A young politician heralded as “the new Obama” does not, in fact, think too highly of Barack Obama’s politics.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, 32, will become the country’s first Muslim governor if he wins in 2018. But first he needs to take on the Democratic Party favorite in the primary, former Michigan Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer, whom he’s trying to challenge from the left.
National media stories have compared El-Sayed to Obama; after all, he’s charismatic, was educated at the world’s most prestigious universities, and is racing to break a major barrier in American politics at a young age. He’s catching the attention of national Democrats too. Not long after El-Sayed’s latest campaign video went viral, former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau tweeted a link to it with the caption, “Reminds me of someone I used to work for.”
“I get compared to Obama because my name is funny, and I’m brown, and my politics are about inspiring us to believe in each other again,” he told Vox. “But when it comes to our political positions, I believe that right now we need a set of solutions that remind us that the people should be the core of what we do in government.”
While El-Sayed is compared to Obama, a better ideological comparison might be Bernie Sanders. El-Sayed shares the views of the rising populist left on health care, immigration, economics, and foreign policy. He represents a shift that could ultimately redefine the Democratic Party, as it increasingly takes up the cause of economic inequality and questions the role of corporations and big money in politics.
“[Obama] had fairly centrist, middle-of-the-road Democratic policies,” El-Sayed told me. “There’s frustration [among voters] with the fact that they’re being told by elites that their economy is back and that they should just be happy. But it’s not. Frankly, the economic comeback has largely benefited corporations and has not really benefited people like them.”
El-Sayed is trailing Whitmer by double digits, though at least one recent poll shows most Michigan Democratic voters are still undecided. He’s pulled in an impressive $1.6 million fundraising haul, funded entirely by grassroots donors, but that still puts him behind Whitmer, who has raised $2.3 million. Another candidate, Shri Thanedar, is an Ann Arbor businessman who has self-funded his campaign with a $3 million loan. Yet another candidate, former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs, has also thrown his hat into the crowded Democratic ring.
The race could end up a test of which version of party politics represents Democratic voters in Michigan. Obama won Michigan twice, but Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in the primary. Clinton ran as an Obama third-term candidate, while El-Sayed appears to be eager to reject that label.
I spoke to El-Sayed on the phone about the comparisons to Obama, why he think he can implement a single-payer health care system in his state of Michigan (though Vermont and California have failed), and what it’s like to run for governor as a Muslim. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
The “new Obama” isn’t too hot on Obama
There have been a few profiles and pundits who have called you the "new Obama," and I think the parallels are interesting.
But I'm more interested in the differences — he didn't reject corporate donations as you have, or really push for single-payer as you are.
There’s a story that says Obama won by combining higher black turnout with a safer and more centrist policy message. To what extent is your campaign a divergence from that idea? Or am I reading Obama’s legacy incorrectly altogether?
I’m not the next anybody. That’s not my framing of myself at all — I operate independently of anybody.
I’m very thankful Obama was president of the United States while I was a young man who also happened to be brown and the child of immigrants and have a funny name. I’m very thankful for what he was able to change in our politics about who could and couldn’t aspire to leadership.
But there are a lot of things I disagree with President Obama on — in terms of both domestic and, certainly, international politics. I’m not him, and I have no intention of being him.
Your interpretation of him is right. He had fairly centrist, middle-of-the-road Democratic policies. You’ll have to remember it was a different time — the experience of a lag-recession, I think, has really changed the minds and hearts of a lot of Americans in a lot of places.
There’s frustration with the fact that they’re being told by elites that their economy is back and that they should just be happy. But it’s not. Frankly, the economic comeback has largely benefited corporations and has not really benefited people like them. ...
I don’t apologize for believing in the positive value of what government can do if it’s run sufficiently and honestly and not corrupted and funded to do the things it’s supposed to do. I’ll stand by that over the course of my political career.
I get compared to Obama because my name is funny and I’m brown and, I hope, my politics are about inspiring us to believe in each other again. But when it comes to our political positions, I believe that right now we need a set of solutions that reminds us that the people should be the core of what we do in government — that solutions to the problems we face have to engage government in real ways, and that corporations have, hook line in sinker, run away with our politics in real ways. And that’s a big problem.
And you think Obama didn’t really remedy the economy, right?
I don’t think he did. Look at where we are. He did a lot of good things during his presidency — the fact that he in Michigan bailed out the automotive industry was crucial. The state of our state would be very different right now, and so I’m very thankful for many of the things he did.
But I don’t agree with him on everything. I don’t think he was strong enough on things like health care. I don’t think he was strong enough when it comes to regulating big banks. I don’t think he was strong enough when it came to campaign finance reform, or strong enough on immigration.
He was someone who was, at the end of the day, not able to inspire the people on the other side of the aisle to see things his way. Is that his fault? I don’t think so — he was up against a very united Republican establishment whose goal it was to shut down everything that came out of his White House.
But I’ll be honest. I don’t see myself being him at all. I’ve done a lot of reading about him; he and I were very different people. Obama was a very cool, cautious, collected person —
Right, and you’re a maniac who doesn’t believe in the value of reason.
[laughs] Obviously, one has to be cautious and collected. But I believe at the end of the day, the moment calls you to something — I promise you, I really was never supposed to run for office. It was not something that was in my cards. ...
