Commentary Magazine

Obama’s Motives

AP Photo/Tony Dejak

When Caroline Randall Williams  practically begs Barack Obama to speak out on the state of American politics, she speaks for millions of distraught Democrats. “We need your voice,” she writes in an op-ed for the New York Times. “There is not a saner, more trustworthy opinion that many of us would rather hear.”

Williams confesses to a sense of “panic,” and Donald Trump’s penchant for divisive racial agitation surely hasn’t helped ease her sense of dread. But by her own admission, her nervous condition is a result of less sober and rational voices on the left sucking up all the oxygen. Her anxiety peaked, she reveals, when people like Alan Dershowitz and Maxine Waters warned her that a constitutional crisis is just around the corner.

The young author and columnist, whose moving appeal to the former president resonated with many apprehensive Democrats, will soon get her wish. Barack Obama will not languish in the shadows in his post presidency. Indeed, he cannot afford to, but not because of an acute civic crisis looming forever just over the horizon. He has an image to rehabilitate.

The 44th President left his party in tatters. Over 1,000 Democratic lawmakers lost their seats to Republicans between 2009 and 2017. We’re all familiar with the timeline of events. The House fell in 2010; the Senate in 2014. Democrats entered 2009 with 31 governorships. Today, they’re reduced to just 15. Half the Union is governed entirely by the Republican Party. But it’s at the legislative level where the damage to the Democratic brand becomes most obvious. In 2009, 62 of 99 legislative chambers were dominated by Democrats. Today, Democrats control just 31 state-level chambers.

This was Barack Obama’s chief regret, although he did not say so precisely. The decimation of the Democratic “farm team,” from which the youngest and hungriest candidates for federal office are drawn, has handicapped the party. In the autumn of 2016, Obama sought to address this dubious legacy by getting right down to the state level. He toured the country endorsing 150 legislative candidates and campaigning on their behalf. The result? The Democratic Party’s decline continued largely unabated. In the end, Obama’s near total repudiation is self-evident in the image of his successor.

Does Williams know that Barack Obama is as much to blame as Donald Trump for her trauma? She is beset by the voices of doom and panic, in part, because hundreds of center-left Democrats who are less prone to apocalyptic rhetoric find themselves in the private sector today. She hungers for a more reasonable set of Democrats who might reassure her that the system of checks and balances that prevent a demagogic figure from doing irreparable damage to the republic are working (which they are). Obama might be keen to play that role, but he would be doing his fellow Democrats yet another disservice.

All Donald Trump wants for Christmas is a foil onto whom he can project his frustrations that would also unite the GOP behind him. Congressional Democrats are weak and factious.  Political media is disliked by Republicans, but they are an unsatisfying opponent (“media” won’t be on the ballot next November). Congressional Republicans maintain their individual constituencies, even if they are mistrusted by the Republican base in the aggregate. And Donald Trump seems disinclined to rally the country against a real foreign adversary.

Barack Obama plans to remerge into the national political scene along with Hillary Clinton, but both plan to do so with as much delicacy as possible, insofar as they can thread that needle, if only to avoid giving Trump what he wants. No matter how they make their move, Donald Trump will exploit their reappearance onto the political scene and reenergize the largely dispirited core GOP coalition.

Williams’s fear is honest, and her plea is heartfelt. That’s why she deserves to hear the unpleasant truth: Barack Obama is as accountable for her anxiety as anyone. The former president’s resurfacing this fall is as likely to exacerbate those symptoms as it is to alleviate them. Given that fact, it’s worth pondering whether Obama really is hitting the trail this fall entirely out of an abiding sense of moral and civic obligation. That’s surely part of what motivates the former president, but it’s not the only thing.

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