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Barack Obama Needs to Lead the Resistance to Trump

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Graham Vyse has a good piece on why we need Barack Obama as a resistance leader. You should read it. In fact, I was working on a similar piece but kind of hit a brick wall so never finished it. Figure I might as well put these ideas out here, even if they don’t get published in a bigger forum. Here it is:

In the face of Donald Trump’s shocking upset over Hillary Clinton in November, the Democratic Party has been in disarray, lacking leadership in the vacuum left by Hillary Clinton. Liberals and leftists have blamed each other for her defeat and Democrats’ poor performance downticket. Some Hillary supporters have castigated Bernie Sanders’ negative campaigning against Clinton and his supporters who did not vote for her. Leftists have called Clinton a neoliberal Wall Street sellout who ran an uninspiring centrist campaign at a time of populist uprising. The period between 2016 and 2020 was when Democrats intended to figure out their future leaders as potential candidates explored a run for the presidency in 2024.

As Trump and his advisors prepare to dismantle a century of social progress, Democrats need to unite quickly to oppose this while also figuring out the future of the Party. With a fractured, confused party riven with infighting, there is only one figure who can unite the party immediately in opposition to the Trump agenda. That is Barack Obama.

I believe historians will judge Obama favorably for his progressive agenda on many issues, especially given the historically rabid opposition he faced from Congress. In the past half-century, only Lyndon Johnson has a more consistent liberal record. But Obama has failed to turn his victories into a robust Democratic Party. The poor Democratic National Committee leadership under Tim Kaine and then Debbie Wasserman-Schultz led to over 900 lost state legislature seats, 69 House members, 12 senators, and 13 governors, as well as tremendous infighting during the 2016 Democratic primaries. The Democratic Party needs to figure out how to fix that. Whether the next DNC chair is Keith Ellison, Tom Perez, or some other candidate Democrats need to rethink their political strategy to compete nationally. That will take time, resources, and infighting. The next generation of electoral leadership cannot arise overnight out of this morass.

On the other hand, Obama’s approval rating among Democrats is consistently between 80 and 90 percent. In an age of extreme rhetoric, unbounded racism, and the destruction of democratic norms, Obama is a voice of reason and dignity. While the Democratic Party figures out its future, Obama can be a center of opposition to Trump. Obama has always believed in dialogue and working with the opposition, which may well not be possible with an administration toying with fascism. But we must urge Obama to be a figure of fierce resistance to Trump. That could take many forms. He could write a weekly column in a major newspaper or appear frequently on talk shows. He could make speeches around the country castigating Trump’s policies. He could even run for office again, using a seat in the House of Representatives or the Senate as a tiny bully pulpit to gather attention for the horrors of Trump. No one has more status to challenge Trump directly than Barack Obama.

Obama as a serious political actor in his post-presidency would be an unusual, but not unprecedented, move. Upon leaving office, most presidents are either elderly, disgraced, or politically irrelevant. Two recent comparisons are Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Clinton left office as a popular president and a young man. The Clinton Foundation has done some good work, but ultimately served more to promote the ex-president as a global celebrity than keep Clinton as a central figure in American politics, Hillary’s successful career notwithstanding.

Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency is more interesting. Carter promotes democracy around the world, builds housing for the poor in the United States, and fights tropical diseases. His brave stance in promoting peace in the Middle East has made him a deeply respected figure unafraid to enter into the political realm for the causes which he believes in. However, Carter has played very little role in the Democratic Party since he left office and never saw himself as an opposition leader to Reagan.

A more useful but less obvious precedent is John Quincy Adams. In 1824, Adams won the Oval Office in one of the strangest elections in American history, when four major candidates sought the office. Andrew Jackson won the most votes in the Electoral College, but failed to win a majority. The election then went to the House. But loathing Jackson, the fourth-place candidate, Kentucky senator Henry Clay, asked his supporters to support Adams, who came in second in the Electoral College. Adams, an honest man without much sense of politics, then named Clay as his Secretary of State. There is no evidence of a quid pro quo, but Jackson and his supporters cried out that it was a “Corrupt Bargain.” This destroyed Adams’ presidency. His progressive ideas for a national university system and advanced road system was swallowed up by a fake scandal promoted by the racist demagogue who would defeat him in 1828. Adams could have faded into obscurity. But instead he ran for Congress in Massachusetts in 1831, serving until his death in 1848. There, Adams become the most prominent abolitionist voice in the House of Representatives. He was a moral objector to the foundational sin of the United States, routinely taking on a political establishment dedicated to perpetuating the slavery of millions of African-Americans.

Barack Obama could be our John Quincy Adams. Obama himself has hinted at a more active role in politics than past presidents. Even before the election, he and former Attorney General Eric Holder declared they would dedicate themselves to fixing gerrymandering through creating the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Such a direct intrusion into American politics already would make Obama unusual. But he can go farther. In a Democratic Party without a clear leader, Obama is the only figure that can gather the respect of both liberals and moderates. He won the votes of working-class whites in Rust Belt states and motivated intense African-American and youth involvement in politics. Compared to Trump, Obama is a paragon of morality, of seriousness, of leadership. We need Barack Obama to take on the burden political leadership to inspire liberals in these perilous times.

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