I think we’re different people. Obviously, we get put in the same boat because of the demographic similarity we share, and I don’t mind being compared to him — there’s a lot I really admire. But when it comes to the [policy] positions and politics, he and I differ substantially.
We need to be a lot more unapologetic about the role of government in solving critical challenges people face in this moment. I will always appreciate Obama’s efforts to unite, but I believe in a certain progressive approach to things because, right now, the scales have tipped very far toward one side — toward the biggest unaccountable economic players in our society.
Which is always meant to be checked by what government does — we have gone very far to one side, and we have to say, “There are some things only government can solve.” And otherwise, people will suffer.
Right now this moment requires a different approach.
Why El-Sayed thinks Michigan can succeed on single-payer where Vermont and California failed
Can you explain how you arrived at supporting single-payer?
If you look at how societies have allocated resources for health care, there’s no question that some sort of government involvement, as either a payer or a provider, is important for addressing the bad incentives that exist in the health care system — the fact that insurers want to make a buck, the fact providers want to make a buck, and that often leads to care not aligned with what’s best for patients.
You look at a single-provider system like the UK — it vastly outperforms the United States’ [system]. It’s clear we need some kind of government involvement. I don’t believe we need a single-provider system, simply because there’s too much operational capacity that has to be built. [El-Sayed is talking here about something akin to a “VA-for-all” system, where providers, rather than just insurers, are run by the government.]
I do believe in a single-payer system. Compare us to Canada — we spend 19 cents on the dollar; depending on what province you go to, they spend 35 to 40 percent less than we do. Every resident of Canada has access to the care they need, when they need it. ...
That leads to a life expectancy difference. They outlive us by, on average, one year and a half. They save, everybody gets care, and they live longer than we do, and infant mortality rates are substantially lower.
By any metric that anybody measures about health care performance, the Canadian system outperforms ours. Medicare-for-all is an attempt to build out a single-payer system in the United States, leveraging a public system that already exists on the books, which is Medicare. If the politics worked out at the federal level, it’d be a fantastic boon for all Americans.
There’s a robust discussion over whether supporting single-payer is easier to implement at the state or federal level.
It’s been remarkably difficult to pull off for deeply blue states like Vermont and California. So why is Michigan different?
I believe that getting it done at the state level is going to be far easier than getting it done at the federal level, because you’re dealing with substantially less heterogeneity. And you’re talking about solutions that really can take into account a smaller breadth of bureaucracy when you’re enacting them.
I’d love to be able to leverage riders in the ACA to empower our state government to act in this way. If you look at the history of the Canadian health care system, it didn’t start federally. It was built out across the provinces and then ultimately became federal policy after that.
This is a moment where we need state-level leadership, and Michigan is a great place to act. I think the fact we have already taken the Medicaid waiver, for example, I think there’s a lot we can do here.
The main problem they ran into Vermont was getting the tax hike through the powerful business community, and that appears to be part of why it’s stalling in California too.
Why would Michigan be the first state to figure this out?
Michigan businesses have had the albatross of having to provide health care for their employees for quite a long time, and in circumstances where it’s really threatening to the business.
Back in 2007-’08, when General Motors was facing bankruptcy, it was paying 15 cents on the dollar for health care not just for employees but also for retirees. Now, providing health care in the United States is extremely expensive — and what folks in Vermont and California have not always succeeded at is showing why, over time, single-payer translates into reduced overall costs for employees, even when you think about the tax hike. Because at the end of the day, this is the only way to control the incentives that are leading businesses to spend more and more on health care.
There’s a responsibility here when we talk about this program to make sure we’re standing in the shoes of businesses and employers to explain why this is something we want to do.
So if you’re able to say, “Listen, this will look like a tax hike, but this is the only way to bring down the costs of health care for you, and you won’t have to deal with the headache of providing your employees health care, it’s a pretty good deal” — there’s substantial will for this in the business community.
El-Sayed on trying to be the first Muslim governor in US history
You’re running to be the first Muslim governor in American history. I’m curious if you’ve encountered any Islamophobia on the campaign trail and what you’ve seen and heard.
I’m not running as a Muslim. I am a Muslim who is running to be governor of my state. I don’t think being Muslim is a factor in the question of whether I’d be the best governor of my state, simply because our Constitution tells us there should be no religious test for leadership.
I hope to be the best governor Michigan has ever had. I also happen to be Muslim — that informs my personal life and provides me a lot of inspiration to build a more just, equitable, and sustainable world of the kind I want to hand off to my little girl. It’s part of who I am in my own home.
I’ve been all over the state now, and a lot is made of Islamophobia in the current moment. I gotta tell you the vast, vast, vast majority of people don’t care that much. Some people ask about it, but they’re not as interested in how I pray or what language I pray in. [They are interested] in what I pray for.
Like most Michiganders who pray, and even those who don’t, what comes out in my prayers is a prayer for my family and my yet-unborn daughter and my parents and wife and my community and my state — and the University of Michigan football team.
That’s what usually comes out, and usually, most people agree on those things. Some people who speak out particularly loudly want to play to a narrative that the current occupant of the United States [presidency] has pushed.
But it’s a small group of people. And if you don’t pay them any mind, they don’t have any power over you. Really, the story of America is that we have called ourselves to something higher — there’s something beautiful about “a more perfect union.” It implies we are not perfect and calls us to be more perfect.
And I honestly believe my run right now is part of calling us to that more perfect union.