Donald Trump built his headline-grabbing, undeclared presidential run — and a double-digit lead in early GOP 2012 primary polling — on the theory that President Barack Obama isn't actually American. If Trump plans to keep on running, now that a copy of the president's long-form birth certificate is posted on whitehouse.gov and the Obama "Birther" conspiracies have been, or should be, all but put to rest, he'll have to fall back on the belief — held by no one more strongly than himself — that his own famous combination of conspicuous wealth and in-your-face bravado will be the winning formula for the nation's next chief executive.
Speaking to press gathered on a New Hampshire tarmac Wednesday, Trump said that he was "really proud" to be the one who forced Obama to make his birth certificate public, and then quickly pivoted to his latest charge about Obama's admission to Harvard Law — that he'd "heard he was a terrible student, terrible."
In his version of things, Trump's the great American rags-to-riches story, and Obama is the suspicious, out-of-touch law professor. His pitch hinges on the public buying Trump as a one-man money factory who can solve America's problems by telling China's leaders "We're going to tax you 25 percent" and ordering the Saudis to bring down the price of a gallon of gas.
But when you look at the two of them side by side, it's hard not to notice that Obama is the real Horatio Alger story here, and Trump is more like Richie Rich — comfortably drafting off of someone else's American dream. Forget about birth certificates. Here's why Obama is the real Donald Trump:
Trump's appeal is based largely on his moneymaking prowess, but he rarely points out that he made his money the old-fashioned way: by inheriting a multimillion-dollar real estate empire from his father. Obama's millions pale in comparison with Trump's reported billions, but with brisk sales from best-selling books, Obama made his fortune the even more old-fashioned way: He earned it.
If the business of America is business, then America's most important statistic is the Dow Jones industrial average. It dropped all the way down to the 7,000s after the 2008 financial sector collapse, and Obama nursed it back to the 12,000s. It doesn't matter how many club invites that Trump — the businessman — hands out for his Mar-a-Lago golf resort, he'll never top what Obama's done for the investor class.
Trump says that he's never personally gone bankrupt. He's just taken his companies into bankruptcy and "used the laws of this country" to make himself richer — something that no one really begrudged him or ever seriously doubted.
By contrast, Obama kept the big-three automakers from going under by taking a page out of Trump's playbook: He borrowed money, bought a stake in General Motors, forced it into bankruptcy, revived the company and preserved thousands of jobs.
To hear Trump tell it, he'd waltz into any conference room in the world, pound his fist on the table and have China begging to buy American goods at whatever price he sets — while extracting oil money from the Saudis for U.S. protection. But it was Obama who got Russia to go along with economic sanctions on Iran; it was Obama who squeezed concessions out of a South Korean trade deal after that country got shook up by North Korean attacks; and Obama's the one simultaneously raining missiles down on the heads of Muammar Qaddafi and the leaders of al-Qaida.
And now that he's lost the Birther issue, Trump is complaining about his "friends who have smart sons with great marks, great boards, great everything, and they can't get into Harvard" — suggesting that the island-reared son of an exchange student and a hippie woman needed affirmative action to reach the Ivy League.
So what if he did?
If you work backward from Obama's magna cum laude showing at Harvard Law, you have to conclude that the president had the right stuff all along, regardless of his college GPA. But what's noteworthy about Obama isn't his grades or where he went to school. It's that as a charming Harvard lawyer straight from central casting, he could easily have taken his talents to Wall Street and made partner in a major firm or been the top legal guy at a big hedge fund. Instead he went into public service and, later, politics, eschewing millions of dollars more than he already makes now.
Obama and Trump have both lived charmed lives. They both went to posh prep schools and hold Ivy League degrees. They're both rich and famous, and neither one has ever met a microphone he didn't like. But that's where the comparisons end. One guy's a casino boss and pageant promoter.
The other guy? He's President of the United States.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.