To Rehabilitate Democratic Party, Obama Plans To 'Coach' Young Talent

Dec 19, 2016
Originally published on December 20, 2016 8:08 am

President Obama sees a role for himself in rebuilding the Democratic Party after he leaves office — coach.

"What I am interested in is just developing a whole new generation of talent," Obama told NPR's Steve Inskeep in an interview on Morning Edition.

"There are such incredible young people who not only worked on my campaign, but I've seen in advocacy groups," Obama said. "I've seen passionate about issues like climate change, or conservation, criminal justice reform. You know, campaigns to — for a livable wage, or health insurance. And making sure that whatever resources, credibility, spotlight that I can bring to help them rise up. That's something that I think I can do well, I think Michelle can do well."

The Democrats' deep hole

They'll have their work cut out for them. Republicans will control the House, Senate and White House when President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in Jan. 20. That's a reversal of the situation Obama found himself in when he took office eight years ago — the peak of massive Democratic electoral gains at the end of the Bush administration.

And on the state level, Republicans head into 2017 with 33 out of 50 governors — more than in nearly 100 years. The GOP will have complete control of the governors' offices and state legislatures in 25 states, while Democrats will hold complete control in just six states. Republicans solidified gains that started in 2010 by drawing favorable congressional and statehouse districts in many states during the redistricting process.

Democrats find themselves in a deep hole after an election that most party officials expected to win.

Obama told NPR that he disagreed with suggestions the party should change its policy platforms, instead attributing losses to messaging and strategy.

"I don't think there's something wrong with the core argument that the Democratic Party has made for years," the president said. "And the reason we know that is because on the individual issues that Democrats talk about there's strong support. For example, the minimum wage. In every survey across the country, people support a higher minimum wage. There are clearly, though, failures on our part to give people in rural areas or in ex-urban areas, a sense day-to-day that we're fighting for them or connected to them."

The president said his party has "ceded too much territory" to Republicans in local races. "I am a proud Democrat," he said, "but I do think that we have a bias towards national issues and international issues."

It's the economy

Obama blamed part of that on the political conversation, and what topics are magnified during campaigns. Voters, he said, "may know less about the work that my administration did on trying to promote collective bargaining or overtime rules. But they know a lot about the controversy around transgender bathrooms. Because it's more controversial, it attracts more attention."

On strategy, Obama acknowledged that it was apparent soon after he entered the White House in 2009 that the successful campaign structure that got him elected to the presidency wasn't going to work for candidates down the ballot, but that the economic crash at the time meant the political spade work didn't receive enough attention.

"We were in a huge crisis situation, and so a lot of the organizing work that we did during the campaign, we started to see right away didn't immediately translate to, wasn't immediately transferable to congressional candidates," Obama said. "More work would have needed to be done to just build up that structure."

Republicans made significant gains during midterm years when Obama's name was not on the ballot and his campaign wasn't in the field, taking control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.

Competing for rural voters

As he's done before, though, Obama also faulted Democrats for failing to compete — or even show up, at times — in rural areas. He talked about campaigning in rural Illinois while running for Senate and making repeated visits to Republican-friendly corners of Iowa during the 2008 campaign, "and just sitting down in people's living rooms and VFW halls and at fish fries and listening to people."

"Which meant that in 2012," the president continued, "I might still lose the overall vote and some of these counties or some of these voting districts but I might lose 55-45 or 60-40, rather than 80-20."

Narrower losses in just a handful of rural counties could have put Hillary Clinton in the White House, as she lost Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan each by less than 1 percent.

While Clinton has been criticized for not keeping up a busier campaign schedule, particularly in those industrial Midwestern states, she spent much of the early part of her campaign holding listening sessions with voters, and immediately following the Democratic National Convention, she went on a bus tour through the very parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania she has been criticized for not giving enough attention. Many of those conversations informed the issues and messages Clinton's campaign focused on, most notably opioid addiction and a plan to help people in coal country affected by job losses. But after that bus tour she didn't again put in a sustained effort to win over white, working class voters.

Critical to the Democratic playbook in industrial states involves running up voting margins in urban areas. When turnout dropped in urban areas, but rose in rural counties, those key states flipped Republican for the first time in decades.

Also in his conversation with NPR, Obama spoke of the need for Americans to pin their hopes for the country to more than who wins the White House every four years.

"If we either celebrate or despair just around presidential elections, without spending enough time focusing on how, in our day-to-day lives, in our local civic lives, in our media, in our culture," Obama said. "If we're not spending enough time reflecting on, 'What am I doing to be part of the solution as opposed to being part of the problem?' Then we'll get better presidents and worse presidents, but we're not going to get to where we need to go."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've been talking with a man who won historic presidential victories and now steps away amid defeat. President Obama leaves office in a month. His departure reveals just how battered his party is. Democrats are out of power in the White House, Congress and the vast majority of statehouses. Just before he left Washington for the holidays, the president sat with us in the White House. We talked about Russian hacking and executive power as we've heard in recent days. We also talked of the Democratic Party's future. We were sitting in a room decorated with paintings of past presidents.

