President Obama put on his political strategist cap Monday at a White House news conference, diagnosing the Democratic Party's immediate problems and telling it what it needs to correct going forward.
I believe that we have better ideas. But I also believe that good ideas don't matter if people don't hear them. And one of the issues the Democrats have to be clear on is the given population distribution across the country. We have to compete everywhere. We have to show up everywhere. We have to work at a grass-roots level, something that's been a running thread in my career.I won Iowa not because the demographics dictated that I would win Iowa. It was because I spent 87 days going to every small town and fair and fish fry and VFW Hall, and there were some counties where I might have lost, but maybe I lost by 20 points instead of 50 points. There's some counties maybe I won, that people didn't expect, because people had a chance to see you and listen to you and get a sense of who you stood for and who you were fighting for.And the challenge for a national party is how do you dig in there and create those kinds of structures so that people have a sense of what it is that you stand for. And that increasingly is difficult to do just through a national press strategy. It's increasingly difficult to do because of the splintering of the press (ph). And so I think the discussions that have been taking place about, how do you build more grassroots organizing, how do you build state parties and local parties and school board elections you're paying attention to, state rep races and city council races — that all, I think, will contribute to stronger outcomes in the future. And I'm optimistic that will happen.
The Iowa comment, to some, seemed designed for Clinton.
President Obama's description of how he won Iowa is low-key shade at Clinton and how much time she spent campaigning in the states she lost.— Joy-Ann (Pro-Democracy) Reid 😷 (@JoyAnnReid) November 14, 2016
2/ Obama is seriously subtweeting HRC right now. Talking about how much he campaigned in Iowa, where demographics not on his side— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) November 14, 2016
Obama: "I won Iowa not because the demographics dictate that I would win Iowa, but because I spent 87 days" there - that's gotta sting 4 HRC— Ali Rogin (@AliRogin) November 14, 2016
So, I get the argument. Clinton was criticized for her campaign schedule: both for not making a post-convention appearance in Wisconsin — a state she lost — and for not having a particularly arduous and intense one. You might even recall a certain opponent of hers suggesting she didn't have the "stamina" and needed lots of sleep. (Whatever happened to that guy?)
In that way, Obama's comments could certainly be read as a dig at the campaign that Clinton ran and the areas in which she fell short.
But the context of Obama's comments make pretty clear that he was talking about the distribution of his party more broadly. The Democrats are the party of urban areas and find themselves on the short end in an increasing number of states. This has left them with a historically low amount of power beneath the White House level. And it's a troubling development for the party over the long term if they start losing in the Midwest and Rust Belt, like they did last week.
At the same time, his choice of Iowa as his example is easy to read as a shot at Clinton. Iowa provided one of the biggest swings between 2012 and 2016, going for Obama by six points and then going for Trump by nearly 10 points, according to the latest election results from the Cook Political Report's David Wasserman. If there's one state that epitomizes Clinton's failures to live up to the example set by Obama, it's Iowa, Iowa, Iowa.
Obama's mention of a "national press strategy" could also be read as a dig at Clinton. But Trump's team certainly ran that kind of campaign, too, so it could have been more a reference to how difficult it is to focus intently on individual states these days — for both sides.
Overall, Obama's comments don't seem to include much actual malice. Perhaps he thinks Iowa epitomized Clinton's failings as a candidate and he's frustrated at her losing to a guy who once questioned his legitimacy as president. Or maybe he just thinks it's a good example of a very white, Midwestern state that Democrats can't lose election after election, and he wants them to try harder to keep it from happening again.