Barack Obama Goes All In Politically to Fight Gerrymandering

The former president sees representative elections as the key to progress on global warming, gun control, and health care.

Former President Barack Obama (Paul Sancya / AP)

Barack Obama has sometimes struggled to find his political footing since leaving office, even though he’s more popular and more in demand by Democrats than at any point since 2008. He’d been challenged by a very deliberate decision he’d made to steer clear of direct confrontation with Donald Trump for a year and a half, aware that a fight is always exactly what Trump is looking for. Why help him turn out the Republican base?

Behind the scenes, Obama had been much more active and forceful, meeting with top Democrats and mentoring up-and-coming Democrats, including most of the expected 2020 presidential candidates. Then, in September, he unleashed an intense argument against Trump and carried that forward with considerable effect through the midterms, which produced a blue wave that devastated Republicans nationally and locally. But since then, he’s been eager to move past the Trump dynamic again and address bigger, less personal politics.

The answer he’s found to accomplish this: redistricting reform. On Thursday night, Obama announced a major shift in the politics of his post-presidency, folding his Organizing for Action group into the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

The consolidation focuses and directs Obama’s political activity and fund-raising for a cause that has become a major focus since he left the White House: gerrymandering reform.

It ends the six-year existence of OFA, formed out of the pieces of Obama’s reelection campaign, which at times struggled to find footing with a clear mission. The Chicago-based group will cease to exist.

“People want commonsense gun-safety laws; Congress ignores it. People want compressive immigration reform; Congress ignores it,” Obama said in a call with top supporters on Thursday night. “The single most important thing that could be done at the grassroots level over the next few years is to make sure the rules of the road are fair. If we do that, I think we’ll do the right thing.”

OFA was initially set up as a vehicle to provide pressure for Obama’s agenda in his second term. The group was ready to close down entirely two years ago, had Hillary Clinton won.

Trump’s election gave the group new life, and over 2017, it became a nexus for a range of newly formed resistance groups to train in organizing, particularly in last summer’s fight to defeat Obamacare repeal. Then, in 2018, the group—which had always insisted it wasn’t about electoral politics—shifted into organizing for Democrats running in the midterms.

Meanwhile, Obama had put more energy into the redistricting-reform group he backed and which he recruited Eric Holder, his friend and former attorney general, to chair.

The merger will now create a “joint force that is focused on this issue of singular importance,” Obama said on Thursday.

The merging of the organizations will begin almost immediately, building off a working relationship the groups formed during the 2018 midterms. Eager to get Obama voters engaged in the esoteric issue of redistricting, the NDRC tapped the OFA list, hosting multiple virtual house-party nights and helping rouse the most die-hard supporters of the former president to vote on the issue and spread the word.

The results of the midterms were good news for the effort: Democrats flipped nearly 400 state-legislature seats and eight overall chambers, in addition to eating away at several Republican supermajorities. Those wins, along with the governor’s races that the Democrats flipped, put the party in much stronger shape ahead of the 2020 census and the next round of drawing the electoral maps, in 2021.

Holder, who will continue chairing the group as he considers whether to launch a 2020 campaign himself (on Thursday, he’d say only that he was thinking about it and would make a decision by early 2019), called the merger “a way to maximize the incredible impact that OFA has had in the past and continue it into the future—this is a natural extension of the work we’ve been doing over the past year.”

The bulked-up NDRC will be the main outlet for Obama’s fund-raising and political involvement over the next two years, with him returning to the sidelines and staying out of the fray until the 2020 elections.

Holder said Obama has landed on redistricting reform as his central political cause as a way to get more action on climate change, gun control, and health care. He argued that those would move if the state legislatures and House districts elect members who are more representative of the voting public than the current lines allow.

“If you say, ‘The Obama legacy will then be focused on redistricting,’ that’s the mechanism by which the things the Obama presidency were about will be preserved,” Holder said.

The issue of gerrymandering has exploded in politics in the past two years, in part because of moves such as the one the Wisconsin and Michigan legislatures made after the November elections to cut back the powers of the Democrats who had won. Both states are heavily gerrymandered, giving Republicans major advantages in winning elections that are disproportionate to voter turnout.

Not every OFA supporter will move to redistricting. Over the next few months, OFA officials will work to pair members who prioritize other issues with groups that focus on those.

Holder will hold his own conference call with OFA supporters on January 7 to begin providing details of the merger.