Over the weekend, Barack Obama made headlines for a barnburner of a campaign speech he gave on behalf of Democrats in Wisconsin.
Speaking about incumbent Republican Senator Ron Johnson, the former president railed, “If he understands giving tax breaks for private planes more than he understands making sure that seniors who’ve worked all their lives are able to retire with dignity and respect, he’s not the person who’s thinking about you and knows you and sees you, and he should not be your senator from Wisconsin.”
The clip has earned more than 14 million views. The words were important—but it was the delivery that sent it to the moon. This was not an observation delivered in the halting professorial cadence that came to characterize the Obama we knew as president. It was more “truth from the pulpit” than “talking points from the lectern.”
Obama is bringing two qualities to the table that most Democrats aren’t this campaign season. First, he offers Democrats a sort of catharsis for the pent-up frustration that I hear often out on the trail—that Democrats don’t hit back enough. But second, and perhaps more importantly, he demonstrated how Democrats can send a withering message about the economy without apology.
On the first point, Obama’s peroration draws a parallel to the speech from state Senator Mallory McMorrow from the well of Michigan’s Senate chamber, back in April, in response to a Republican opponent calling her a “groomer.”
“I am a straight, white, Christian, married suburban mom who knows that the very notion of learning about slavery or redlining or systemic racism somehow means that children are taught to feel bad or hate themselves for being white is absolute nonsense,” she thundered. She punched back hard, and ever since, McMorrow has become a breakout star among Democrats nationwide, raising over $2 million for Michigan state Senate races across the state.
What these two viral moments so many months apart highlight is just how frustrating this moment in our national discourse has become—particularly for Democrats. We watch as MAGA Republicans run candidates who you wouldn’t even trust to put their hands on the wheel of your car or run the PTA, let alone dictate the future of your country. We watch as they spout increasingly incendiary, violent, and frankly disgusting assertions—calling their opponents “groomers” or worse. We watch as they shake violently the fundamental tent poles of our democracy while mocking us for rushing to hold it up. All the while, they point cynically to gas prices and inflation for which a former president from their party laid the groundwork. They use “inflation” as a “get out of jail free” card for their own antics.
Democrats are getting tired of bearing the burden of being earnest. As much as they talk about “making” anything, the MAGA movement—and frankly, the Republican Party before it—has always been about tearing the guts out of American government. Less schooling, less health care, less mass transit, fewer social services. They want to strip it for parts until all that’s left is a military and a police force and the courts to throw lots of folks in jail. That’s their myopic vision for what government should be. Forget inequity or poverty—those folks should have “worked harder.” Their “vision” for America is, basically, as a police state—basic rights can be taken away at any time, unless those rights involve guns. Gun rights ought to remain inviolable, they say, even if it means millions of people die every year. Your right to choose when, if, and with whom to start a family? That’s another matter.
Obama in his remarks reminds Democrats of how to “hit back”—how to remind Americans that beyond the “inflation” talking points are real people living real lives—and that Republican plans would simply make their lives harder. Democrats’ instincts are to “hit them where they’re weak”—to bring up January 6 or how Republicans are running on the Big Lie. All of these things are true, no doubt. But as frustrating as it may be, they’re not the most effective messages for an electorate that’s more focused on whether they can pay their rent.
And that’s where Obama’s message should guide Democrats more broadly. Rather than hitting them where they’re weak—he hit them where they think they’re strong. He called the bluff on their nonexistent plans to fight inflation and showed how their plans would make Americans far less secure in an already insecure economic moment.
As we careen toward Election Day, there’s been an open debate about what the Democratic message ought to be. Obama showed the way. Tap a righteous anger over the economic insecurity Republicans will impose on the American people. Now, if only more of the folks delivering that message didn’t represent the Democratic Party’s past—like Obama himself—but its future.