Barack Obama is back. Last week, the former president gave a speech at the University of Chicago, his first public remarks since leaving the White House on January 20. Obama’s theme, no surprise, was his post-presidency: “I’m spending a lot of time thinking about: ‘What is the most important thing I can do for my next job?’”
Here’s an idea for Obama: disappear from public life for a decade.
With few exceptions, former presidents generally avoid the spotlight. Apart from a few interviews George W. Bush gave earlier this year to promote his book of portraits honoring military veterans, Americans didn’t hear much from him once he left office. Bill Clinton didn’t exactly retire after his stint in the White House, but he at least confined himself mostly to giving overpaid speeches to global elites and shilling for his wife.
Obama, by contrast, was only out of office 11 days before releasing a statement critical of President Trump’s executive order on immigration. To some extent, Obama’s frustration is understandable: his eight years in office ended with a contentious election that saw voters reject his chosen successor, Hillary Clinton, and put a loudmouth populist in the White House.
Nevertheless, at this point it would do the country good not to hear from Obama for a while. It also might be the only thing that can save the Democratic Party.
Obama Presided Over the Decimation of His Party
Right now, Democrats are at risk of becoming uncompetitive for a generation or more. But their trouble didn’t start with Clinton’s loss to Trump, it started during Obama’s tenure in office. Since 2009, Democrats have steadily lost ground in statehouses and governors’ mansions across the country. Since 2009, Republicans have captured 27 state legislatures and today control 67 of 98 partisan legislative chambers across the country, as well as 33 governorships. All told, the GOP controls 1,000 more legislative seats than they did when Obama took office.
When Clinton lost in November, it seemed like Obama’s most lasting legacy would be the decimation of his own party. It still looks that way today, in part because the Democrats are still in disarray.
The recent “unity tour” from Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez and Sen. Bernie Sanders highlighted just how fractured the Democrats are right now. During the tour, Sanders drew sharp criticism from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America for supporting a pro-life Democrat running for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska. Sanders was defiant, while Perez scrambled to mollify pro-abortion Democrats. The overwhelming message, though, was that pro-life Democrats are no longer welcome in the party.
The Omaha fracas underscored just how far left the Democratic Party’s base has shifted since 2008. Recall that back then, candidates Obama and Clinton both opposed gay marriage. Today, it would be impossible for any national Democratic candidate to espouse such a view, just as it would impossible to espouse anything but unqualified endorsement of progressive ideas about transgenderism—an issue that was a political non-issue for most of Obama’s time in office.
The leftward lurch isn’t just on social issues. It’s hard to imagine any Democratic candidate for president in 2020 who won’t heartily endorse single-payer health care, socialized college tuition, a $15 minimum wage (at least), and amnesty for illegal immigrants. Such policies have become imperatives for the progressive activists now in charge of the party.
Obama Can’t Help Democrats Rebuild Their Party
But those imperatives don’t add up to a majority coalition. To win national elections, Democrats need working-class white voters. Specifically, they need Midwestern voters, who backed Obama in 2008 and 2012 but voted for Trump in November. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent recently reviewed private focus groups and polling by Democratic strategists trying to figure out why so many Obama voters supported Trump. Sargent writes, “One finding from the polling stands out: A shockingly large percentage of these Obama-Trump voters said Democrats’ economic policies will favor the wealthy—twice the percentage that said the same about Trump.”
The upshot is that the Democratic Party’s entire narrative—that it’s the party of working people, that it stands up to Wall Street and corporate interests, that the GOP is the party of the rich—has collapsed. When it came time to vote in November, a surprising number of Democrats no longer believed that narrative. Clinton was of course a terrible standard-bearer, but many voters were swayed by what they saw during Obama’s tenure. Democratic leadership, they rightly concluded, is far more concerned with pandering to identity groups than addressing the economic struggles of the working class.
Now comes Obama to fix the party he did so much to wreck. In his remarks at the University of Chicago, Obama said the primary focus of his post-presidency will be to persuade young people with progressive values to engage in public life. That sounds high-minded, but it amounts to a variation on Democrats’ unwavering faith in demographics as destiny. If only they can get young people, or Hispanics, or blacks to engage in sufficient numbers, then they’ll have a permanent majority.
But a narrow focus on demographics blinds Democrats to their larger problem: many Americans simply don’t believe Democrats care about their economic plight.
Hence the tone-deafness, even now, of Obama’s remarks last week at a private event in Manhattan, where he quipped that his signature health-care law is more popular than Trump is. Or the bad optics of Obama accepting a $400,000 fee to speak at a health care conference organized by a Wall Street bond firm. Obama’s announcement in October that he will team up with his former attorney general Eric Holder to work on congressional and state redistricting issues ahead of the 2018 midterm elections suggests he believes Democrats’ problems can be fixed by better maps and voter turnout, not a shift to the center.
The fact is, much of Obama’s appeal was personal. Voters liked him, even if they didn’t care for his party’s march to the Left. But because he has more or less bought into his own myth, Obama likely has no idea that his mere public presence impedes the emergence of new Democratic leaders and the possibility of a new direction for the party.
Unless his return to the spotlight coincides with a call to court white, working-class Democrats who abandoned the party in November, then Democrats should hope and pray Obama bides his time on the golf course—and Republicans should relish his every appearance.