President Obama, on the verge of leaving the White House, appears to be growing more introspective and, yes, self-critical. This acknowledgment, made in response to a question from ABC's George Stephanopoulos about the weakened state of the Democratic Party, was particularly striking to me:
I take some responsibility on that. I think that some of it was circumstances. If you look at what happened, I came in in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And unlike FDR who waited — well, didn't take office until about three years into the Great Depression, it was happening just as I was elected. I think we did a really good job in saving this economy and putting us back on the track of growth. But what that meant is in 2010 there were a lot of folks who were still out of work. There were a lot of folks who had lost their homes or saw their home values plummet, their 401k's plummet. And we were just at the beginnings of a recovery. And the, you know, whoever is president at that point is going to get hit, and his party's going to get hit. That then means that suddenly you've got a redistricting in which a lot of state legislatures are now Republican. They draw lines that give a huge structural advantage in subsequent elections. But what I think that what is also true is that partly because my docket was really full here, so I couldn't be both chief organizer of the Democratic Party and function as commander in chief and president of the United States. 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.
That's a remarkable admission from a president — and a presidential inner circle — who spent the first seven-plus years of his presidency insisting that he was doing everything he could to help down-ballot Democrats despite scads of evidence that made clear that the primary (and oftentimes only) focus for this president was Brand Obama.
For much of the Obama years, I would field regular complaints from Democratic congressional strategists about the disengagement of the White House from their plights. Particularly in his first four years in office, Obama was reluctant to throw his name or image behind any candidate not named Barack Obama. He rarely appeared beside other candidates for office as a result, leaving down-ballot Democrats distraught.
Some of that carping was to be expected. No party's down-ballot elected officials and strategists think the White House is ever doing enough for them. There is always another phone call, personal appearance or TV ad that the president woulda, coulda, shoulda done. But Obama's level of brand protection went beyond the norm. Some of that was clearly due to concerns about getting reelected — always the No. 1 priority of every president regardless of party. And some of Obama's resistance to being the head of the party (as opposed to the head of Obama Inc.) came from the relative disdain with which he held Congress and, more broadly, the party establishment. Obama spent two years in the Senate before deciding to run for president. And remember that, during that candidacy, many of his colleagues lined up behind Hillary Clinton, not him.
Regardless of his reasons, the decline of the Democratic Party down-ballot performance is impossible to dispute. This chart shows the striking losses.
Now, to be clear, Obama is not taking all of the blame for those Democratic setbacks. Instead he is arguing — at least to Stephanopoulos — that he was unable to do everything he could have (and should have?) done to build the Democratic Party because he was distracted by the many problems in the country he had to solve.
“I couldn't be both chief organizer of the Democratic Party and function as commander in chief and president of the United States,” Obama said.
That's sort of like missing your kid's school play and then afterward “comforting” him by saying: “I'm sorry I missed your play. I was busy saving peoples' lives in the emergency room." (Nota bene: This works only if you are actually a doctor. Trust me.)
But it is still an acknowledgment from Obama that he did not do enough to build his party over the near-decade he spent in the White House. (That admission comes just a few months after Obama made clear that his big priority upon leaving the White House will be the decidedly unsexy task of positioning Democrats for the decennial redistricting process in 2021.)
That acknowledgment will be cold comfort to the hundreds (and hundreds) of Democratic elected officials who lost races during the Obama years. Nevertheless, Obama's admission is telling and confirms that the most basic takeaway from his presidency is this: Barack Obama is a uniquely popular political figure who was able to easily win the White House twice. Notice that the words “Democrat” or “Democratic Party” never appear in that sentence. (Somewhere, Hillary Clinton grimaces.)