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After mostly staying on the sidelines for most of the campaign season, former President Barack Obama stepped into the spotlight as part of Democrats’ closing pitch to voters ahead of the midterms.
Over the course of the final two weeks of the campaign, he traveled in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and Pennsylvania — where he was joined by President Biden — to rally support for Democratic candidates locked in tight races for the Senate and governor.
In those appearances, Obama tapped into the political talent that helped him rocket to the presidency in 2008 and secure reelection four years later. He levied pointed criticisms at Republican candidates, cracked jokes and focused his message on the importance of defending democracy against perceived threats posed by the GOP if Republicans take power.
Like most ex-presidents, with the notable exception of Donald Trump, Obama has largely spent the majority of his time since leaving office on nonpolitical pursuits. He wrote a memoir, launched a podcast and even won an Emmy for his narration of a documentary that was produced as part of a multiyear deal he and his wife, Michelle, signed with Netflix.
His return to the campaign trail came at a time when Democrats were scrambling to defend their narrow majorities in Congress. With key races still undecided, control of both the House and Senate is still up in the air — though Democrats look have avoided the “red wave” many experts had predicted.
Why there’s debate
Obama’s flurry of public recent appearances sparked debate about where he fits in an American political landscape that has changed so dramatically in the six years since he left the White House.
In the eyes of many pundits, especially those on the left, Obama remains the standard-bearer for the Democratic Party, even though a different Democrat holds the presidency. They point out that he is nearly two decades younger than Biden and has substantially higher approval ratings. Some argue that his presence on the campaign trail has both benefits and drawbacks. His skill as a speaker, they say, means he can rally the Democratic base to turn out but can also make other members of his party seem unremarkable in comparison.
Some conservatives make the case that Obama isn’t the electoral powerhouse many Democrats seem to believe he is. They argue that for all of his ability to persuade voters to back himself, he has a poor record of being able to pass on that support to others. During his first midterms as president in 2010, for example, Republicans picked up more than 60 seats to flip the House in what Obama himself admitted was a “shellacking.”
There’s also debate about how prominent Obama should be in setting Democrats’ political agenda. Some centrist pundits say he can serve an important role in pushing back against members of the party’s left wing, who they argue has alienated voters by promoting progressive policies that are too far left for most Americans. Others believe he can provide an example of how Democrats can fight back against GOP attack and unapologetically endorse a forward-thinking vision for the country.
Regardless of the results of the midterms, Obama is planning to host a “Democracy forum” later this month. The two-day event organized by his foundation will bring together experts from around the world to discuss the “biggest challenges democratic institutions face today.”
The country needs him to help calm partisan tensions that have reached a boiling point
“Obama always preferred being above the fray, but the fray is growing at an alarming rate. His voice will calm the American psyche, soothe the soul that his former running mate fights for. Obama’s high-mindedness will offer counter-programming against the guttural goon squads, our homegrown extremists. We need a philosopher-king to guide us through the tumult.” — Don Kahle, Register-Guard
No one else can match his ability to reach marginalized voters
“Obama was one of the most compelling campaign surrogates for Biden and the Democrats in 2020, and has a unique ability to animate voters — like younger Americans and people of color — who have too often been ignored or taken for granted by the political establishment.” — Eric Lutz, Vanity Fair
Obama can reassure swing voters that the Democratic Party has swung too far to the left
“Not every swing voter can have private off-the-record conversations with senior administration officials or members of Congress where they can get reassurance that mainstream Democrats aren’t fully on board with the most strident left-wing talking points. For people to know that, you have to tell them — in public — the way Obama did.” — Matthew Yglesias, Bloomberg
Obama’s future should involve a return to public office
“Lingering in the limelight isn't good for former presidents, and it robs us of everything they might still contribute. If they want to retire, fine. But if they want to do something, let's give them something real to do.” — Grayson Quay, The Week
A political party shouldn’t center around someone whose time in politics is over
“[Obama] understands that while his party needs his help supporting its current leader, he is no longer the savior its voters once envisioned. In one respect, this is a relief to Obama. He is no longer required to act as Democrats’ effective center of gravity, even after leaving office.” — Gabriel Debenedetti, New York
Obama should be remembered for his failures as much as his successes
“Obama will always hold a special place in the hearts of Democrats, but that doesn’t mean they’re loving every aspect of his post-presidential life. For starters, it is harder for them to see Obama’s presidency as an unalloyed success when it led to the presidency of Donald Trump.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review
He has provided Democrats with a blueprint for countering GOP attacks now and in the future
“Obama’s message should guide Democrats more broadly. Rather than hitting them where they’re weak—he hit them where they think they’re strong. He called the bluff on their nonexistent plans to fight inflation and showed how their plans would make Americans far less secure in an already insecure economic moment.” — Abdul El-Sayed, New Republic
The approach that served Obama so well in the past may not work against the modern GOP
“Trump lost in 2020 to Obama’s former vice president, but even in that loss Trump got many more votes and a higher percentage of votes than in 2016. Which means Trumpism isn’t going away. And Obama, for all his virtues, is an imperfect analyst of how to fight Trumpism.” — Jeet Heer, The Nation
Obama has no choice but to stay in the political fray
“It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for Obama to clock in more than for a couple weeks every two years — especially given the parlous state of our national institutions. His successor as president literally attempted to overthrow the government by force and install himself as dictator-for-life. That man is going to try again in 2024. No American who cares about democracy can stay on the sidelines.” — Ryan Cooper, MSNBC
More than anything, Obama represents unfulfilled hope that things could be better
“When I watched the inauguration of Barack Obama 14 years ago, my younger self could find in his paeans to overcoming political difference and transcending the partisan divide a higher calling to equality, universalism, and cooperation toward the common good. Today, when his successors issue similar refrains, I now hear something else: the exhausted liturgy of a project that reflexively spurns real democratic ambition.” — Luke Savage, Atlantic
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