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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s Role in Party-Building

From Juliet Eilperin’s Washington Post article, “Obama, who once stood as party outsider, now works to strengthen Democrats“:

Barack Obama rose to prominence as a different kind of Democrat, an outsider who was not part of the establishment and who would chart a separate course. Eight years later, the president finds himself working hard to restore a party from which he was once eager to stand apart.
Obama has presided over a greater loss of electoral power for his party than any two-term president since World War II. And 2016 represents one last opportunity for him to reverse that trend.

Obama was indeed a “different kind of Democrat,” not simply because he is an African American, but also because he was able to articulate an inspiring vision of hope and opportunity more convincingly than did the 2000 and 2004 Democratic presidential nominees. But Eilperin may be overstating the case a bit in calling Obama an “outsider.” He didn’t trumpet his outside status as loudly as did other candidates we have seen more recently, mostly Republicans, like Trump and several others.
Eilperin’s statement that Obama “presided over” the loss of electoral power sounds a little like his neglect of his party’s health caused the GOP’s success in 2010 and 2014 non-presidential elections. Yes, the President is the leader of his party and is accountable to some extent for his party’s political health. But as Eilperin later clarifies:

Many factors have contributed to Republicans’ gains on the state and federal levels, including a concerted push by their donors to target state races and a midterm election that allowed them to lock in favorable congressional district lines.

The “concerted push” was an unprecedented GOP effort, fueled by the Republican organizational Frankenstein, the tea party. Losses for Democrats have included 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, 913 state legislative seats, 11 governorships and 32 state legislative chambers.
Another factor that should be addressed is the Democrats’ comparatively weak candidate recruitment. As late as this year, for example, Democrats failed to field a candidate in a potential swing congressional district in VA.
So what is the President now doing to restore Democratic strength down ballot? Eilperin writes:

…The president’s two successful White House bids have vastly upgraded the party’s voter outreach infrastructure by expanding the national voter file the Democratic National Committee first started in 2006. And they point to the huge increases in the number of Democratic campaign volunteers — from roughly 252,000 in 2004 to 2.2 million in 2012 — as evidence of that upgrade.
“Barack Obama has single-handedly modernized the Democrats’ ability to wage campaigns on the local level,” said Jim Messina, who managed Obama’s re­election campaign.
…In December, the heads of three party committees met to develop a joint redistricting strategy, and Obama signed a redistricting fundraising appeal for the Democratic Governors Association in January. Even former members such as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) have been asked to attend fundraisers on behalf of state lawmakers in states such as Ohio.

No doubt many Democratic leaders want the President to focus more on raising money and providing support for the party’s candidates. But the final six months of every president’s tenure are going to be increasingly focused on legacy-building and achieving significant reforms to help create a more secure nation and world.
Party-building may seem to be a parochial challenge compared to that. But really, it’s an important part of the president’s legacy — especially when his party is the only one that strives to serve human needs of all Americans.

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