But Obama, who has tended to embrace a Whiggish vision of history moving slowly but inexorably toward justice, seemed perhaps chastened by the Trump phenomenon. “Progress doesn’t just move in a straight line,” he said.
The wrong side of “the right side of history”
Yet lest the focus on Trump’s existential threat convince anyone that Obama was becoming the wild-eyed Alinskyite his foes always suspected, he quarreled with two emerging strains of thought in the Democratic Party.
“There are well-meaning folks, passionate about social justice, who think that things have gotten so bad and the lines so starkly drawn that we have to fight fire with fire. We have to do the same things to the Republicans as they do to us, adopt their tactics, say whatever works, make up stuff about the other side,” he said. He said he disagreed, not because he is “soft” or interested in “empty bipartisanship,” but because “in order to move this country forward, to actually solve problems and make people’s lives better, we need a well-functioning government.”
Obama also rejected the dichotomy between embracing identity politics and pursuing white voters.
“This whole notion that has sprung up recently about Democrats’ need to choose between trying to appeal to white working-class voters, or voters of color and women and LGBT Americans—that’s nonsense,” he said. “I got votes from every demographic. We won because we reached out to everybody and [by] competing everywhere and by fighting for every vote, and that’s what we’ve got to do in this election and every election after that.”
This focus on uplift and unity has, of course, been Obama’s north star since he burst on the national scene with his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In a moment of national despair and fatigue, and unrelenting negativity from all corners, it’s refreshing to hear someone speaking about politics in positive, constructive terms. But any hope that Obama can heal the Democratic Party’s divides might be premature. It’s worth remembering that in both midterm elections during Obama’s presidency, his party was, to use his term, “shellacked.” His focus on state-level candidates is tardy at best, following a full-scale demolition of the Democratic Party in state and local races during his presidency.
The shopworn nature of Friday’s rhetoric might give Democrats pause, too. These tools worked very well for him, accomplishing the task of electing a young black man named Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency twice. But when others have tried to borrow them, they have found the tools unwieldy in their own hands, and the Obama era gave way to Trump’s election in 2016. Every indication is that Democrats are on pace to do well in November, and likely to retake the House, but the deeper cleavages in politics and society will remain, and perhaps even deepen. If Obama’s high-minded impulses couldn’t prevent Trump from becoming president, how likely are they to unseat him and heal the damage?
* This article originally mischaracterized the anonymous author of the New York Times column as a White House official. We regret the error.