On Thursday night, Barack Obama will attend his first political event since leaving the White House — a private fundraiser at a house in Washington, DC, to raise money for a redistricting project spearheaded by Eric Holder, Obama’s attorney general.
Obama has teamed up with his former attorney general to take on gerrymandering. The redistricting group will aim to help states redraw congressional maps in 2021 so they don’t produce extraordinarily safe Republican seats, potentially creating a more level playing field for Democrats to compete in the House of Representatives.
When Obama left office this January, he wanted to both cede the national stage to new progressive voices, while also using his unique position as a popular former president to quietly advance their causes.
“President Obama doesn't want to suck up all the oxygen in the room, so Democrats have the space to determine the best path forward,” an adviser close to the president told me. “But he also wants to provide support and guidance behind the scenes to help that next generation of leadership."
The Thursday fundraiser fits Obama’s plans for his post-presidency almost perfectly. Since leaving office, Obama has largely stayed out of the news, only occasionally issuing statements about Republicans’ attempts to dismantle his legacy. Privately, he’s been regularly providing guidance to Tom Perez, the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, according to an aide.
While relatively low-profile, the redistricting fundraiser won’t look like the former president is launching a direct attack against Donald Trump. Still, to Obama, the redistricting effort is a crucial step toward unrigging the political system he found so difficult to work within during his presidency, according to sources close to the president.
“He cares deeply about this initiative and supports [Holder’s] efforts to create a fairer voting process, but it is in no one’s interest for him to be out front as the face of the Democratic Party,” an adviser close to the president said. “Participating in events like this is a way for President Obama to support efforts that are a priority to him without getting caught up in the political fray."
Why Holder’s redistricting project is a perfect fit for Obama’s post-presidential project
To understand why Obama is making his first political appearance since leaving office, it’s key to understand the purpose of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Formally launched this January by Holder, also a close personal friend of the president, the NDRC has already raised millions of dollars. So far, Holder, Pelosi, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) have jointly held five separate donor events across the country for the project, including in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, according to a source close to the NDRC. Holder and Pelosi are also expected to attend the one on Thursday, in addition to “a few dozen” donors, the source said.
The NDRC, which now has several full-time paid staffers, has four main operations devoted to combating gerrymandering. Some political scientists have argued that gerrymandering — the drawing of wildly unnatural congressional districts to maximize partisan gain — partially accounts for America’s political polarization and the rise of the far-right House Freedom Caucus.
“This is the first time in Democratic Party history we’ve had a comprehensive plan — especially this early — to tackle redistricting,” said Jared Leopold, a spokesperson for NDRC.
The most important prong may be its legal work. A senior adviser to the group, Mark Elias, is involved in multiple ongoing lawsuits against states over their gerrymandered districts. This work can yield real results: The Supreme Court recently struck down two congressional districts in North Carolina, citing racial bias, and moved similarly against other gerrymandering in Alabama and Virginia. It will soon hear another case in Wisconsin.
In addition to more money to launch lawsuits, the NDRC is also hoping to target the state legislatures and governor’s mansions that will draw the congressional district maps in 2020. Part of their mission ensures that Democrats are vying for little-noticed state seats, like a state auditor position in Ohio, that may prove crucial to drawing the congressional lines.
Beyond the legal and political work, the NDRC will also try to pass ballot initiatives where it may be possible for bipartisan or independent commissions — rather than partisan legislators — to draw the maps. Lastly, the group is seeking to set up a watchdog and tech arm to call attention to gerrymandering, like a recent plot by Georgia Republicans to redraw several legislative districts to help sitting lawmakers.
“There’s been such a deep challenge we have here that we need a comprehensive approach. It can’t just be electoral; it can’t just be legal,” Leopold said. “We’ve needed a single strategic hub to be the nexus of redistricting strategy. That’s what we’re building this organization to be.”
Beyond redistricting, Obama will continue to lead from behind
The redistricting project is not the only Democratic initiative President Obama will be — to steal one of his choice phrases — choosing to lead from behind.
In March, I interviewed six current and former aides to Obama about his post-presidential plans. They suggested he believes that if he can take politically neutral steps to improve democracy — by bringing people together through “civic engagement,” or by giving grassroots activists the tools for community organizing — then that will change the political landscape that culminated in Trump’s election, while also keeping Obama himself above the fray.
To be sure, this apolitical stance is what some find frustrating about Obama’s post-presidency. He remains one of the Democratic Party’s most popular leaders, and yet has largely been absent amid crucial debates over his health care bill (about which he only issued a Facebook statement defending) and recent special elections.
“The president should be doing exactly what everyone else in the Democratic Party should be doing: following the resistance, fighting back against Trump, or getting out of the way,” says Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the left-leaning advocacy group Democracy for America.
Still, the biggest push of Obama’s post-presidency will almost certainly be through the Obama Foundation, which is also in charge of creating Obama’s presidential library. It fits the president’s model of being scrupulously apolitical — but would likely also have repercussions that quite clearly are.
“It will be a living, working center for citizenship,” said Amy Brundage, former White House deputy communications director and now an Obama Foundation official.
Added Mitch Stewart, the battleground states director for President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign and the first director of Organizing for America, about the foundation: “He wants to try to provide an environment similar to the one he had when he did community organizing, because it provided him the tools to be a success in public life.”
This move to “foster citizenship” and encourage progressive leaders may look, to Obama’s critics, inherently and inescapably political. “Obama’s trying to have it both ways — to appear presidential and nonpartisan, and at the same time agitating the grassroots level,” says Roger Stone, a former adviser to Trump, in an interview.
But the reality is that Obama views this strategy as the best way for him to solve America’s long-term political crisis. Obama isn’t out there parrying every Trump tweet or demanding that current Democratic leaders embrace his preferred policy ideas. Instead, the president will be giving behind-the-scenes support to efforts devoted to ending America’s extreme polarization — with the hope that this will in turn allow progressive leaders to rise, long after he’s exited stage left.