Barack Obama delivered a campaign-style speech Friday that shattered the norm against ex-presidents criticizing their successors, openly accusing President Trump of threatening American norms, institutions, and even lives. But he urged Democrats to think of Trump not as a disruptive force but as a defender of the powers that be, a clown whose antics distract from the need to fundamentally reform the status quo.
Speaking, as he often does, about the long arc of history and America’s troubled efforts to live up to its founding doctrines, Obama observed that “each time we’ve gotten closer to those ideals, somebody somewhere has pushed back. The status quo pushes back.” He allowed that “sometimes the backlash comes from people who are genuinely, if wrongly, fearful of change,” but argued that “more often, it’s manufactured by the powerful and the privileged who want to keep us divided and keep us angry and keep us cynical because it helps them maintain the status quo and keep their power and keep their privilege.”
The notion that Trump might be attempting distraction tactics is not exactly novel. But charging the purveyors of Trump-era racial conflict with cynicism is importantly different from the campaign themes Democrats adopted in 2016. In that race, Hillary Clinton as a quasi-incumbent facing an outsider portrayed herself fundamentally as the defender of the status quo against a maniacal threat to it — aligning herself with social justice advocates and the business elite alike in opposition to the Trumpian menace.
But things look different two years later. The business elite turn out to like Donald Trump a lot since he cuts their taxes and appoints their allies to key regulatory posts. And a Republican Party establishment that once voiced major concerns about Trump has wholeheartedly embraced him. And now Obama, who ran and won on “hope and change” but became an eight-year incumbent, is telling Democrats it’s okay to do more than defend his legacy and to instead reconnect with the spirit of challenging power.
Obama is into new things
In a series of striking passages that momentarily abandoned the subject of Trump and turned instead to quotidian policy, Obama said “Democrats aren’t just running on good old ideas like a higher minimum wage; they’re running on good new ideas like Medicare-for-all, giving workers seats on corporate boards, reversing the most egregious corporate tax cuts to make sure college students graduate.”
He argued that “people are tired of toxic corruption, and ... democracy depends on transparency and accountability, so Democrats aren’t just running on good old ideas like requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns, but on good new ideas like barring lobbyists from getting paid by foreign governments.”
Medicare-for-all is, of course, not really a new idea, and Obama has equivocally praised it since before he was president. But it reentered the political conversation precisely as a challenge to his signature domestic policy legacy, so giving it his imprimatur in this context is striking. So is his praise of codetermination, an idea championed this year by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that was nowhere on the agenda in 2016.
But most striking of all were his remarks about “toxic corruption,” which went beyond accusing Trump officials of violating existing laws to argue that the political rules his own administration has operated under are inadequate.
Some of this is simply intraparty bridge-building, but it more fundamentally owns up to the fact that Obama’s eight years in office simply did not fulfill the full promises of his 2008 campaign and it’s okay for Democrats to say that. Adopting a pro-change disposition, meanwhile, allows for a reframing of the critical issue of Trump and race.
Obama argues that racial division is a distraction
In the speech, Obama made two related arguments about the prominence of racial conflict in the Trump era that reflected not so much new ideas as new-again ideas that party leaders have become equivocal about.
One is the notion that racial division is fundamentally “manufactured by the powerful and the privileged” for their own purposes. This was a staple of Democratic Party rhetoric starting at least with Lyndon Johnson and continuing for a generation or more until the Trump era, and while almost certainly not literally accurate, it’s proven historically useful in winning elections.
Rather than asking white people to confront their own privilege, it simply asks them to reject being exploited by even more privileged white people — an easier sell politically in a country where whites are the preponderance of voters nationally and constitute an overwhelming majority in a number of low-population states.
The other was a case against the notion that Democrats ought to “fight fire with fire,” with Obama arguing that “eroding our civic institutions and our civic trust and making people angrier and yelling at each other and making people cynical about government, that always works better for those who don’t believe in the power of collective action.” The problem, at the end of the day, with trying to out-Trump Trump is that “the more cynical people are about government, the angrier and more dispirited they are about the prospects for change, the more likely the powerful are able to maintain their power.”
What these themes link together is the insistence that Republicans are the party of the powerful interests — a theme that’s dominated Democratic campaigns since at least William Jennings Bryan but was often left on the cutting room floor in 2016.
Obama argues that civic institutions should be preserved because they are venues for challenging the privileges of the powerful rather than because upholding the status quo is good on its own terms. And he says the cycle of hate-mongering and exploitation “did not start with Donald Trump.” That in fact, “he is a symptom, not the cause.”
The spokesperson Democrats don’t need
A critical question moving forward is whether Democrats can find other leaders who aren’t Barack Obama to make some of these arguments.
Obama happens to be one of the most skilled rhetoricians in American history, but it’s inherently the case that the former president of the United States is not the optimal messenger for a message of change. He’s also just literally not on the ballot, and Trump’s ability to win while Obama’s approval rating was well over 50 percent is a reminder that popular politicians can’t magically bestow votes on the people they endorse.
Ultimately, the elections in November and in 2020 will have to be won by the people running in them, and though House Democrats have a very impressive crop of new recruits, they have a paucity of compelling communicators among the top leadership.
There’s also the reality that the first black president has running room to engage in a certain amount of pandering to white fragility that might not play as well coming from others. White Democrats in the Trump era have often ping-ponged between coming across as dismissive of racial concerns and getting sucked into academic controversializing about systemic racism versus individual prejudice.
Obama personally threads the needle well. Bigots and bigotry are real and a real problem, but it’s a problem that is deliberately fanned by the powerful to block collective action — and that’s the true issue.
In the speech, Obama offered high-minded reasons to not simply emulate the GOP’s politics of irrationalism, but the more ground-level reality is that Democrats’ more diverse coalition simply can’t be mobilized with simplistic appeals to group threat in the same way because its various members do not necessarily share a clear social identity. Thus, the focal point of politics has to be something resembling collective problem-solving rather than individual identity expression for Democrats to win, and their rhetoric must emphasize this idea.
But Obama himself is not going to lead Democrats into victory, and given the electoral map, it’s not obvious that a stepped-up level of involvement is always going to be helpful. The best thing Democrats can take away from the speech is both a model for addressing these issues and simply an acknowledgment from a well-liked elder statesman that it’s okay for Democrats to run as the party of the people against the powerful, and not a betrayal of his legacy to tap into populist themes.