Obama is stumping for Democrats
The former U.S. president campaigns for the Democratic Party.
Barack Obama has returned to politics. Just a few weeks away from the midterm elections, the former president has rolled up his sleeves and started campaigning for the Democratic Party. He gave a notable speech at the University of Illinois on 7 September, calling for Americans to vote against the present ‘political darkness’. Will Obama’s popularity give the Democrats a decisive edge in these elections?
When Chance the Rapper appeared last November on Saturday Night Live and sang a tune titled “Come Back, Barack,” he spoke for all the bereft Democrats who believed that only Barack Obama had the requisite credentials and charisma to lead the fight against Trumpism. Now nearly a year later, their wish has come true. He has interrupted his excellent retirement to stump in the midterms for a Democratic Congress, to stoke anti–Donald Trump turnout with withering critiques of the manifestly unpopular president.
2. The irony is that Obama will be devoting much of this autumn to one of his least favorite pursuits: campaigning for down-ballot candidates. The irony of Obama wading into the 2018 congressional midterms is that, as president, he disdained the kind of grassroots party building and partisan engagement that might’ve blunted the massacres Democrats suffered in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. At the dawn of the Obama era, the majority Democrats held 257 House seats; during his final two years, the minority Democrats held 188 seats. When he was first sworn into office, Democrats enjoyed a near-filibuster-proof Senate majority; when his time ran out, their Senate seats had dwindled to 44.
3. Democratic strategists are pleased that Obama is currently teaming up with his ex– attorney general Eric Holder to target state legislative races, trying to recoup what has been lost, but there’s also a widespread feeling that the expresident’s efforts are a tad late.
4. Obama has acknowledged that he allowed the party to wither; shortly before Trump was inaugurated, he told ABC News: “I take some responsibility on that. I couldn’t be both chief organizer of the Democratic Party and function as commander in chief of the United States.”
5. Democrats are determined to look forward— indeed, the prospects for a blue wave are bullish, especially with Obama campaigning against Republicans in the 23 House districts where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential vote—but the recent past is too painful to ignore. Steve Rosenthal, a veteran Democratic organizer and a former political director of the AFL-CIO, tells me: “We’ll be digging out of it for some time to come. Too frequently, President Obama tried to stay above the fray, and that didn’t help.”
6. Granted, he says, most presidents don’t spend much energy building the party that helped elect them: “Maybe with the exception of George W. Bush during his first term [the 2002 midterms that followed 9/11], I don’t think there’s been a president in either party in recent memory [who] invested properly. They have generally viewed the parties as wholly owned subsidiaries of their personal brand for reelection purposes.”
The prospects for a blue wave are bullish.
NO BASIC POLITICAL TASKS
7. But, privately, a number of Democratic strategists are still grumbling about the basic political tasks that Obama refused to perform. The fate of down-ballot Democrats never greatly concerned him; many in the party attribute that to his “solitary” nature,” and his “brand” as an outsider indifferent to the ways of Washington. Once in office, he rarely forged ties to Democrats on Capitol Hill. He spent most of the 2014 autumn-midterm sprint on the golf course—not just because he preferred to be aloof from the fray, but because his approval rating hovered at 43 percent.
8. As one strategist tells me, there is “a generation of campaign operatives who came out of the Obama experience and thought they had developed the ‘secret sauce,’ ignoring the fact that they had a [uniquely] gifted and charismatic candidate.” That jibes with what Congressman Scott Peters of California told The New York Times last year, when he argued that everyone should share the blame: “We got a bit lazy and found ourselves relying on Barack Obama’s charisma, and it left us in bad shape.”
THE MOST POPULAR DEMOCRAT LEADER
9. But while these memories are still fresh for those who work on the inside, and while there are new complaints that his post-presidential foundation is competing with the party for donations, most Democrats are anxious to move on. Obama now has a golden opportunity to make amends for his flaws, and besides, the average persuadable voter has no interest in the party’s intramural complaints.
10. Lindenfeld tells me: “His voice today seems to be both powerful and comparatively appealing not just to Democrats, but most importantly to independents”—only 31 percent of whom now support Trump, down from 47 percent last month—“and to those who voted for Trump and now have buyer’s remorse. Regardless of what anyone says, and I may have my criticisms … our party has no leaders who are more popular and capable and compelling than Obama. I would dismiss the bellyaching and appreciate the value.”
11. Obama won’t be welcome everywhere, of course—he won’t set foot in states like Trumpfriendly West Virginia, where he’d likely hinder the Democrat Joe Manchin’s bid for a new Senate term—but the map is studded with opportunities for Obama to help turn the House blue, not just in the Republican districts that Hillary Clinton won, but in normally Republican suburban enclaves where white collegeeducated women detest Trump.
12. Midterms are typically a referendum on the current president, and Trump’s moment of reckoning seems close at hand. The timing is propitious for Obama to stump with the wind at his back, and for Democrats to showcase his strengths and let bygones be bygones.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama golfing with former NBA basketball player Alonzo Mourning in the midst of the 2014 midterm campaign, August 23, 2014.