Stumping for Democrats Hasn’t Always Been Obama’s Favorite Place

The former president has stepped out to campaign for Democrats in the 2018 midterms in a way he never did as president.

Mike Blake / Reuters

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.

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.

And arguably worst of all is what happened at the local level. On Obama’s watch, Democrats lost nearly 1,000 state legislative seats—from a dominant 4,082 state House and Senate seats to their current 3,122. When Obama became president, the GOP had full control (House, Senate, governor) of only nine states; today, it fully controls 25. 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 ex-president’s efforts are a tad late.

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. We did not begin what I think needs to happen over the long haul, and that is to rebuild the Democratic Party at the ground level.”

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.”

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.” He’s right. A 2010 book authored by the political-science professor Daniel Galvin says that virtually all presidents since John F. Kennedy “neglected, exploited, or undercut his party’s organizational capacities.”

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. While stumping for the presidency in 2008, he rarely allowed Democratic lawmakers running for reelection to share his stage. Once in office, he rarely forged ties to Democrats on Capitol Hill. As Senator Claire McCaskill remarked in 2014, “For him, eating his spinach is schmoozing with elected officials. This is not something that he loves.” 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.

Many Democratic strategists still talk, privately, about how Obama’s grassroots group, Organizing for America, drained resources from the Democratic National Committee and boosted the president at the expense of lower Democratic candidates; about how his 2012 campaign gave nary a penny to the party committee that oversaw the Senate races; about how Obama didn’t authorize any DNC money for the 2014 Senate races until the final two months. Many complain that the people around Obama were fatally mesmerized by their leader, to the exclusion of the party’s needs.

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.”

Tom Lindenfeld, a Democratic strategist with long experience in urban campaigns, also tells me: “One by-product of his campaign and organizing approach was to cut off the black political operatives who sought to be paid. His campaign thought that was a waste of resources and relied on volunteers. That has caused a deficiency among urban political organizers that we have yet to address.” Bottom line: “When he was on the ballot, that was sufficient. When he wasn’t, it has turned out to be politically disastrous.”

But while these memories are still fresh for those who work on the inside, and while there are new complaints that his postpresidential 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. 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.”

Obama won’t be welcome everywhere, of course—he won’t set foot in states like Trump-friendly 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 college-educated women detest Trump. 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.