The Democratic Party is still Barack Obama’s party.
In a week full of mostly forgettable speeches and video montages (save for Rhode Island’s calamari shout-out during the roll call), it was the duo of Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, that stood out at the Democratic National Convention. They stand alone in the Democratic Party as a couple who can unite all factions of the left into one coherent coalition, and there’s no other pair who can do the same.
The third night of the convention was meant to be a hand-off of sorts. Barack Obama was supposed to send the audience over to the Kamala Harris to accept her nomination for vice president. But Harris had a dud of a night with a forgettable speech, and Obama — one of the most talented presidential speechwriters of his generation — stole the show.
Kamala Harris, meanwhile, is still fumbling to establish a meaningful presence for herself on the national scene. And Joe Biden is… Well, let’s say just Biden isn’t firing on all cylinders.
The Biden–Harris ticket has about as much charisma as the Clinton–Kaine ticket. There will be no generational change coming from a Biden–Harris administration. This situation is why the Obamas are stepping in to make the case that Biden represents the lost third term of Barack Obama, and that it’s up to voters to realize this unfulfilled destiny.
Of Obama’s convention speech, presidential historian Michael Beschloss said, “No former President has ever attacked his incumbent successor at a convention like Barack Obama tonight, or even come close.” Politico reporter Tim Alberta opined: “This isn’t just the sharpest criticism Obama has made of [Donald] Trump. This is the sharpest criticism a former president has ever made of a sitting president.”
There are historical quibbles one can make against those assertions. But what Beschloss and Alberta get right is that a previous president is making a strong case against his successor, and in extreme terms. In his speech, transcribed by The New York Times, Obama capped off his attack on Trump by saying:
Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.
The last segment of that last sentence is the strongest of the attacks: a former U.S. president accused the current one of being a systemic threat to America’s core democratic institutions. It’s hard to get any more potent than that.
Trump, not shying away, pointed out that Barack Obama’s two terms were so disastrous that they propelled him into office. “The reason I’m here is because of President Obama and Joe Biden,” Trump said in remarks on his predecessor’s speech, according to USA Today. Obama even seemed to cede this point in his speech when he said he understood “why many Americans are down on government,” and he even went through a litany of marks against himself.
The irony is that Barack Obama is the reason Trump won — along with Hillary Clinton’s historic levels of unpopularity — yet Obama is also the only person capable of holding the Democratic Party together. He stands alone in his ability to unite all the various factions of the left, from extremists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “Squad” to the moderates who make up the Democrat establishment.
The 2020 election is about the Obama legacy trying to reassert itself. The Clintons would have ignored Obama’s legacy had they won; Biden will not.
And so we’re left with the Obama infrastructure against the Trump campaign. By reinserting himself into the race to this extent, Barack Obama has made the election as much a referendum about his eight years as it is about Trump’s four.
While you can accuse the former president of egotism on this point, he also has little choice to keep the various tribes in the Democratic Party together for another presidential run. If Barack Obama were not a cohesive force keeping Democrats together, the infighting between the Bernie Sanders–AOC wing against all others would explode out in the open.
Even during the primary season, other Democrat White House hopefuls struggled to attack Biden without also hitting Obama, which all reports said angered Obama fans and Democratic Party voters who still love the former commander-in-chief. Barack Obama is the central gravity, or the glue, holding them together.
Obama may not have been encouraging Biden to run, but with the primaries over, this is his shot to reassert a level of control he could not and did not maintain with Hillary Clinton. If Trump’s win was a repudiation of the Obama legacy, then defeating Trump, for Obama, represents an assertion that Trump is an aberration, and Obama’s legacy reigns supreme.
For now, it’s still Obama’s party. He still shines out over all the other politicians, including the two nominees for his party’s presidential future. But the 2016 election ended the Clinton legacy in the Democratic Party. If Trump wins in 2020, he’ll successfully end the Obama legacy in the Democratic Party, sending them into levels of infighting not seen in decades.
And none of this factors in the complete repudiation Trump delivers on the GOP side. The losing strategists of the Lincoln Project and its ilk would have no more tangible impacts on conservative politics.
If politicians on both sides sound more desperate this cycle, it’s because there’s more at play here politically than usual. A lot of people have political livelihoods at stake, and the disruption that could ensue will change the faces of both parties for generations to come.
The Democratic Party, for its part, still belongs to Barack Obama. But for how long?