After a 7-month long political hiatus in which he indulged in world travel with his family, Barack Obama is reportedly planning a “delicate dance” with Democrats as they strategize for the 2018 midterm elections.
By “delicate dance” he means that he no longer wants to be the face of the Party. While this may seem obvious–rarely do former presidents turn around and lead the Party again–Obama represents a slightly different case. He left office with high approval ratings and no scandals, and his “Obamacare” legacy has been one of the centerpieces of political discussion throughout 2017. If he were to step back in the lime light, he would most likely garner significant attention and, intentionally or not, become the face of a Party currently devoid of energetic figures.
Aides say that Obama is intent on not becoming the “foil” for President Trump, however, which explains his continued silence on health care. The reality of current political polarity is that just as he would be a rallying point for liberals, Obama would foster unity among Republicans in their hatred for him. If there is one thing Trump excels at politically, it is building unity through hatred.
“He has to be careful,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “At a moment when President Trump’s approval is falling so fast — including with his base — there is a risk for Obama taking center stage and triggering the energy that many Republicans currently lack.”
“He would be the target against which Trump would direct his fury,” added Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “From Trump’s perspective, nothing better could happen.”
Instead, Obama plans to take on a more behind-the-scenes role within the Party, something that has already begun to happen in recent months under the radar. His main function: fundraising. He’ll help rebuild the technical infrastructure of the Party’s platform, but leave room for other potential faces of the party to emerge. Currently, he’s still such a giant figure, his presence would be overwhelming.
“He’ll tread lightly because he is not going to be the face of the Party when it actually counts in 2020 and 2024,” Jillson added. “So, the extent to which he would emerge and speak to a wide range of issues would preclude the emergence of someone else. They must find a standard-bearer for future elections, and I think he can at least in the short term suck up all the available oxygen.”
Obama is doing much better at following the “hang back” advice from Democratic strategists than former candidate Hillary Clinton. Rather than help to move forward behind the scenes, Clinton is moving the Party backward publicly. As primary elections begin to ramp up for the 2018 midterms, Clinton plans to release a collection of essays, “What Happened,” that explains why she thinks she lost the 2016 election.
“It’s wise for both Clinton and Obama to hang back at this point,” one Democratic strategist said. “Otherwise, our Party will have an even harder time rebounding.”
“We already lack a party leader, we lack a vision, we lack an identity,” the strategist said bluntly. “We can’t remain stuck in the past.”
Certainly, Obama is getting more calls for an endorsement from potential Dem candidates than Clinton, and he’ll put in his public speaking time here and there. He has already pledged to help Ralph Northam, the Democrat running for Governor of Virginia.
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