With just three weeks to go before one of most critical midterm elections in modern American history, the most powerful figure in the Democratic Party has kept his distance.
Barack Obama’s involvement in the 2018 cycle was always bound to be limited. The former president has stressed his desire for the future generation of Democratic leaders to step up, along with a reverence for norms dictating that ex-presidents should not criticize current ones. But with fear growing within the party that they may not win back either chamber of Congress, even members of Obama’s alumni network are beginning to question whether the detachment is strategic at all.
“Everyone agrees that he is doing very little. There is just a debate as to whether that is savvy or not,” said one former top Obama official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to candidly discuss the ex-president. “I think the people who are closest to him are probably all pretty comfortable with him not being as actively engaged. The people in circles of influences outward wish he was being engaged more.”
To date, Obama’s engagement has been largely out of public view and consisted of the electoral equivalent of the low-hanging fruit. The 44th president has signed off on nearly 20 fundraising solicitations to go out under his name. He’s provided his endorsement to hundreds of candidates down-ballot. He has raised money for committees and given a speech about the fragile state of American democracy and youth participation in the midterms. But he’s held just three campaign events in 2018. His twitter feed, with more than 103 million followers, has mentioned the word “vote” three times in 2018.
“We want to be strategic about this for a number of different reasons,” said Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the ex-president. “Because we have kept our powder dry we believe he has unique standing in this moment to have impact.”
The expectation is that Obama’s activity will ramp up as Election Day nears. The former president is planning campaign swings in critical states—including one this week in Nevada for Rep. Jacky Rosen’s Senate campaign. He is also set to have a more heightened media presence in the coming weeks as well, likely on non-mainstream outlets. Not all of his impact will register publicly either. Obama is expected to record Get Out The Vote calls for campaigns to release without much fanfare, as he did for Doug Jones the night before his surprise win in the Alabama Senate race. The ex-president has also endorsed hundreds of down-ballot candidates this cycle, which party officials have usefully parlayed into fundraising solicitations and local news clips.
“No one will ever feel like he did enough no matter how much he does,” said Anita Dunn, an Obama alum and longtime party strategist. “I don’t think you can underestimate those endorsements of his. I’m working in a few states where the Obama endorsement was the dominant story when it was announced. And you see it in the clips of local races as well. I suspect you will see those endorsements in direct mail, literature, radio ads and digital content—anywhere it makes sense in the closing days of the races.”
But even those moves have produced a share of second-guessing and backseat criticisms. One member of Obama’s finance committee in both 2008 and 2012 called the endorsement of 300 candidates “not only imperial” but an act with “diluted impact.”
“Everyone would have been better served by him not only endorsing far fewer, but actually getting out and going door to door,” the donor said.
Angst with the level of Obama’s political engagement is nearly as old as Obama’s political career itself. Throughout his presidency, a common gripe among Democrats was that Obama failed to tend to the party’s infrastructure unless it directly impacted him—exemplified by the hundreds of state and federal seats lost across the country. He was clearly a gifted candidate. But those gifts never seemed to translate to others on the ballot. Often, when he did engage politically, it proved unhelpful to the those he campaigned with.
“To his benefit, and to his detriment, he doesn’t think politically. Why is it a benefit? He talked to me from the first year to the last year I was in office. He talked to you whether you were saying good or bad things about him. And, in the end, I said glowing things about him,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) told The Daily Beast. “But he is very cautious politically. Even in office.”
The criticism has followed Obama into his post-presidency, often because of factors outside of his control. Trump’s trampling of presidential norms, along with the threats his administration has posed to Obama’s legacy, has compelled Democrats to demand that Obama buck tradition and speak out more aggressively, whether it be on health care or the Supreme Court.
“Why isn’t he out there saying, you know what, I put [Merrick] Garland out there and they politically stopped it from happening. He should just state it,” said Gutiérrez. “There is nobody more powerful than him.”
Adding pressure to Obama has been the willingness of his peers to stay in the political spotlight even as he has not. Both Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton have shown little hesitation about inserting themselves into the midterms. The former has been a fixture for candidates across the country as he toys with a 2020 presidential bid. The latter has launched a group to counteract Trumpism and recently embarked on a pre-midterms media blitz, not always to the pleasure of fellow party members.
Obama has been involved in his own political group, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, whose goal it is to help buffer states against gerrymandering in 2020 and beyond, as well as with Organizing for America, the outgrowth of his presidential campaign apparatus. For those organizations, sources say, he’s done several fundraisers in addition to targeted endorsements. Publicly, meanwhile, Democratic campaign committees say they have no complaints about the former president’s level of engagement—with virtually every party acknowledging that there are some districts and states where his presence would prove counterproductive.
“President Obama is a great leader of our party and is playing an important role in the midterms by supporting dozens of candidates up and down the ballot, and urging voters across the country to share their voice and vote,” said Meredith Kelly, the DCCC communications director.
“President Obama has been helpful,” said David Bergstein, DSCC spokesman. “For example he’s helped fundraise for the committee and targeted races.”
Privately, however, the tune is different. A Democratic Party official working on campaigns said that when Obama has engaged it had been “impactful.” But, the official added, “We wish he would do more,” especially “as it relates to fundraising.”
Even those deeply complimentary of the former president tacitly acknowledge his tendency to stay maddeningly above the fray. One former Obama official flagged for the Daily Beast a Facebook Post recently put up by the ex-president in which he recommended books and articles to read. One of the most liked responses to the post, the official noted, was a woman replying: “Right now I'm busy knocking on doors and making phone calls to help a local candidate. After that, I may have time to read.”