Over my shoulder here is Theodore Roosevelt. In 1884, Theodore Roosevelt was frustrated about an election and wrote a letter saying, the voice of the people might be the voice of God 51 times out of a hundred. But the other 49, it may be the voice of a devil or of a fool.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Which do you think it was this time in 2016?

OBAMA: Well, it's hard to assess because we know, for example, that Hillary won the popular vote by a sizable margin. We know that there are a substantial number of voters out there who Not only voted for me twice but currently support me who also voted for Donald Trump. So I think we have a scrambled political landscape right now. There are some things that we know are a challenge for Democrats - structural problems. For example, the population distribution. Oftentimes younger voters, minority voters, Democratic voters are clustered in urban areas so they...

INSKEEP: And on the coasts.

OBAMA: ...And on the coasts. And so as a consequence, you've got a situation where there are not only entire states but also big chunks of states where if we're not showing up, if we're not in there making an argument, then we're going to lose. And we can lose badly and that's what happened in this election.

INSKEEP: Is this just a matter of showing up, or is there something wrong with the argument?

OBAMA: Well, no. Well, I don't think there's something wrong with the core argument that the Democratic Party has made for years. And the reason we know that is because on the individual issues that Democrats talk about, there's strong support, for example, the minimum wage.

INSKEEP: The president spoke in our interview of distractions in the media during the election season. He contends some voters might never hear about his party's economic efforts like a bid to improve overtime rules.

OBAMA: But they know a lot about the controversy around transgender bathrooms because it's more controversial. It attracts more attention. I think that on something like the Affordable Care Act, you have people who are benefiting right now from Obamacare who either don't know it's Obamacare or consider that as a given and then end up voting on Second Amendment rights.

INSKEEP: To make sure the issues are clear, the president contends, Democrats need to be visiting the most remote districts long before election time. He never directly criticized Hillary Clinton, who kept a limited campaign schedule. Obama did say that he made an effort visiting conservative rural areas of places like Iowa or far western Virginia, which helped when times were tough.

OBAMA: People always felt as if I still cared about them. Which meant that in 2012 I might still lose the overall vote in some of these counties or some of these voting districts, but I might lose 55-45 or 60-40 rather than 80-20. That's - as a consequence of not only them seeing me in these places, but it's also a consequence of me actually being there and hearing them.

INSKEEP: Were Democrats failing to do that at every level? Because your party has lost the majority of races at almost every level at this point.

OBAMA: Well, you know, I think that we haven't done it as well as we need to. For example, we know that the Republicans funded through organizations like the Koch brothers have been very systematic at...

INSKEEP: Building from the ground up.

OBAMA: ...Building from the ground up and communicating to state legislators and financing school board races and public utility commission races. And, you know, I am a proud Democrat, but I do think that we have a bias towards national issues and international issues. And as a consequence, I think we've ceded too much territory and I take some responsibility for that.

INSKEEP: And as he prepares to step off the stage, the president poses a question to other Democrats.

OBAMA: How do we do more of that ground-up building?

INSKEEP: Do you intend to be involved or just give advice?

OBAMA: Well, I think it's appropriate for me to give advice because I need some sleep. And I've promised Michelle a nice vacation. My girls are getting old enough now where I'm clinging to those very last moments before they are out of the house.

INSKEEP: But there was a political organization that was built around you that still exists.

OBAMA: Well, I'm less likely to get involved in all the nuts and bolts of electioneering. I - in that realm I'm much more likely to just give advice. What I am interested in is just developing a whole new generation of talent. There are such incredible young people who not only worked on my campaign, but I've seen in advocacy groups, I've seen - passionate about issues like climate change or conservation, criminal justice reform, you know, campaigns for a livable wage or health insurance and making sure that whatever resources, credibility, spotlight that I can bring to help them rise up, that's something that I think I can do well, I think Michelle can do well. That's part of what makes me optimistic about our future because I know those young people are out there ready to lead and when they start moving into more and more positions of authority, then I think the issues that I care most deeply about are going to be well served.

INSKEEP: You want to be a talent scout and build the bench that Democrats have admitted they don't have?

OBAMA: Well, not only a talent scout but I think also, you know, a coach, a friend, somebody who can build on the incredible work that has already been done by young people and that to a large degree was responsible for getting me elected.

INSKEEP: That's President Obama during part of our exit interview at the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.