At a moment when many of his former voters believe that America is facing a genuine democratic crisis, former President Barack Obama has been largely silent about what is happening in American politics. Other than a handful of appearances—an interview with David Letterman in a new Netflix show, or an oral history project at MIT—he insists on following protocol and tradition for former presidents, resisting the temptation to jump back into the political fray.
For the past year, President Trump has worked with the Republican Congress to dismantle crucial parts of Obama’s legacy, including affordable health care, progressive taxation, climate-change regulation, oversight of the financial system, and immigration reform. Discussions of Medicare and Medicaid cuts surfacing in recent weeks suggest that an effort to roll back Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society might be next.
That, in itself, is not unusual—when control of the White House switches hands, presidents often work to reverse key policies. And, for the most part, ex-presidents hold their peace, placing the need for a smooth transfer of power and the health of democracy ahead of securing their own legacy.
But what Trump has done over the past 14 months is anything but usual. He has employed recklessly bellicose rhetoric against dangerous adversaries such North Korea, created massive conflicts of interest by refusing to separate himself from his business empire, risked setting off a debilitating trade war without any careful deliberation, generally ignored overwhelming evidence that the Russians tampered and plan to continue tampering in our elections, and has been willing to play in the sandbox with noxious white nationalism. Trump has used his Twitter account, press conferences, and speeches to sow doubts about the legitimacy of the press, U.S. intelligence agencies, and law-enforcement officials. He has brought a level of instability and chaos to American government that is extraordinarily harmful to the health of the body politic.
But Obama has largely remained silent. That should not come as surprise. His reticence reflects one of the problems that constrained his presidency—his hesitation and resistance to getting down and dirty in the muck of partisan politics. He aimed high, but American politics went low.
As a policy-making president, Obama was highly successful, he left behind an impressive record of policy accomplishment. During his first two years in office, the trifecta of the Affordable Care Act, a massive economic stimulus, and financial regulation were impressive enough to draw comparisons to President Lyndon B Johnson. Even after the legislative doors shut with the Republican takeover of the House after the midterm elections of 2010, Obama kept employing executive power to achieve progress in areas such as climate change, immigration, and criminal-justice reform that had no chance of gaining traction among Tea Party Republicans on Capitol Hill. On foreign policy there were many mistakes, such as the paralysis in Syria, though there were also some important positive developments, such as the promotion of liberal internationalism after the chaos of the Iraq War and some notable advances fighting against al-Qaeda.
But when it came to partisan politics, Obama declined to enter into bare-knuckled combat with Tea Party Republicans. He bowed out of the fight at the exact time that he was requiring congressional Democrats to vote on a series of highly controversial issues.
Obama severely underestimated how much the institutions and organizations of American conservatism have matured since the Reagan, and even the Clinton, era. The right had built a sophisticated conservative-industrial complex of media outlets, lobbying firms, and party operatives that offered a powerful counterweight to the bully pulpit of any Democratic president. Once he was in office, some of the optimism from his 2004 speech and 2008 campaign was quickly tempered, as he discovered the resources that Republicans had at their disposal and how ruthless they would be in taking on their opponents. Even as he faced a congressional GOP that would not vote for a stimulus bill in the worst part of a recession, and that made spurious accusations on Fox News and Breitbart about how he was not born in the United States, Obama stuck to his belief that compromise was possible and that reasoned dialogue could work.
Obama’s strategy of trying to deflate his opposition by downplaying or hiding the impact of his programs posed political problems for his political supporters. Democrats wanted Obama to wave the flag of victory, but the president believed that avoiding drama was a better approach. As the president expanded the federal government with a hidden hand, refusing to boast of the effects of the stimulus or downplaying discussions about what his regulatory changes achieved (a sharp contrast from President Trump), Democrats didn’t have as much to work with on the campaign trail.
While Americans could never miss a single bridge built by FDR’s Public Works Administration—as the president advertised his achievements with Trump-like marketing skills—they could drive right by a project that came out of Obama-era legislation and never have a clue. Stimulus projects were poorly marked, and very often there was little local political celebration of projects. Michael Grunwald, in The New New Deal, reports that under 10 percent of Americans realized the stimulus had enacted the biggest middle-class tax cut in a generation; most believed the legislation had raised taxes. As the Princeton sociologist Paul Starr argues in his chapter for my book, despite significantly reducing economic inequality, Obama’s programs “might as well have been declared state secrets. Many of them involved policies that were low in visibility and high in complexity and therefore inherently difficulty for ordinary citizens to understand even when they were beneficiaries.”
