He’s been out of office for nearly eight months, but former President Barack Obama remains the Democratic Party’s best weapon for 2018.
Democrats are already nostalgic for Obama as they battle against President Trump’s agenda. When he talks, they listen, as evidenced this week by a tweet from Obama about the violence in Charlottesville, Va., that became the most popular in the history of the platform.
The tricky question now facing the party is how to use the former president on the campaign trail.
Some Democrats are pushing for Obama to have a more elevated role, but Obama has made clear he is wary of sliding back into the role of party leader, which could prevent new leaders from emerging.
Democrats acknowledge that being stuck in the Obama era is a concern, but say the party can’t afford to have him on the sidelines.
“Democrats badly need Barack Obama,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “He offers such a vivid contrast to Trump in behavior and temperament.”
“He always sounded reasonable and acted responsibly even if you disagreed with him,” Bannon continued. “None of the potential Democratic presidential candidates have the visibility or credibility to be effective.”
Others complain Obama has been doing too little to help the party at a time when it is struggling to rebuild.
Brent Budowsky, a former Democratic aide and columnist for The Hill, said Obama “should play a far more aggressive role, starting today, to win back the House and Senate in 2018.”
“America faces an enormous political crisis and it is unconscionable how little Obama and other former top officials have done to help Democrats since Trump began his ugly abuses of power.”
“Under Obama’s eight years, Democrats lost power at every level of national and state government, and Obama should feel an urgent sense of duty, especially on fundraising, and act with the fierce urgency of now and not generic promises about the future,” Budowsky added. “Obama should spend less time giving paid speeches and more time raising real money for Democrats.”
Obama is expected to campaign for Democrats beginning this fall, allies close to him said. But his reemergence will a “delicate dance,” as one aide told The Hill last week.
The former president has already been involved in fundraising efforts and has met with party leaders and held private meetings with lawmakers seeking advice.
Obama’s top aides will huddle with him in the next several weeks to plan his fall schedule. And while his allies say he will play an active role in assisting the Democratic Party, much of the work will be out of public view.
One reason for the behind-the-scenes role is to keep the president from becoming a “foil” to Trump and Republicans, allies say.
“The shit is hitting the fan on the other side,” one former senior administration official said. “Why play the foil?”
Democratic strategist Christy Setzer agreed, saying while the Democratic nostalgia is “deep and real,” it isn’t wise to have Obama become Trump’s sparring partner.
“For Democrats, never has the contrast been stronger between what we just gave up and what we have now,” Setzer said.
But she added that for potential 2020 presidential candidates like Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to truly move into the political spotlight, “Obama has to remain in the shadows.”
While Democrats may be in a different place a year from now, she added, “right now, we’re still trying to figure out who the next leaders of the party are. Until that’s more clear, Obama can’t be as prominent.”
But Obama’s Charlottesville tweet this week — which featured a quote from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” in three separate messages — made clear Democrats long for the leader they already know.
“I think a lot of Democrats are really missing him,” the former senior administration official said. “I think that’s pretty evident.”