Barack Obama is returning to center stage, big time. What’s more, he comes back more blunt, aggressive, fired-up and arguably populist than ever before. After two years in which he refrained, much to the consternation of his fans, from directly attacking Donald Trump, Obama is now lambasting his successor, his GOP enablers and the “rich and powerful” who run America through them. The Democrats are overjoyed, but Trump might also have good reasons to smile.
Obama’s dramatic comeback is slated to play out over the next eight weeks. The former president plans to campaign in close congressional races and to invigorate the Democratic base in advance of the November 6 elections, which he described in his speech at the University of Illinois on Friday as the most important in his lifetime.
The greatest danger facing American democracy today, he says, is the cynicism that compels liberal-leaning young voters to stay home on election day rather than go out and vote. If they don’t change their ways, America will fall into the hands of the “racists and demagogues” who run its affairs today.
Obama told his enthusiastic listeners that Trump is the symptom rather than the cause of America’s travails, but he nonetheless devoted a large part of his speech to Trump’s destructive ways. He lambasted those who dredge up America’s racist past, who fail to condemn Nazis, who “promise to fight for the little guy even as they cater to the wealthiest and most powerful” and who “undermine rules and change the rules…in order to entrench their power further.” Republicans, he said, are “bending over backwards”, even though they realize “this is kind of crazy”. They seem “utterly unwilling to find the backbone to safeguard the institutions that make democracy work,” Obama said.
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For outraged Democrats, Obama’s comeback and his sterner message are a godsend. They answer their longing for a worthy leader and serve the leftwards turn they’ve taken, as a direct result of Trump’s traumatic tenure. Many Obama voters continue to worship the ground he walks on, but even those who were less enthusiastic when he was actually president have turned, with the benefit of hindsight, into ardent admirers, given the unavoidable comparisons with his successor.
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Obama is the only senior figure that can fill the leadership vacuum in the Democratic Party, the only one who can raise the liberal flag on a national level. Hillary Clinton’s incomprehensible loss to Trump in 2016 has damaged her status, perhaps irreparably. And while the campaign to take her place as the Democratic candidate has already started, as could be seen from the grandstanding ploys of Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris during the Brett Kavanaugh Senate hearings last week, Democrats haven’t even started to contemplate the identity of Clinton’s successor. Obama, on the other hand, is a proven winner, the man who led the Democrats to two successive electoral victories, which many believed were impossible. He is ideally suited to drum up his party’s self-confidence that a counterrevolution against Trump on November 6 is within reach.
The problem is that the road to a Democratic victory in November, in the House of Representatives, at least - and, according to the most recent projections, in the Senate as well - was being paved before Obama decided to jump once again into stormy political waters. Contrary to the hackneyed maxim “It’s the economy, stupid”, the superior performance of the U.S. economy, which was reaffirmed in the positive employment data published on Friday, has not stopped Trump’s descent in the polls, which accelerated over the past two weeks. When a sitting president has a measly 35% approval rating, the chances of his political rivals to score a sweeping victory in the midterms simply skyrocket.
Trump brought this calamity on himself, with no assistance from Obama. His contemptible conduct and subsequent isolation during the weeklong burial ceremony of John McCain launched Trump’s most recent descent; Bob Woodward’s tell-all book, along with the anonymous op-ed by a senior administration official in the New York Times, accelerated the fall. The emerging portrait of chaos in the presidential decision-making process, along with Trump’s increasingly hysterical reactions to his growing distress, left hundreds of Republican candidates who are vying in closely-contested races impossibly stuck between a rock and a hard place: Between primal fear of the GOP base, which compels them to defend Trump no matter what, and concern about moderate GOP defectors, which require them to keep their distance from the president.
Obama’s return, on the assumption that his speeches will continue to spew fire and brimstone and to occupy prominent headlines, provides Trump and his followers with a golden opportunity to divert attention away from their scandal-plagued president and to invoke the dormant but far from dissipated animosity towards America’s first black president. Obama’s dramatic reappearance allows his haters to shift from an impossible effort to defend an unstable Commander-in-Chief to an all-out assault on his reviled predecessor and the abhorrent liberal values he represents. If you don’t vote for us Republicans, they will tell their voters, you will wind up with an all-Democrat Congress, with Obama pulling its strings.
Obama’s reemergence gives the Republicans a chance, in theory at least, to revive the fear and loathing that, as he said in his speech, facilitated Trump’s victory. The race-based malice towards Obama was the main instigator of the GOP’s radicalization during his eight years in power. The feelings of resentment among middle and lower class white Americans and their willingness to hold Obama and liberals responsible for their predicament allowed many of them to hold their noses as they voted for an inexperienced brute like Trump. Without Obama to kick around any more, Trump was judged by his own conduct and his own merits, with the inevitable result of his collapse in the polls.
It’s too early to tell whether Obama’s resurgence will produce more benefits than harm for the Democrats, or vice versa. His presidential aura, proven rhetorical prowess and image as Trump’s polar opposite can certainly help Democrats realize their electoral potential, perhaps on the same scale that enabled the Tea Party’s astounding triumph in 2010. But if Obama’s return also resuscitates the racist demon that sabotaged his presidency, divided America and brought Trump to the White House, he could also spark a similar process, for opposite reasons, among Republicans. If, as a direct consequence, they also come out to vote in droves, the battle on November 6 will be tougher and closer than foreseen today.