South Asian Insider
Inside Obama’s Midterm Campaign Plans
In his first year back in private life, the former president has struggled with how to challenge his successor, but as the midterms approach he’s preparing to take on a bigger political role.
Since leaving office, Barack Obama has struggled with how to do what no modern president has: take on his successor.
Over the past year, he’s appeared at rallies, done a robocall, made a few endorsements. His office in Washington’s West End neighborhood, about a mile from the White House, has become a destination for Democrats looking to tap the former president for advice.
But with the midterms approaching, people close to him say he’ll shift into higher gear: campaigning, focusing his endorsements on down-ballot candidates, and headlining fundraisers. He’ll activate his 15,000-member campaign alumni association for causes and candidates he supports — including the 40 who are running for office themselves. He’s already strategizing behind the scenes with Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez and Eric Holder, who’s chairing his redistricting effort.
Throughout, Obama is determined not to become the foil that he can see President Donald Trump clearly wants, and resist being the face of the Resistance for his own party.
Obama is aware of his continuing resonance among his fans — proudly pointing out to friends that his tweet of a photo greeting children alongside a Nelson Mandela quote sent after the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville became the most liked in history. Even his relatively anodyne Martin Luther King Jr. Day tweet got more than 1 million likes.
He’s also aware, in a way that he and aides think some supporters don’t fully grasp, of his continuing resonance among people who hate him and would be riled up to vote against whatever he supports.
There is no model. Never before has a former president been as diametrically opposed to his successor as right now, and never before has a former president left office with his party immediately so eager to see him out on the trail.
So he’s looking for ways to get involved that are rooted in what he believes only he can do.
Obama isn’t expecting to make campaign appearances until the fall, people who’ve been working on the plans say, and when he does, he will take cues from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee in looking for endorsements and appearances that play up redistricting. He already has pending requests from the DNC, the NDRC, Organizing for Action, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but he hasn’t yet committed to dates.
The most likely stops will be where races for governor, or perhaps Senate, overlap with competitive races for the House and state legislature. Obama won’t endorse in primaries, but once he does weigh in, will be open to a range of ways to help, from rallies like the one he did for Ralph Northam in the Virginia governor’s race to the robocall he recorded for Doug Jones in the Alabama Senate race.
“He’s going to be out there for candidates, he’ll be out there helping us in meaningful ways, not just in fundraising,” Perez said. “The guy was a state senator in ’04, and he was president of the United States four years later. He knows something about winning elections and building a brand.”
From the morning after Trump’s election, Obama has insisted that there would be a direct relation between how active he was and whether the next generation of Democrats would step up. He feels vindicated by how that played out over 2017.
“He’s keenly aware that injecting himself into day-to-day politics can make it more difficult for other Democratic voices to rise to prominence,” said Katie Hill, a spokeswoman for the former president. “You can expect him to continue weighing in strategically and staying above the fray while helping cultivate the next generation of Democratic leadership.”
Yet his largely hands-off approach to politics since leaving office has left many Democrats apoplectic. If the fight against Trump is a battle for democracy and everything they believe in, they argue, how can he still be sitting on the sidelines? They need all the help they can get.
That’s where Paulette Aniskoff comes in. An aide from the 2008 campaign who was in the White House through both terms, she’s become Obama’s de facto post-presidency political director. Though an LLC incorporated as Citizen 44 — which Obama funds from his own pocket, to avoid paying her out of government money that funds former presidents’ personal offices, or out of donations raised for his foundation — Aniskoff has become the point person for candidates and Obama alumni looking for how to get involved.
She’s also been talking to donors who’ve been reaching out for a sense from him on where to write checks.
The afternoon before the Obama Foundation holiday party in December, she called in a small group of Obama’s closest and biggest donors to brief them on Citizen 44. Obama’s priorities are, in no particular order, the DNC, the NDRC, OFA and his foundation, she told them. People asked: But what about trying to win control of the House, or the Senate? Those will get enough attention, she told them.
“If you were engaged with the Obama campaign and the president himself, yes, you’re very interested in supporting him going forward. He’s being very careful not to direct, but more to use his talents where he sees an opportunity,” said Jane Watson Stetson, a former DNC finance chair who was among the people who attended the meeting.
Aniskoff spent last year organizing the Obama alumni — arguably the most experienced and engaged group of its size in politics that could be activated by one person — into 20 regional chapters. She’s streamlined an active email list that highlights ways to get involved and other groups to join.
She’s also created an informal advisory network of several top Obama veterans, with people like David Axelrod, Jen O’Malley Dillon, Stephanie Cutter, Mitch Stewart and Dan Pfeiffer weighing in. They’ve dispatched elsewhere too, with Pfeiffer, for example, advising the DNC on its communications and press operation.
Although several aides currently on his payroll, including adviser Ben Rhodes and speechwriter Cody Keenan, have become some of the highest profile and most reliable critics on Twitter, Obama sees that as happening on their own time, on personal accounts, though that often occurs during hours when they’re in the office working for him, according to people familiar with his thinking.
In private, he’s been keeping up with the political news himself and upset by what’s coming out of the current White House, according to people who’ve spoken with him, but still hasn’t said Trump’s name in public since the inauguration. That won’t change, barring a major national crisis that he’d set as his standard for going directly after Trump, aware that he can cross that barrier only once for it to have real meaning.
He will continue to thread statements as he feels necessary about Obamacare, Dreamers and a Muslim ban, but, as was the case last year, refuses to be Trump’s foil, acutely aware that the president always wants to pull him in. Last week, for example, Trump explained avoiding a trip to London expected to be defined by protests by complaining that Obama got a bad deal on the sale of the embassy — a deal that was closed under the administration of George W. Bush. Perez, who talks frequently by phone with Obama, says the former president has been chipping in with thoughts and connections for the former labor secretary, whom Obama personally recruited to run for the DNC job despite his lack of extensive political experience.
“He has studied ex-presidents, and he wanted to accord respect [to Trump like the] respect that George W. Bush accorded him, and respect that other ex-presidents accorded,” Perez said. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t do things behind the scenes to be helpful — and he’s been exceedingly helpful on a number of levels.”
Holder said he spoke in the past few weeks with the former president about his group’s plans for the year ahead.
“Just as he did in 2017, I fully expect President Obama will continue to help us fundraise, engage grass-roots activists through NDRC’s partnership with Organizing for Action, and shine a spotlight on redistricting in key state races this year,” Holder said.
As Obama’s aides love to note, Obama’s popularity is at 63 percent, up from 59 percent at the end of his presidency, according to a Gallup poll out in December.
“His help is needed at the state and local level. He’s popular,” said former interim DNC chair Donna Brazile. “His message of hope and change continues to resonate with an electorate that has grown more restless than ever.”
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