When Republicans invested in state and local elections, with an eye toward controlling the redistricting process in 2011, the president did not fight back by leading an equally aggressive effort for his party. In his book Rat F**ked, David Daley recounts the tremendous imbalance between how the parties treated this redistricting fight. When Daley went searching for Democrats who had tried to fight back against these Republican efforts, he writes, all he could find was a “black hole of complacency, overconfidence, and unimaginative thinking.” The Democratic National Committee, said former New York Representative Steve Israel, who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, “just whistled past the grave-yard.” Although this was not wholly his responsibility, there was room for him to be the party leader in chief. The results of this indifference were devastating. Republicans scored huge gains in state legislatures and governorships, which were followed in 2011 by a sophisticated redistricting operation that left many red states with powerful gerrymanders that could not be undone. Indeed, depending on court rulings, those gerrymanders might be the best defense that Republicans have against Democratic gains in the midterm elections.
Congressional Democrats often expressed frustration that they did not receive much help from the White House in building the party apparatus. After the 2008 election, Obama’s Organizing for America, the massive grassroots machine that emerged from the election, became a vehicle for Obama’s reelection rather than a mechanism to strengthen the Democrats. Like most Democratic presidents before him, as the political scientist Daniel Gavin argued, he didn’t pay attention to the financial or electoral health for the party. His relations with the DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman were poor. Obama’s campaign in 2012 didn’t give much money to congressional Democrats. As Republicans ramped up their operations and the Tea Party galvanized a genuine grassroots mobilization, Democrats were left in a weakened state. Obama failed them. When Barack Obama’s presidential party came to an end in December 2016, his political party was left to get over a terrible hangover.
While Republican elected officials appealed to their base, and gave devoted activists a seat at the table, Obama was never comfortable with the most enthusiastic segments of his constituency. He kept an arms-length distance from Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, even though he sympathized with many of their goals. Obama and his allies responded that the left ignored the realities of the day. The irony was that his presidency, as the historian Michael Kazin argues in his chapter of The Presidency of Barack Obama, stimulated a proliferation of left-wing organizations, culminating with the insurgency of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic primaries. While many of Sanders’s goals might not have been achievable during Obama’s presidency, Obama could have done more to try to keep the left involved in White House deliberations and give more public support to their grassroots efforts.
Now Democrats are reliving the political frustration from the Obama years. Right when the Democrats are in desperate need of strong leadership, looking for someone who has the muscle and clout to push back against the aggressive, smash-mouth, destructive politics of Trump, the former president has not done nearly enough to step in to fill this void. After an interval, Bill Clinton brought a fierce sense of urgency to the campaign trail in his post-presidency, and Jimmy Carter has done the same with regards to foreign policy. While Trump has provoked an extensive grassroots counter-mobilization, as Theda Skocpol and Lara Putnam document in the new issue of Democracy, it’s largely leaderless.
When Obama became president in 2009, Republicans could afford to have former President George W. Bush sit on the sidelines as they rebuilt their strength. Unlike Obama, Bush was hugely unpopular. But more importantly, the right had its institutions as a solid base for revival. The grassroots energy of the Tea Party was connected to these entrenched institutions, from Fox News to Dick Army’s FreedomWorks. But the Democratic Party can’t afford to wait; it needs Obama to learn from one of the great mistakes of his own presidency: his failure to take seriously enough the grave political threat his party was facing.
Some Democrats fear that Obama reentering the picture would energize conservatives and move the party backwards in time—rather than encouraging new leaders to emerge with an eye toward 2020. But conservatives are energized, organized, and mobilized regardless of which Democrat stands in the public spotlight. This cautious logic replicates the same mistake that Obama made when he backed away as president from several tough fights with the GOP hoping his restraint would tone things down. It didn’t. And Obama can help promote new Democratic voices.
Indeed, Obama came to the forefront in 2004—when former President Bill Clinton was out on the hustings campaigning, and Obama was given a spot on the stage at the convention that nominated Senator John Kerry. Given that Obama ended his term with high approval ratings and remains an admired figure within much of the electorate, he could use his standing to build support to check Trump, the most unpopular president in recent history. A vibrant party is capable of handling many voices, new and old, at the same time. Frail and depleted parties are the ones that can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
The last time Obama was too timid, the Republicans roared. His party can’t afford to see Obama make that same mistake once again.