Barack Obama made one thing very clear in his first post-election news conference Monday: He thinks that the infrastructure of the Democratic Party is badly in need of an overhaul.
“Democrats have to be clear on the given population distribution across the country,” Obama said. “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.”
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. And so I think the discussions that have been taking place about, how do you build more grass-roots 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.
That's a smart diagnosis — even if it ignores the “why” behind the downballot collapse of the party. (More on that below.) What's even more interesting is that Obama has previously signaled that once he leaves office, he plans to be involved in the nittiest-grittiest politics there is: redistricting.
“Hoping to regain lost ground in the states before elected officials there redraw congressional maps for the next decade, Democrats have launched a new group that will enlist the aid of President Obama as well as a slew of the party’s liberal allies,” wrote The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin in October. “The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which will be chaired by former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., will focus on key legislative and gubernatorial races, voter initiatives and legal fights.”
Interesting, right? And it's made all the more intriguing by the fact that a) Obama has never really been willing to put his political brand on the line to aid his party and b) he is blamed by many downballot Democrats for the deep losses the party has suffered over the duration of his presidency.
Let's take the second point first. It's beyond dispute that the Obama years have been very, very bad for his party at every level but the presidential one.
Whether or not Obama is to blame for those losses is more murky territory. There's no question that Republicans ran against Obama in both the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. But it's also true that the president's party almost always loses seats in midterms — likely a function of the public's long-running desire for divided government.
Regardless of the specific reason (in truth, it's almost certainly not just one reason), Democrats find themselves at a remarkably low ebb — particularly at the state and local level. Republicans now hold 33 governorships and have total control of all levers of state government — governor as well as both houses of state legislatures — in 25 states.
Now, to the first point I made above — that Obama seems committed to helping reverse these losses.
The simple fact is — and any Democrat who didn't work in the Obama White House (and a few who did) will tell you this — that Obama and his inner circle were never terribly concerned about the broader Democratic Party during his first six or so years in the White House.
Remember that Obama wasn't the choice of the party establishment for president in 2008. In fact, he ran against the party insiders and Washington veterans who had rallied to Hillary Clinton. And once in office, Obama did little to curry favor with congressional Democrats. While there's always some level of he's-not-paying-enough-attention-to-us-ism that happens between a president and his party in Congress, this was more than that. Officials at the House and Senate Democratic campaign committee regularly complained about the Obama team's unwillingness to risk sullying his brand by endorsing or campaigning for downballot candidates.
The first priority — also the second and third and fourth priorities — for the Obama team was protecting his brand and ensuring first his reelection, and then his legacy. Only in the 2016 election did Obama suddenly emerge as the campaigner in chief (for candidates other than himself).
“On the airwaves, Obama is stepping up for down-ballot Democrats like never before,” read the headline of a recent piece by The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe and Paul Kane. It read, in part:
Democrats have griped about the president's passive approach to campaigning for them, particularly House Democrats, who have more often been given the services of Vice President Biden for campaign appearances and ads. During the 2008 campaign, Obama did just one advertisement for congressional Democrats. In 2012, Democrats felt neglected down the ballot even on small matters such as getting the presidential team's field staff to hand out literature for their campaigns as they canvassed for votes.
Yup. And an argument can be made that much of Obama's involvement in the 2016 campaign was aimed at protecting/promoting his own legacy.
With Clinton's loss, however, the Democratic Party is remarkably bereft of national figures other than Obama. Given the Senate map in 2018 (25 Democratic seats up compared to just eight for Republicans) and the House map still heavily gerrymandered after the 2010 Census, the rebuilding of the Democratic Party won't be a two-year project. It won't be until at least 2022, the election after the decennial redistricting process, that Democrats have a realistic hope of controlling both chambers of Congress — barring a political cataclysm.
What that timetable requires is both patience and an extended commitment to remaking a party whose weaknesses had been papered over by its success at the top of the ticket. The extent of Obama's commitment to this rebuilding effort will be the key factor in whether it can succeed.