Rep. Ilhan Omar’s controversial comments are not limited to anti-Semitic attacks on supporters of Israel. She recently took flak from Democrats for criticizing former President Barack Obama:
Omar says the ‘hope and change’ offered by Barack Obama was a mirage. Recalling the ‘caging of kids’ at the U.S.-Mexico border and the ‘droning of countries around the world’ on Obama’s watch, she argues that the Democratic president operated within the same fundamentally broken framework as his Republican successor. ‘We can’t be only upset with Trump. … His policies are bad, but many of the people who came before him also had really bad policies. They just were more polished than he was,’ Omar says. ‘And that’s not what we should be looking for anymore. We don’t want anybody to get away with murder because they are polished. We want to recognize the actual policies that are behind the pretty face and the smile.’
Omar is not wrong to note Obama aggressively used drones and caged kids at the border, neither of which were covered by the establishment media with the hysterics accompanying similar stories about the Trump administration. In general, however, Omar’s critique resonates only with her fellow travelers on the identitarian left. It is more accurate to say that Obama laid the foundation for the Party of Omar.
Obama surely would reject this notion and claim he is a force for moderation in his party. In private meetings with a dozen declared or likely 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, he urged the field to “deliver a competing message that can resonate even in Republican-leaning areas, courting rural voters and other communities that tend to distrust Democrats.” He advised them “to always show up and make their case even in areas or in front of audiences they may not necessarily win.”
Yet “Obama continues to express frustration that he did not anticipate Mr. Trump’s victory… even after years of clashing with the forces of right-wing populism as president.” Obama is in denial that his record did not match his campaign tactics and rhetoric, particularly during his second term.
A Moderate or Not?
In 2008, Obama worked hard to pose as a cultural moderate. He spoke of trying to reduce the number of abortions in America at a forum hosted by the Rev. Rick Warren. He claimed to oppose same-sex marriage, based in part on his “religious traditions.” He spoke about his faith with outlets like Christianity Today and ultimately made inroads with younger evangelicals.
Obama voted against comprehensive immigration reform before he embraced it as a candidate (thus eliminating a distinction with his rival, Sen. John McCain). Early in his administration, he was attacked by the left as the “deporter-in-chief.”
Conservatives knew better, based on his comments about not wanting to “punish” a woman with a baby and his vote against Induced Birth Infant Liability Act as a state senator. Or his private comments that working-class voters in old industrial towns “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” The right watched the establishment applaud Obama’s speech refusing to disown the radical Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and applaud again when he disowned Wright after a month of further appearances by the preacher.
But many voters bought Obama’s act. The Bush administration’s various failures and a financial panic made people forgiving of the “change” candidate. Over time, Obama revealed his actual views, even though he again did outreach to the faith community during his 2012 campaign.
He flipped on same-sex marriage. He tried to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraceptives for their employees.
After stumbling by claiming “the police acted stupidly” in an encounter with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Obama refrained from addressing racial conflicts. But in his second term, he made a number of statements essentially aligning himself with the Black Lives Matter movement. (According to the “Hidden Tribes” report, 51 percent of Americans believe the police are often more violent towards African Americans than other groups, yet 56 percent also believe the Black Lives Matter movement has worsened racial tensions.) And Obama praised Australia’s confiscatory gun laws.
The deporter-in-chief repeatedly denied he could act unilaterally on immigration, then embraced the “pen and phone” to implement the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program (the latter now enjoined by federal courts as an unconstitutional power grab).
Furthermore, Obama repeatedly discouraged Joe Biden from running in 2016, clearing the field for Hillary Clinton. Democrats were left with a nominee who treated evangelicals and Catholics like they did Wisconsin and Michigan.
Make Way for Hillary
After Obama’s preferred candidate lost to Donald Trump, Obama’s 2012 director of religious outreach bitterly complained:
The Clinton campaign ran a campaign that employed religious references — primarily as a way to accentuate a critique of her opponent’s moral character — but it included little religious outreach from the candidate herself. Hillary never directly asked for the support of evangelicals. She never had an interview with a major evangelical publication or outlet. Her campaign decided, as Democrats have often desired to, that religious voters — with limited exceptions — did not need to be sought in order to win. This view largely applied to Catholics as well, 23 percent of the electorate, as we learned from recent reports about the campaign’s decision to avoid a St. Patrick’s Day event because ‘white Catholics were not the audience she [Clinton] needed to spend time reaching out to.’
Ironically, Clinton’s cultural immoderation created the vacuum in the Democratic Party now being filled by socialists and identitarians. Obama bears a large share of the responsibility for leaving the Democratic Party at its lowest ebb since the 1920s, reduced to its base of progressive activists. His second term presaged and enabled the Party of Omar.
This is not the conventional wisdom on the matter. Omar had to issue one of her myriad backtracking statements on Twitter (since deleted) after falsely claiming she was misquoted:
Rep. Omar has deleted this tweet after facing criticism. People, including her supporters, felt that Politico reporter @TimAlberta had characterized her comments accurately in his story. pic.twitter.com/MXcl44sQ1f
— Yashar Ali 🐘 یاشار (@yashar) March 9, 2019
The reason for her retreat is fairly easy to deduce:
— Matt Grossmann (@MattGrossmann) March 6, 2019
One lesson from this Harvard-Harris poll is that partisans will tend to identify with their most recent president. But a corollary to that lesson is that whether the Democrats remain the Party of Omar may depend greatly on the party’s 2020 nominee.