the inside game

What Obama Is Doing Behind the Scenes to Help Democrats Win

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

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Barack Obama and Joe Biden don’t talk a ton these days. When they do, it’s almost always because the president wants to update his old partner on something confidential but important to him — like when a U.S. drone strike killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in August — or, occasionally, to talk through some thorny issue that only a member of the “recent commanders-in-chief not named Trump” club would understand.

But as the midterms approach and the Democratic Party desperately works to avoid a “shellacking” like the one it received in Obama’s own first referendum a dozen years ago, Obama is also talking with Democrats who weren’t elected president. At times in recent months, he has been in close and frequent contact with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to chat about party strategy. And, in the last year, Obama has kept up his pattern of privately offering advice to a set of familiar younger figures in the party whom he thinks of as pragmatic liberal leaders.

Over the summer, Obama hosted Massachusetts state senator Eric Lesser, a former aide who was then running for lieutenant governor, for a private conversation on Martha’s Vineyard. The previous winter, Obama had met with Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker in Glasgow on the sidelines of the international climate-change conference. Voters had just elected a Republican to the governor’s mansion in Virginia and only narrowly reelected New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, and Obama mused about how the electorate was feeling discouraged. Pritzker informed him that the Chicago Tribune had recently labeled Pritzker a happy warrior willing to fight but be positive about it, and Obama latched onto that notion. That kind of aggressive cheerleading, Obama said, is what Democrats needed: to acknowledge the tough times but not be too focused on doom and gloom.

That note fit into a message Obama has been sounding to Democrats behind the scenes since the midpoint of Donald Trump’s term in office, but which he has been increasingly comfortable saying out loud in recent months as he aims to shape his party’s approach to the midterms and, likely, its subsequent soul-searching. Obama has been closely coordinating his political appearances with Biden’s White House and the DNC — deferring to them on matters from scheduling campaign rallies to endorsements — but with votes approaching, he has again become concerned that some in his party, especially pundits and tweeters, focus too much on the wrong aspects of Trump and his acolytes, refusing to learn the lessons of the 2016 election as he sees them.

“We spend enormous amounts of time and energy and resources pointing out the latest, crazy thing he said or, you know, how rude or mean, you know, some of these Republican candidates behaved,” Obama told his former staffers turned pundits Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer, and Tommy Vietor on a recent episode of Pod Save America. “That’s probably not something that, in the minds of most voters, overrides their basic interests: Can I pay the rent? What are gas prices? How am I dealing with child care? Et cetera.”

Obama has zeroed in especially on Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, the Democrats’ Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, as an example of how his party’s representatives can simply present themselves as normal and not detached — as Obama himself was often accused of being — to exhausted voters who are wary of the modern Democratic Party led by Biden but caricatured on conservative media as scolds. “You know,” he said, “sometimes people just want to not feel as if they are walking on eggshells. And they want some acknowledgement that life is messy and that all of us, at any given moment, can say things the wrong way, make mistakes.”

These are not the musings of a politician prepared for full-on retirement. They’re the conclusions of a wary Democrat who sees no end in sight for the fight he has resigned himself to waging. And they’re the acknowledgements of a man who 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, as he reluctantly did during the 2018 midterm cycle under Trump. More immediately, though, he and his party believe they’ve finally figured out his most effective deployment, as he remains the most popular Democrat but hardly the most relevant one. Obama made clear to his party’s strategists that he wants to focus on the big-picture threats posed by Trump and his followers but that his pre–November 8 time is best used campaigning for vulnerable candidates who need help both energizing their base supporters and keeping wavering swing voters from voting GOP. Although this part is seldom said out loud in Obama’s or the White House’s immediate circles, it’s clear that most of these candidates are running in states where the unpopular Biden is less welcome.

As Democrats struggle with an economic message amid persistent inflation and aim to keep Republicans’ threat to abortion on the front burner, Obama is far more visible on the stump than Biden is, thanks to the current commander-in-chief’s shaky standing in battlegrounds and his weakness leading big campaign-style rallies. Even before Obama appeared in any state in person, his image was all over swing states. He filmed more than 20 videos for candidates and groups in October, signed off on fundraising appeals using his name for party organizations (from the Democratic National Committee to the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State), and headlined money-raising events for the party’s Senate-campaign arm and Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Obama has since shown up or made plans to appear in Georgia, Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Michigan — all states with multiple high-priority races — and his voice hit the airwaves in others within days of cutting the ads. Both Senator Raphael Warnock in Georgia and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin (who is running for the Senate) started using the audio of Obama’s endorsements in radio ads almost immediately as they pushed early voting, and others in states like New Hampshire, Nevada, and Pennsylvania began circulating Obama’s videos to supporters online almost as quickly.

