The former president generally laid low during Donald Trump’s first year in the White House. He issued statements on policy issues, campaigned for Governor Ralph Northam in Virginia, and recorded a robocall for Senator Doug Jones in Alabama. Mostly, though, Obama counseled Democrats behind the scenes.
“But with the midterms approaching,” Politico reported on Thursday, “people close to him say he’ll shift into higher gear: campaigning, focusing his endorsements on down-ballot candidates, and headlining fundraisers. He’ll activate his 15,000-member campaign alumni association for causes and candidates he supports — including the 40 who are running for office themselves. He’s already strategizing behind the scenes with Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez and Eric Holder, who’s chairing his redistricting effort.”
“Throughout,” Politico added, “Obama is determined not to become the foil that he can see President Donald Trump clearly wants, and resist being the face of the Resistance for his own party.” The former president is expected to wait until this fall to resume campaigning, and continue to avoid speaking his successor’s name in public, “barring a major national crisis that he’d set as his standard for going directly Trump, aware that he can only cross that barrier once for it to have real meaning.” Obama feels “vindicated” that his absence last year allowed a new generation of Democrats to raise their profile.
You can understand his dilemma: Obama remains the most unifying figure in a Democratic Party still somewhat divided by Hillary Clinton’s presidential primary fight with Bernie Sanders. No Democrat, with the possible exception of former First Lady Michelle Obama, more effectively criticized Trump in 2016, which is why I initially thought he should shun the political norm that former presidents don’t criticize their successors directly.
But one of the benefits of the Democratic Party lacking a clear leader is Trump doesn’t have a clear foil. He launches an attack on New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand one day and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren the next. He’s still tweeting about “Crooked Hillary.” Perhaps, then, Obama is justified in treading carefully. He’s valuable to rally Democrats in this crucial year, but right to let the party look to the future.