Democrats anxious over the future of their party and despondent over Donald Trump’s victory are pushing for President Barack Obama to more actively wield his status as the liberal standard-bearer to counter Trump’s presidency.
Obama’s remarks since the election have given his political base hope that he’s planning to abandon the George W. Bush model of receding completely from politics after Inauguration Day. He’s even stepped up his warnings about the crumbling of American values in the wake of the Russian hacking revelations, despite his pledge to facilitate a smooth transition.
Now, the Democrats at the front lines of the Trump resistance say they want to hear Obama’s battle cry — their yearning is a sign that Obama, even as he steps down from power, remains the only clear standard-bearer of a broken Democratic Party.
“Many of us are scared about what the future holds — and hopeful he will continue to play a public role in the movement,” said Lynda Tran, a founding partner, with other Obama campaign alumni, of 270 Strategies, a political consulting firm. “It’s not that anyone expects him to offer a road map to victory; we know that is our job and that his campaigns and his administration were about empowering us as individuals. But we sure are looking forward to hearing him fire up the crowd — as much as he is willing and able to do.”
Grass-roots activists who are organizing ways to combat Trump say they want backup from Democratic leadership, and that means Obama is not off the hook. One group created in the week after the election, WhatDoIDoAboutTrump.com, has been soliciting action plans from a growing network of volunteers that includes alumni of Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns. Based on those and other less formal conversations, said co-founder Micah Leinbach, they want Obama to essentially keep doing what he’s currently doing.
“Obama’s ability to express almost a progressive ideal of what a president would look like in terms of that thoughtful, intelligent, well-spoken young man,” Leinbach said, creates a “stark contrast to Trump.”
President Barack Obama said last month that he wants to give Donald Trump a chance to put forward his agenda “without somebody popping off in every instance.”
And while he promised supporters in the week after the election that “next year Michelle and I are going to be right there with you,” Obama has appeared to step back in more recent comments.
Obama said last month that he wants to give Trump a chance to put forward his agenda “without somebody popping off in every instance.” People familiar with the president’s thinking say his attitude hasn’t changed much since then, even though he warned last week that the partisan response to the Russia’s alleged election manipulation makes us “vulnerable to foreign influence because we’ve lost track of what it is that we’re about and what we stand for.”
And even as Michelle Obama seemed to give voice to the progressive base’s post-election anxieties in an excerpt of an interview with Oprah last week — “feeling what not having hope feels like” — the full conversation broadcast Monday evening revealed a more magnanimous tone.
“It is important for the health of this nation that we support the commander in chief,” the first lady said. “So we are gonna be there for the next president and do whatever we have to do to make sure that he is successful because if he succeeds, we all succeed.”
Before this year’s election, Obama frequently praised George W. Bush’s handling of his post-presidency — especially as Washington buzzed about the potential of Obama moving just two miles from the White House while Hillary Clinton lived in it.
After directing his staff to oversee the most organized and collaborative transition to date, the 43rd president quietly returned to Texas and virtually disappeared as Obama rode out the recession for which he’d blamed his predecessor and tried to keep his campaign promises to end Bush’s wars. In general, ex-presidents have a tradition of receding from national politics, with Bill Clinton’s campaign-season stumping being the biggest exception.
Obama still says he’s determined to follow and exceed Bush’s example on the transition. It’s less clear how much he’ll depart from that model of a post-presidency.
Obama would be justified in defying that tradition, said Michele Jawando, a vice president at the Center of American Progress Action Fund. “That that was such a different time, a lot of that was policy differences” between Bush and Obama, she said. “A lot of this is kind of bigger crises” that affect not only institutions and norms, but people’s daily lives.
Obama has set a high bar for raising his voice, saying in Lima, Peru, last month that if issues arise that “go to core questions about our values and our ideals, and if I think that it’s necessary or helpful for me to defend those ideals, then I’ll examine it when it comes.”
Increasingly, he’s emphasized his goal to train a new generation of Democratic leaders, and he’s cognizant that taking too much of the spotlight will only block it from others.
At the same time, he’s still the country’s most prominent and popular Democrat by far, with his approval rating hitting 57 percent last month, his highest mark since September 2009.
“When he speaks out forcefully, it will be resounding in so many ways,” Jawando said. “When he says something, it’s going to mean a lot more. People will know that he’s no longer burdened by the office.”
For people who feel genuinely threatened by a Trump presidency, the first lady’s acknowledgement of a certain hopelessness showed that the Obamas “understood, and that they hadn’t escaped the kind of burden from this moment,” Jawando said.
But generally, she added, supporters want Obama to stick to his message of hope.
“People are still in grief,” Jawando said. “And having him join in that chorus is something I think will be detrimental.”
Indeed, while they may want to hear more from him than he wants to say, Democrats generally say it’s important for him to maintain his gravitas and leave the Trump critic-in-chief role to figures like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
“It would be unnatural for him to become an attack dog at the end of his eight years,” said Andrea Dew Steele, founder of Emerge America, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. “I think he is really showing all of us what it means to be presidential and to be such a statesman. So as devastated as I am by this election — and I certainly am looking for other voices to be loud and to resist what Trump is doing — he continues to elevate the political discourse, and for that I’m grateful.”