Obama: ‘You Are Right To Be Concerned’
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Barack Obama’s message to Democrats: Stop dreaming of him.
Speaking at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser Thursday here in the lush backyard of two party megadonors, Obama warned of a country and world on the brink — “you are right to be concerned,” he told the crowd — but said they’d flub their chance to change that if they kept pining for a magical savior.
“Do not wait for the perfect message, don’t wait to feel a tingle in your spine because you’re expecting politicians to be so inspiring and poetic and moving that somehow, ‘OK, I’ll get off my couch after all and go spend the 15-20 minutes it takes for me to vote,’” Obama said in his first public comments in months, which only a few reporters and no cameras were allowed in for. “Because that’s part of what happened in the last election. I heard that too much.”
“Boil it down,” Obama said, reiterating an argument he made on the campaign trail for Ralph Northam in 2017 about the existential challenge Trump poses to America. “If we don’t vote, then this democracy doesn’t work.”
He almost accepted some of the blame for the state of the party, though he framed it less as the DNC atrophying from years of benign neglect while he was in the White House and being saddled with his reelection campaign debt and more as people making the mistake of falling too much in love with him.
“I’ll be honest with you, if I have a regret during my presidency, it is that people were so focused on me and the battles we were having, particularly after we lost the House, that folks stopped paying attention up and down the ballot,” Obama said.
Obama stuck to his routine of never saying President Donald Trump’s name in public, but he spoke at length about what his problems are with the Trump presidency — and why he thinks Democrats would be foolish to believe that they’re in good shape to beat him just because they’ve been doing well in winning recent elections.
“Fear is powerful,” Obama said. “Telling people that somebody’s out to get you, or somebody took your job, or somebody has it out for you, or is going to change you, or your community, or your way of life — that’s an old story and it has shown itself to be powerful in societies all around the world. It is a deliberate, systematic effort to tap into that part of our brain that carries fear in it.”
He did not specifically discuss immigrant families being separated at detention centers. He did not discuss the travel ban or other rulings from the Supreme Court this week. Teed up gently but directly by DNC chairman Tom Perez, who was seated next to him on a small stage asking questions to prompt the discussion, he dodged a question about Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. Merrick Garland’s name wasn’t mentioned, and neither was the current push by most Senate Democrats — and supported by Obama’s former vice president Joe Biden — to say that Trump’s nominee should also not be given a hearing until after the next election. No one mentioned Joe Crowley’s shocker primary loss, or the burst of youthful optimism and talk of socialism that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win has injected into Democratic politics. He spoke only obliquely about the “Me Too” movement, saying that the current Republican leadership believes in “women staying in their place in all kinds of ways.”
His only direct comments on current events were about the newspaper office shooting in Maryland earlier Thursday, which he said left him heartbroken but hopeful that people would see this one as the turning point to take action on gun laws.
Instead, he talked mostly in general terms about how the Republicans and Democrats tell “different stories.”
“There’s a fundamental contrast of how we view the world,” Obama said. “We are seeing the consequences of when one vision is realized, or in charge.”
The event was the first of three fundraisers Obama is doing in California this week, with two scheduled Friday in San Francisco for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Thursday night’s event was to boost a DNC that is still struggling to reassert and refinance itself a year and a half into the chairmanship of Perez and with the massive undertaking of the 2020 election looming just behind the midterms. On that front, Obama said, Democrats could learn from Republicans, who have continued rapidly building out their infrastructure and fundraising despite Trump’s daily pummeling of the GOP to reshape it in his image.
“They don’t worry about inspiration,” Obama said. “They worry about winning the seat and they are very systematic about work not just at the presidential level but at the congressional and state legislative levels.”
But the tension between the desperation among many Democrats that Obama needs to lead the charge against Trump and the shift away that the former president and Democratic officials are pushing played out in Perez himself: He called Obama out onto the stage by saying, “Let’s give it up for the real president of the United States,” then 20 minutes later, downplayed what he called “political venture capitalists — they want to find the next Barack Obama” — who aren’t focused on the nuts and bolts of party building.
Opinions were divided within the audience, too.
“You only have a few super candidates,” said former California Gov. Gray Davis, applauding the focus on mechanics.
“Notwithstanding his post-partisan rhetoric, Democrats need him, his inspiration, his energy and his memory to get through these dark days,” said Eric Bauman, the California Democratic chairman who is helping lead efforts for his party to flip several key nearby House seats.
The event stuck to the focus-on-the-midterms message, with Christina Aguilera performing Aretha Franklin’s “Freedom” (“You better think / Think about what you’re trying to do to me”) and the hosts handing out gift bags in the end with a big red bag of Intelligentsia coffee beans inside and a “Stay Energized for November” sticker on front.
A new national message will come, Obama argued, as the 2020 field of presidential candidates emerges. The people who are looking for one now are being ridiculous, he said, but if they needed something to hold them over, he said his own old slogan still works.
“All these people that are out here kvetching and wringing their hands and stressed and anxious and constantly watching cable TV and howling at the moon, ‘What are we going to do?,’ their hair’s falling out, they can’t sleep,” Obama said. “The majority of the American people prefer a story of hope. A majority of the American people prefer a country that comes together rather than being divided. The majority of the country doesn’t want to see a dog-eat-dog world where everybody is angry all the time.”
Obama mocked Trump and others for being among the angry: “They’re mad even when they win.”
Trump’s executive actions and legal maneuvers to cut down Obamacare after failing to repeal it in Congress are a perfect example of what he means, Obama said.
“I am not surprised that instead of replacing what we had done with something better, they just have done their best to undermine and erode what’s already in place,” he said. “Of course people are going to be angry about that, because if you had health care and suddenly somebody who says they’re going to make it better comes in and makes it worse, you’ll be pissed. You should go out and vote.”
Obama called that an opportunity for Democrats.
“Reality has an interesting way of coming up and biting you, and the other side has been peddling a lot of stuff that is so patently untrue that you can get away with it for a while, but at a certain point, you confront reality,” he said. “The Democrats’ job is not to exaggerate; the Democrats’ job is not to simply mimic the tactics of the other side. All we have to do is work hard on behalf of that truth. And if we do, we’ll get better outcomes.”