Democracy Dies in Darkness

Post Partisan | Opinion

An unexpected opportunity for Barack Obama

September 7, 2018 at 5:50 PM

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Former president Barack Obama heavily criticized the Republican party during a speech at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign campus on Sept. 7. (Reuters)

No one does the cool burn quite so deftly as Barack Obama.

The former president has stepped back onto the political stage, spelling out as no one else has — or can — what the stakes are in November, branding his successor, Donald Trump, as nothing short of “a threat to democracy,” and reminding the country that the economic rebound began on his watch.

He also issued a larger indictment. “Over the past few decades, the politics of division, of resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party,” Obama said.”It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.”

It didn’t hurt that the moment Obama chose for his return happened to come at the end of what was weirdest week of the Trump presidency, during which an unnamed high-ranking official wrote a New York Times op-ed claiming that the current occupant of the Oval Office is unhinged and barely held in check by a “quiet resistance” within his own ranks. Indeed, even as Obama was delivering his speech Friday in Illinois, Trump was doing his best to prove it by announcing that he wants the Justice Department to find the author.

“This is not normal,” Obama said during his speech Friday at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “These are extraordinary times. And they’re dangerous times. But here’s the good news. In two months we have the chance, not the certainty, but the chance, to restore some semblance of sanity to our politics.”

Obama, as he well knows, must use his powers selectively. A former president must hover high enough above the fray that he does not appear to be just another politician. And for all the enthusiasm the mention of Obama’s name brings to the Democratic base, it is also certain to invoke a fierce reaction from the right.

Also worth remembering: Midterm elections were not exactly Obama’s forte. In the two that occurred during his presidency, the Democrats suffered devastating losses from the top of the ticket to the bottom.

In that respect, the former president is attempting during the Trump era what he could not do when he was in the White House. Will Obama be able to move the coalition that elected him twice — including minorities and young people — to show up for Democrats when his name is not on the ballot? It is an unexpected opportunity. Trump has given Obama a chance to write a new postscript to his own legacy.


Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics. She joined The Post in 2010 from Time magazine and has also worked at the Los Angeles Times.

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