Do as I say, not as I do. Barack Obama sat down with NPR’s Steve Inskeep for one of his final in-depth interviews as president, and decided to offer his successor a little advice. Try working with Congress, and avoid unilateral executive action, says the man who should know:
“Keep in mind, though, that my strong preference has always been to legislate when I can get legislation done,” Obama said from the Cabinet Room in the White House. “In my first two years, I wasn’t relying on executive powers, because I had big majorities in the Congress and we were able to get bills done, get bills passed. And even after we lost the majorities in Congress, I bent over backwards consistently to try to find compromise and a legislative solution to some of the big problems that we’ve got — a classic example being immigration reform, where I held off for years in taking some of the executive actions that I ultimately took in pursuit of a bipartisan solution — one that, by the way, did pass through the Senate on a bipartisan basis with our help. …
“So my suggestion to the president-elect is, you know, going through the legislative process is always better, in part because it’s harder to undo,” he said.
Ahem. I’m sure Donald Trump will take that under advisement as he sets out to undo the massive volume of rules and regulations imposed by the executive branch over the last eight years.
If readers are stunned at the chutzpah of that advice from President Penandphone, they’ll need resuscitation after hearing how Obama wants to assist Democrats after leaving office. With retirement just 32 days away, Obama has to think about how he wants to spend it. The outgoing president tells Inskeep that he’d like to work on molding the next generation of Democrats to continue the work of his eight years in office. Be afraid, Democrats … be very afraid:
President Obama sees a role for himself in rebuilding the Democratic Party after he leaves office — coach.
“What I am interested in is just developing a whole new generation of talent,” Obama told NPR’s Steve Inskeep in an interview airing on Morning Edition.
“There are such incredible young people who not only worked on my campaign, but I’ve seen in advocacy groups,” Obama said. “I’ve seen passionate about issues like climate change, or conservation, criminal justice reform. You know, campaigns to — for a livable wage, or health insurance. And making sure that whatever resources, credibility, spotlight that I can bring to help them rise up. That’s something that I think I can do well, I think Michelle can do well.”
That’d be a great idea … if “a whole new generation of talent” existed in the Democratic Party. Unfortunately for them, Barack Obama presided over their most dramatic political decline since Reconstruction. Morning Joe reviewed the data this morning:
Democrats in the Obama years pic.twitter.com/Wy3v74cQhi
— Morning Joe (@Morning_Joe) December 19, 2016
It’s actually worse than that in terms of the “next generation of talent.” That would usually come from state legislatures, but Obama’s damage at that level has been unprecedented. When he took office, Democrats held 4,086 state legislative seats and controlled 60 chambers. As he exits the White House, Democrats have lost nearly a thousand seats in state legislatures (949) and only control 31 chambers. Both of those numbers matter, but the latter may matter more. Legislative stars get created and move up the ranks when they can pass bills and make news, a benefit rarely accessed by the minority in legislatures. Not only is their bench smaller, a much larger percentage of them are benched, too.
Obama isn’t alone in this, either. Democrats in the House and Senate kept their old leadership in place despite serial losses in elections since 2010, with a literal emphasis on old. Their top three positions in House leadership haven’t changed in more than a decade, and they are all in their 70s. They’ve pushed off the youth movement while turning their fossilized leadership into an impersonation of the Soviet Politburo in the 1980s.
In short, Obama should be the last person tapped to shepherd a new generation’s idea of leadership. However, there is one thing that Democrats should learn from Obama — and not just to avoid the mistakes he made in office. Obama makes one key point in this clip:
OBAMA: One of the big suggestions that I have for Democrats as I leave, and something I have some ideas about, is how do we do more of that ground-up building.
INSKEEP: Do you intent to be involved, or just give advice?
OBAMA: Well, I think it’s appropriate for me to give advice because I need some sleep, and I’ve promised Michelle a nice vacation. My girls are getting old enough now to where I’m clinging to those very last moments before they are out of the house.
INSKEEP: But there was a political organization that was built around you that still exists.
OBAMA: Well … I’m less likely to get involved in all the nuts and bolts of electioneering. In that realm, I’m much more likely to just get advice. What I am interested in is just developing a whole new generation of talent.
This past election showed that Democrats need his advice badly on the ground-up organizing of elections. Obama won two presidential elections through his superior organization and the genius of the manner in which he built enduring emotional connections to voters, as I wrote about in Going Red. The assumption was that Hillary Clinton would have learned those lessons from Obama’s victories, and the 2008 primary loss she suffered at his hands. Instead, she and her team doubled down on the same mistakes she made in that cycle and ended up repeating the errors Mitt Romney made in 2012, too.
If Obama foregoes organizing for talent development, that’s a double win for Republicans, and if Organizing for America remains moribund in elections, a triple win. They should wish Obama well in retirement.