Virtually no politics watcher - or talker - could ignore the obvious contrast by the end of the week: the Trump and Kelly vs. Grieving Widow show from the White House up against the two previous Presidents choosing on the same day to unleash fresh critiques of the ugly scene we're in right now. When punditry is this cut and paste easy, it's worth asking... what part of this are we not getting?
That part, I think, is where it's worth considering the two appearances Barack Obama made on Thursday, in New Jersey and Virginia, to bolster the two candidates for Governor in those states. These are the marquee races of the off year season, the ones everyone will use, rightly or wrongly, to draw indications for next year and beyond (it's the one secret power Virginia possesses, that they dominate these odd year affairs. New Jersey... not so much). And Obama's quick, in and out, one and done moments can mean something big... or not.
In the case ofNew Jersey, it's hard to see where Obama makes much difference. The democrat is comfortably ahead, the Lt. Governor, Kim Guadagno is both closely tied to the worst of the Christie years, and somehow lackluster by comparison. Phil Murphy's gone on the air this weekend with a commercial meant to invoke "Bridgegate" which hits its points well. President Obama is a nice to have, and may help turnout, but ending the Christie era seems to be where this is headed, with or without him.
What could happen in Virginia seems less clear. Democrats have been generally successful statewide, and seem to have a clear formula for winning. Republicans choosing to nominate Ed Gillespie, a party insider who has never held office, looks faintly desperate, and Gillespie hasn't polled spectacularly well, though the race is in single digits, generally. But that doesn't make this a slam dunk, and Democrats have chosen Virginia as emblematic of whether the forces needed to reverse Trump-ism can succeed or not. If Gillespie wins, there will be a lot of hand wringing. And some of that will, no doubt, blow back onto the last President.
One of the reasons, Washington types say, that Obama has largely refrained from commenting on Trump's obvious yen to undo any and everything Obama did is because he's concerned that his presence is catnip to Trump's base. Republicans have drifted into deep party division since the election, but can find common ground on things they hate... like policies Obama pursued, "Obamacare" chief among them, and that slew of made up or trumped up non-scandals, like Benghazi or, lately, the "Uranium One' business that refuses to die.
For democrats, this is all dicey politics, not simply because the "scandals" have an audience (if few facts that suggest anything like what the right wants to believe), but because democrats haven't entirely decided what they want to defend, and, more ominously, just what issues they want front and center in the national debate.
When Bush and Obama made their appearances this week, it was Bush who revived the debate about how to see his presidency - liberals praised Bush for speaking out against Trump's politics, noting how they had disparaged him then... and it was Steve Bannon who served as voice for the right, slamming Bush's critique with assertions about him as a failed President. It's an assessment of Bush that's taken years to take hold within the GOP, where for years few wanted to admit how badly Bush failed, except, say, in Katrina. And it's been softened, somewhat, by liberals - me included - realizing that there was, in fact, something worse than the years of GWB. Bush was bad, but this... well...
Barack Obama, on the other hand, has faced no such reexamination, and it was telling, just in the few days since Thursday, how he remains a sacred object for the left (it's a big week for "sacred" - let's swipe it!). The literal 'amens" that accompanied his speeches, the revival of "he's the best orator on the left" encomiums, there was a lot of basking in glory going on, and not lot of hard questions. To the extent that anyone wanted to challenge the orthodoxy, it was conservatives who tried, generally rather gently, to point out that Obama's "this isn't the 18th century" and opposition to outright bigotry hadn't really stopped Trump from winning last year. And a year later, really, not much has changed.
Since the election, for her supporters, there's been a wealth of dismaying cries for Hillary Clinton to exit the public stage, even as she released a thoughtful, hugely successful memoir analyzing the politics of now and her stunning loss.In part, I think, the calls on the left to sideline Mrs. Clinton are an attempt to quarantine the feelings of loss (and, let's be honest, failure) to her and her alone. Doing that, in no small part, absolves fans of Mr. Obama - and they are legion - from facing his role in the 2016 loss, and what it means for the politics of liberalism going forward.
Avoidance, as usual, serves no purpose here. Avoiding the complexities of President Obama's role in the era of Trump - what he represents, what gets the right so riled - enables, among other things, blanket assessments of racial animus. Fear and Hatred of a Black President is no small part of this story. But it's not the only part. If it were, we'd be having a different discussion of the various rules, regulations, thoughtful policies and sensible progress being rolled over and back with every action of this Administration. It would, on the one hand, be a more thoughtful discussion. It would also, I think, be a discussion that centered more on the policies - and their actual popularity - rather than on the "if President Obama did it, I hate it" reflexology of the right, even now. Treatment of immigrants, plans for clean water, sensible approaches to urban policing - these are just a few issues where the policies being reversed by Trump not only damage the country, they don't reflect popular or even majority thinking on the topics. What they do, successfully, is remind everyone, left and right, that Trump primarily stands for smashing everything Obama stood, and stands, for.
As much as I get - and even share - the need to defend Obama on the left, I suspect that we are helping to supply the catnip. So long as the discussion of Trump and his Presidency centers on Democrats being the Defenders of Obama, we've made this debate simple not just for us, but for the hard right. And, to be gentle but firm, Obama doesn't need us to do this fight - he's perfectly capable of defending himself. What we should be defending - and what we grope around to do, these days, somewhat messily but with growing solidity - is the policies. Those are things not only worth fighting for, they are things - clean water, decent treatment of immigrant children, justice that serves minority communities as well as majority ones - that get us the majorities we need to win elections.
From special election to special election, and into this fall's first major off year contests, one constant in the coverage is that it's unclear "what Democrats have to offer to voters." It's boilerplate political language for the lack of proposals, on the left, to take matters in hand. I like both of the gubernatorial candidates, and feel good about Democratic prospects... but what are these elections fighting for? I 'll be honest... beats me. And it's easy, in the vacuum, to think Democrats are offering pretty much, well, rage: "Don't like Trump? We certainly don't. And don't you wish we still had Barack Obama? We do."
Barack Obama is not going to need to win another election for himself. Encouraging voters to turn out for him or about him - or by extension, to "fight back against Trump" - may not get the results we need, and may encourage an ugly, already emboldened opposition with an especially ugly agenda. And Democrats need to face the opposite problem of a George W Bush - that Obama, while not a terrible President, was, as Presidents are, flawed, imperfect, and occasionally wrong. In order to get to what comes next, there's a need to let go of what's past. In ways big and small, I think the left is groping towards that reality. But this past week was a reminder of what a struggle remains: figuring out what we are actually fighting for, and not naming it Barack Obama.