Democrats need to stop being such babies about Barack Obama

Ryan Cooper

Pete Buttigieg got in hot water with many loyal Democrats on Sunday when the Los Angeles Times reported that he cited the "failures of the Obama era" as part of why Trump's election happened. This inspired furious outrage from liberal partisans and party apparatchiks — only soothed (and tweets deleted) when the reporter said he had misquoted Buttigieg, who was then quick to lavish praise on the ex-president.

But as it turns out, Buttigieg previously said almost the exact same thing in a recent interview with Showtime's The Circus. "I don't think there's going back to Obama... the American political world we've been in from the day I was born, has been blown up," he explained, "[thanks to] its own failures which culminated in Trump. Look, if the old way worked, something like Trump would never have been possible."

So this recent flap sure looks like another flip-flop from Payola Pete, mayor of Indiana's fourth largest city. But at least in his beta release form, I have to admit that Buttigieg was completely correct. Democrats really need to get over this worshipful reverence of Barack Obama.

For one thing, it is simply beyond question that the Obama years were a political disaster. From having commanding majorities in both the House and the Senate, Democrats lost first the former, then the latter, and finally the presidency, as the candidate running as Obama's successor bobbled perhaps the easiest lay-up election in American history. Meanwhile, the party all but collapsed in many states, as devastating national defeats translated into the loss of over 1,000 state legislative seats.

As I have written before, the primary reason for the Obama-era Democrats' initial crushing loss in 2010, which locked in Republican gains for a decade at least through their ensuing control of the state gerrymandering process, was policy error — undershooting the size of the economic stimulus in response to the Great Recession on the one hand, and secretly using homeowner assistance money to bail out the banks on the other. The former was not entirely Obama's fault, as he had to get congressional approval for the stimulus, but the latter was entirely under his control. Millions were left out of work, and about 10 million people losing their homes wreaked further economic devastation. As any historian could tell you, being in power during a huge economic disaster is the surest possible way to get blown out of the water in the next election.

If you take Obama out of the equation, what Buttigieg was saying before it looks like folks might stop sending those fat campaign checks is all but conventional wisdom even among liberals. Obama himself reportedly has grave doubts about what Trump means for his legacy. Clearly if the party could lose to the most unpopular major party nominee in the history of polling, whatever was happening before 2016 was not exactly working out.

And from the other side of the fence, Obama has shown no inclination to fulfill the sort of leadership role loyal Democrats clearly crave. Despite the shattering national crisis that Trump presents, he has not gone on to a different office — unlike, say, John Quincy Adams, who returned to the House after his presidency and fought slavery literally until his dying breath. Obama is not out there mobilizing day and night against Trump's migrant concentration camps, or his Muslim ban, or his blatant abuses of power.

Only occasionally will Obama pop up to endorse candidates, often centrist or center-right white men like Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau. He largely avoided campaigning in 2018 until the last few weeks before the election. He's mainly keeping to himself, hanging out with rich tycoons and celebrities, and making eye-popping sums giving paid speeches before big corporations and banks.

He appears in public only occasionally — and when he does, he has a tendency to indulge in get-off-my-lawn youth scolding that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote back in 2013, was offensive and out of date when he did it as president. "This idea of purity and you're never compromised and you're always politically 'woke' and all that stuff," he said at a recent Obama Foundation summit. "You should get over that quickly. The world is messy, there are ambiguities." Just like the time when "we tortured some folks," but it was still important to "look forward as opposed to backwards" instead of enforcing the law, I suppose.

Jokes aside, this almost beggars belief. President Trump is flagrantly stealing money from the American state, attempting to get foreign countries to gin up political persecutions of Obama's own vice president, and Obama is out here raising worries about exaggerated nonsense from America's most dimwitted and gullible columnists, and earning praise from loathsome trolls:



Now, let me be clear: All this is, of course, Obama's complete right as a private citizen. It is, at least for the moment, still a free country. But Democrats should not follow the advice of the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, who argues that "it is unheard of for a party following a two-term president not to run on his achievements," in part because "Republicans did that with former president Ronald Reagan for 30 years." She would know, from her previous incarnation as a prolific and absolutely shameless propagandist for Mitt Romney. But the grim fate of the GOP is precisely the problem.

We see today what you get when a party loses the ability to think critically about its history, and treats its leaders as infallible saints no matter what they do: Donald Trump.

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