“It’s always true that it’s nice to have someone who’s not in office campaigning for you — that’s always ideal,” said one top party pollster, noting that Obama’s attraction now comes not from his appeal to younger voters or progressives, as it once did, but from his ability to fire up middle-age voters and from nostalgia that has little to do with the specifics of his own record in office. For months, he was flooded with requests to appear with candidates or to cut ads for them.

Yet those around the ex-president are “conscious of the view that he’ll be more popular than Biden in certain places,” said a senior Democratic strategist working on the party’s closing strategy. It’s a sensitive matter within both the White House and the ex-president’s office, and the two sides have been in constant contact to ensure Obama is deployed to the party’s maximum benefit without overshadowing the current White House. “But at the end of the day,” said the strategist, “we want to win.”

Local news in swing states has been dominated in recent days by Obama’s visits, at which he has sometimes taken direct aim at GOP candidates. Republicans are focused on “owning the libs and getting Donald Trump’s approval,” he told a raucous crowd near Atlanta before standing hand in hand with Warnock and Stacey Abrams (who is running for governor). Obama called Warnock’s opponent Herschel Walker “a celebrity who wants to be a politician — and we’ve seen how that goes.”

The next day, in Milwaukee, he went after incumbent Republican senator Ron Johnson. “Some of you here are on Social Security. Some of your parents are on Social Security. Some of your grandparents are on Social Security. You know why they have Social Security? Because they worked for it. They worked hard jobs for it,” Obama said. “They have chapped hands for it. They have long hours and sore backs and bad knees to get that Social Security. And if Ron Johnson does not understand that. If he understands giving tax breaks for private plans more than making sure seniors who worked all their lives are able to retire in dignity and respect, he’s not the person that’s thinking about you and knows you and sees you, and he should not be your senator from Wisconsin.” Obama then posed for the cameras with Barnes and Wisconsin governor Tony Evers, who’s up for reelection.

Still, Obama is hearing grumbling from supporters who wanted to see more of him and worry that his emergence is coming too late in the cycle. Four years ago, he started delivering political speeches in September. His 2022 debut on the trail was less than two weeks before Election Day. Nonetheless, it’s lost on no one around him that he’s acting like no other former president in recent memory. While Trump insists on dominating his party as he tries dodging the law ahead of 2024, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have all but disappeared from public view. Jimmy Carter is 98.

This is where the close coordination with Biden’s team comes in. The current president has mostly avoided battlegrounds except his native Pennsylvania, which he has visited repeatedly and he’ll hit together with Obama this weekend. But people in both presidents’ operations acknowledge that it’s more politically risky for either to hit Republican-friendly target states — like, say, Ohio — even when Democrats are running in close races there, as those candidates don’t want to be associated with the national party brand or figures.

Obama has made clear to allies that he is interested in the races for secretary of state in some key states, since they are the people who will administer the election in 2024 and he is concerned about the rise of Trump-inspired 2020 election deniers running for those roles. Like Biden, Obama has adopted a double vision for these midterms, hoping to use his 2022 appearances to lay the groundwork for the next election. When his former aides asked him on Pod Save America how Democrats could tie together all their arguments for the midterms, his immediate response was that “the first and most important issue is — Are we going to preserve and hopefully strengthen our democracy? That’s sort of a baseline question.”

Yet people close to Obama say that he sometimes sounds less optimistic about the fight over fair elections than others in the party, which explains why he has tried to make it more of an emphasis for his foundation work and his other non-midterms projects. In the podcast interview, Obama conceded that he’d had to ditch his vision of receding from public view (he brought up legendary Roman leader Cincinnatus), since he saw the need to be “a little more explicit about the democratic values that are at stake.”

In practice, this has meant privately meeting with young world leaders about their visions, including Chile’s 36-year-old left-wing president, Gabriel Boric, and planning a late-November Manhattan summit with other emerging politicians and activists to discuss threats to democracy.

To those closest to Obama — the allies and friends who’ve been at his side the longest — there’s an irony to the version of the post-presidency that he has now embraced. Sometimes, in the dark moments of his first campaign for the White House, then-Senator Obama would teasingly wonder to his closest aides whether the presidency wasn’t actually the best job in the world. He wasn’t yet four years into his time in Washington, but he had a far-off alternative in mind: maybe, he’d say, the best gig was being an ex-president.

The casual observer of Obama’s political retirement might have concluded at any point in the last half-decade that he’d been right. The Netflix, Spotify, and book deals and the new spread on Martha’s Vineyard spoke for themselves. Obama, though, wasn’t so convinced. He hadn’t envisioned his transition to the background happening in the shadow of a new president bent on undoing his legacy, nor did he anticipate his days being peppered with wistful calls for his return to the political battlefield and dissatisfying debates with allies about how to weigh in appropriately.

Only now, nearly two years into the Biden administration — with Biden in office, Trump in the rearview mirror, and Obama’s own public focus on saving democracy — is Obama approaching something remotely like the life after office that he once anticipated.

What Obama Is Doing Behind the Scenes to Help Democrats Win