Democrats ask whether Barack Obama could have done more
Party leaders feel the outgoing president showed little interest in wooing them
(Financial Times) -His predecessors were famous for doling out dozens of presidential pens as souvenirs to congressional staffers at bill-signing ceremonies, and offering frequent trips on Air Force One to fellow members of their party in the House and the Senate. President 44? Not so much.When Barack Obama leaves the White House on Friday, he will depart with a 53 per cent approval rating among the American public and an 87 per cent approval rating among Democrats, according to an average of RealClearPolitics polls. It is one of the highest approval ratings for a departing president in recent memory.
Yet Mr Obama is less beloved among leaders of his own party who blame the outgoing president for prioritising his own legacy above that of the Democratic party — a choice that they say is partly to blame for Democrats’ poor performance in last year’s election.
“Democrats have now won more votes in six out of the last seven elections, where at the same time we have less power than we’ve had since the 1920s,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a centre-left think-tank in Washington. “My own belief is the president should have done more to support the Democratic party as an institution during his time in office and that some of the losses we had are because we as a national party did not try hard enough.
” Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to senators Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy, said: “The fact of the matter is despite his many legislative accomplishments, promoting and expanding the Democratic party was not one of them. Under him, the party suffered.” In a January interview with ABC News, Mr Obama acknowledged he bore “some responsibility” for the Democrats’ loss of seats in Congress and of the White House following his eight years in office.
“I couldn’t be both chief organiser of the Democratic party and function as commander-in-chief and president of the United States,” Mr Obama said. “We did not begin what I think needs to happen over the long haul, and that is rebuild the Democratic party at the ground level.” Yet other Democrats see the problem not so much as a function of Mr Obama’s lack of time as his lack of interest, especially when it came to wooing congressional representatives from his own party, or spending time doing favours for them, a job he viewed as slightly more tedious, especially compared with the sweeping agenda he had set for the White House.
I couldn’t be both chief organiser of the Democratic party and function as commander-in-chief and president of the United States
Former President Bill Clinton, for instance, was known for signing landmark bills using dozens of presidential pens so that the congressional representatives and aides who pushed the legislation through could be rewarded with souvenirs. Mr Obama scaled back the tradition, hosting roughly one-third fewer bill signing ceremonies than either Mr Clinton or George W Bush, according to a USA Today-American Presidency Project analysis.
Trips on Air Force One have been rarer for Democratic congressmen and senators than they were for Democratic representatives under Mr Clinton, noted Matt Bennett, co-founder of the Democratic think-tank Third Way and an alumnus of Mr Clinton’s White House. Other small gestures also contributed to a feeling among Democratic representatives and their staffers that the president and his team sometimes looked down on them. “[The Clintons] would woo members of Congress in every way possible,” Mr Bennett said.
“They would give them rides home on Air Force One. Clinton would stay up until the middle of the night waking [congressmen] up and talking to them.” Mr Manley, the former Senate aide, noted that when Mr Obama attended a fundraiser in a Democratic representative’s home state, for instance, the representative in question would often be asked to pay to attend the event. At campaign rallies, Mr Manley noted, Mr Obama would sometimes fail to name-check a Democratic senator or congressman in the audience — a Washington faux pas.
Mr Bennett noted that it was natural Mr Obama had been less hands-on with his party than some of his predecessors, given that most Democratic leaders backed Hillary Clinton over Mr Obama in the 2008 primary. Still, he said that Mr Obama bore some of the responsibility, particularly for the current state of the Democratic National Committee.
One area of criticism was the Obama administration’s 2013 decision to create a separate, Chicago-based non-profit called Organizing for Action, to help push the White House agenda — rather than using the structure of the DNC. That weakened the DNC and pulled needed resources from it, critics say.
Other criticism by Democrats involved Mr Obama’s continued loyalty to Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Florida congresswoman who ran the DNC from 2011 until 2016 when she resigned after the committee’s emails were hacked and published online. Numerous Democrats had expressed dissatisfaction with Ms Wasserman-Schultz’s leadership before then, particularly over the DNC’s decision to host just a handful of presidential primary debates in 2015 and 2016 — a move that critics alleged was orchestrated to help Mrs Clinton’s presidential candidacy. In February, the committee will elect Ms Wasserman-Schultz’s replacement, a move Democrats hope will begin the initial steps of rebuilding the party in time for 2020. Whether Mr Obama will be taking on a more significant role in his party after he leaves office is another question.