Obama, the Democrats’ not-so-secret weapon
His hair might be grayer but after an absence of nearly two years, former US president Barack Obama’s knack for captivating an audience is undiminished, and his oratory is as fresh as if he had never left the world stage. Some might argue that he is showing even more vigor.
The Obama who addressed students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign last week was very much the Obama of old, but enhanced by the benefit of reflection, probably as a result of two years away from the White House. In his rallying cry to those youngsters he did not mince his words, asserting that the US midterm elections were “more important than any in our lifetime” and “a glance at recent headlines should tell you this moment really is different.”
In his return to front-line politics, albeit not as a candidate, there was an element of breaking with tradition. It is unusual for a former president to criticize the performance of a sitting one as directly — and at times bluntly — as Obama did in his effort to boost support for Democrat congressional candidates.
Since his departure from the White House, Obama has shown admirable restraint in the face of constant attacks on his record, and his person, by his successor. In less than two years there has been an attempt to eradicate almost all of his major domestic and international policies and achievements, not to mention the accusations that he is not even an American citizen.
However, it seems that now the gloves are off, albeit with a high level of subtlety, at least until November 6, the day of the elections. Obama’s reappearance should greatly benefit the Democrats’ aim of gaining control of the House of Representatives, and even the Senate, with his sheer presence reminding the party that it is capable of triumphing in elections, and doing so by delivering to the electorate clear and inclusive liberal-progressive messages.
Obama’s calls to Americans to get out and vote and his forceful depictions of the dire state in which America finds itself fill a void in the political system. Once elected, a new president becomes the leader of their party. The situation is different for the losing party, which is usually left without an obvious leader to begin the long journey back to power.
Obama’s reappearance should greatly benefit the Democrats’ aim of gaining control of the House of Representatives, and even the Senate, with his sheer presence reminding the party that it is capable of triumphing in elections, and doing so by delivering to the electorate clear and inclusive liberal-progressive messages.
Before 2016, the system enabled the opposition to cope with the absence of a figurehead, through party leaders in the House and Senate, and other internal mechanisms. Nevertheless, for the Democrats the last presidential election was a traumatizing, painful and humiliating loss against the odds to a highly unorthodox opponent, exacerbated by becoming a minority in both houses of Congress. This called for capable leadership, but none existed.
It is hard to think of anyone who can rally the troops and galvanize the Democrat base better than Barack Obama. However, to win the November elections, the party also needs to reach disenchanted segments of society who voted for Trump not only because they did not like Hillary Clinton or trust her message, but also because they found Obama’s global, neoliberal world view detrimental to their way of life and livelihoods.
Those are the voters who Obama, in his new role as the grand old statesman (more so than the Clintons), needs to win over. His recent appearances demonstrate that he has not lost the ability to connect with a wide range of people, and can give them a sober, as well as somber, analysis of America under his successor. The US of 2018 is a divided society. As Obama rightly points out, it is the outcome of “resentments that politicians have been fanning for years,” and of a sense of fear and anger that is not only rooted in the country’s past, but is also the result of the enormous upheavals that have taken place more recently. This has created the social-political zone in which Trump operates best.
Obama will serve his party and the American people best in this campaign when he reminds them of what they are missing in terms of a leader with substance and style. However, at the end of the day, the Democrats’ best asset is not Obama but Trump himself. Despite the current resurgent economy, Trump’s approval rating is low, at about 40 percent, compared with an average of above 50 percent for a first-time president when the economy is performing well. For the Democrats, the challenge is to translate that low approval rating into votes for them on election day, especially as Obama is entitled to claim much of the credit for the current state of the US economy.
Obama’s greatest contribution to the success of the Democrats in November will not be in full-throttle attacks on Trump’s record, as that is plain for all to see. Where he will make a difference is by being inspirational, and warning against the threat to American democracy stemming from the indifference, apathy and cynicism that deters people from engaging with politics and from casting their votes.
What Obama must not do is give Trump and the Republicans the opportunity to rehash their bashing of his presidency. Instead, he should concentrate on reinvigorating the Democratic party, and those within American society who would like to enter a more constructive debate on the challenges the nation is facing.
This requires Obama-like vision, depth and civility, in contrast to the chaotic, antagonistic and endless-tweeting style of the current president.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg