is posing such a fundamental challenge to America that we need everybody to go on alert.
One question, answered: How many people is too many for an outdoor party, if everyone is at least partially vaccinated?
James Hamblin responds:
Let’s stick to people who are fully vaccinated. Then it’s simple: You shouldn’t have to worry about how many people are there at all. You could basically have a vaccinated Coachella in your backyard, if you have that many friends. If you do, that’s amazing. Though, are they really your friends? Or are they just using you because you have this huge backyard, and somehow you got Destiny’s Child to be there?
Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity:
Watch a movie: 1969’s Z is “possibly the greatest and most enduring political thriller ever made,” David Sims wrote last year.
Find more conspiratorial dramas on David’s list of the 13 best movies about why you shouldn’t trust the government.
A break from the news: