In the Trump Era: Don’t Put This All on Obama

E.J. Dionne has weighed in on a conversation we’re hearing more about as we approach the day that Barack Obama leaves the White House and Donald Trump is inaugurated to be the 45th president. He explores the soon-to-be former president’s role in politics.

Dionne starts by outlining some of the things Obama has suggested he will do.

Obama has also signaled that he wants to energize a new generation of Democrats and help rebuild a party that he will leave in less than optimal shape. Democrats control neither the House nor the Senate and have seen their share of governorships and state legislative seats decimated.

He is already lined up to work with Eric H. Holder Jr., his former attorney general, to help Democrats in gubernatorial and legislative races. Their goal is to fight Republican gerrymanders by influencing the drawing of congressional district boundaries after the 2020 Census.

To that we should probably add that both Barack and Michelle Obama have talked about continuing their work with initiatives they began while in the White House – “My Brother’s Keeper” and “Let Girls Learn.” I suspect that he will also be engaged in the kind of thing he talked about at South by Southwest last summer – namely encouraging the technology sector to get involved in pursuing ways that they can help bring about change. For example:

We’re the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote…We take enormous pride in the fact that we are the world’s oldest continuous democracy, and yet we systematically put up barriers and make it as hard as possible for our citizens to vote. And it is much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise the single most important task in a democracy, and that is for you to select who is going to represent you in government.

Now, I think it’s important for a group like this, as we come up to an election, regardless of your party affiliation, to think about how do we redesign our systems so that we don’t have 50 percent or 55 percent voter participation on presidential elections, and during off-year congressional elections, you’ve got 39 or 40 percent voting.

Notice what all those things have in common: they’re all about empowering everyday people from the bottom up. But Dionne suggests that, especially in the Trump era, Obama should do more.

And it would be good to see Obama visit Appalachia and the old factory towns and cities where Trump did well to connect with white working-class voters who have soured on progressive politics…

It may fall to the president of hope and change to become the national spokesman for opposition and even resistance on civil liberties, civil rights, press freedom, the rights of immigrants and religious minorities, and the United States’ standing in the world.

It very well might be that in the near future our former president will chose to speak out in opposition to the direction Trump and Republicans take the country. But relying on him to be “the national spokesman for opposition” furthers the mythology that an effective response from Democrats will come from continuing to embrace the Great Man theory of change.

Under this view of things, all historical change is a project reserved for our leaders; the rest of us are just drawn along in their wake with little agency or responsibility.

As an example of an alternative to Obama visiting Appalachia and factory towns where Trump did well, here’s an idea that was reportedly part of the brainstorming among some Obama alumni:

At one gathering on Tuesday night in a Washington living room, about a dozen current and former Obama appointees discussed creating an “action tank” – like a think tank, but more ground game than Ivy Tower – with the working title “Center for a New American Response.” According to notes from one attendee, they also kicked around the idea of an equivalent of the PeaceCorps or Teach for America to plant service-oriented progressives in the rural areas Trump won, and a toolkit to help a new generation run for local office without waiting for an open seat or working through crusty party committees.

That’s exactly the kind of thing these young people learned from working with the Community Organizer-in-Chief. It is also the kind of thing that is important for the entire Democratic Party to consider.

The truth is that an ugly battle over the next DNC chair that is nothing more than a re-litigation of the Sanders/Clinton primary is also a useless promotion of the Great Man theory of change. It is not up to Ellison or Perez (or even Bernie Sanders) to save the Democratic Party. The one who should lead is the one who best understands what it means to listen, engage and mobilize the people who will actually bring about change.

We saw no better example of that than the way that thousands of people calling their Representatives this week achieved an immediate roll-back of the Republican plan to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. The same will likely happen with Republican plans to repeal Obamacare. It will be the voices of people speaking up and amplified by both media and our political leaders that will provide the most effective opposition.

Don’t put this all on Obama. Some sayings persist because they capture the truth – as is the case with: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly and frequently blogs at Political Animal.