Good lord. What a terrible development for Democrats.
Advisers cast a speech Barack Obama will give Friday, when he accepts an ethics in government award, as the moment he will re-engage in politics after spending most of his post-presidency on the partisan sidelines. He’ll enter the fray in a more traditional campaign sense Saturday when he stumps for several House Democratic candidates from California at an event in Orange County…
Previewing Friday’s address, an adviser said Obama would be “pointed” in taking on the current political environment, including President Donald Trump, and what has led to this moment in American politics. The adviser was not authorized to discuss Obama’s thinking publicly and insisted on anonymity…
While many Democrats have been clamoring for Obama to have a greater presence, advisers said he has taken a more low-key role in part to create room for a new generation of party leaders to step up. He’s also said to be acutely aware that he does not have a strong track record in helping Democrats win in years when he’s not on the ballot, and that his presence can have the effect of energizing Republicans, according to the adviser.
Saying that Obama doesn’t have a “strong track record” of helping other Democrats win is like saying that Trump doesn’t have a strong track record of prudence and accuracy on Twitter. What makes him hitting the trail this year especially strange is that Democratic turnout is already expected to be off the charts. They’re crushing the generic ballot right now with room for further improvement as Election Day approaches. Who are the Dems who weren’t planning to vote this fall but will now that O is appealing to them to do so? The whole party’s been counting the minutes since Election Day 2016 to give Trump a middle finger at the ballot box.
Different story for Republicans. The majority party traditionally sees lower turnout in midterm elections and this year looks to be no different, particularly with Trump’s job approval having slid a bit recently. In an age of negative partisanship, what they need to get them off the couch is a hate object. Trump’s been trying to give them one, warning that Democrats will impeach him if they retake the majority and that Mueller will be unleashed. He’s even hinted at Antifa riots(!). But no one gooses righties to turn out quite like their least favorite Democratic president does. If there’s any risk of Trump-skeptical Republicans boycotting the midterms en masse this fall, Obama heading out on the trail to make the case that Trump sucks will help ease it.
So why’s he doing it? Why campaign if his presence is likely to produce a net gain in Republicans at the polls this fall?
One possible explanation is that he believes his effect will be magnified locally, which can be helpful to his party depending on where he is. Note that he’s stumping for House Dems initially in Orange County, a rare Republican stronghold in California. That makes sense: Having O show up might convince Democrats there that the elections this fall won’t be the easy lay-up for the local GOP that they usually are. It’s worth turning out this time! He’s giving them reason to, uh, hope for change. Still, in an age of mass media, nothing “local” is really local. If Obama attacks Trump, it’ll be played on Fox News ad nauseam for a week. Whatever the effect in Orange County, it’s easy to imagine that turning out Republicans on balance more so than Democrats.
The grand strategy for O is this, I think: When push comes to shove, he’s well-liked by the public and Trump isn’t. And it’s a mortal lock that him swiping at Trump on the trail will lead Trump to counterpunch at him, and Trump will certainly be nastier about it and more likely to miscalculate. If you believe that there’s room for Democratic turnout to improve even further this fall, there’s at least a chance that Obama serving as “Trump-bait” will ratchet it up higher. If, however, you believe as I do that really it’s only the GOP vote that has any room to grow then this is destined to backfire. Maybe only marginally, especially if Trump starts flailing wildly, but O and midterms haven’t been a great combination for the Democratic Party. We’ll see how “pointed” his attacks really are.