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Obama Is More Valuable as a Pundit Than as a Politician


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Former President Barack Obama is trying to help Democrats down the stretch. Most visibly, that means appearing as a headliner at swing-state campaign rallies, where he is more in demand than President Joe Biden. But he’s also practicing humanity’s highest calling — political punditry — and his message is something Democrats should keep in mind as they note his continued popularity on the stump.

In one striking moment, appearing on the “Pod Save America” podcast, Obama engaged in a little light hippie-punching as a way of pushing back on so-called cancel culture. Urging Democrats not to be a “buzzkill,” he said: “Sometimes people just want to not feel as if they are walking on eggshells. And they want some acknowledgment that life is messy and that that all of us at any given moment can say things the wrong way, make mistakes.”

This seems like something that (given their ages) Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer almost certainly agree with. I’ve heard a similar sentiment in conversations with many Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Unfortunately, not every swing voter can have private off-the-record conversations with senior administration officials or members of Congress where they can get reassurance that mainstream Democrats aren’t fully on board with the most strident left-wing talking points. For people to know that, you have to tell them — in public — the way Obama did.

In fact, the sense that Democrats can’t publicly voice their own concerns with emerging progressive speech norms only exacerbates the public perception that these norms have gone off the rails. One of the most crucial facts about Obama’s commentary is that no bolt of lightning struck him down after he made it.

Nor did it when he got even spicier on the subject of identity politics. On that same podcast, which is hosted by some of his former aides, Obama reiterated his belief that he wants to see his daughters “treated fairly” rather than be subject to “a bunch of nonsense” that White men could avoid. His commitment to feminism and against racism is based on “the idea of basic equal treatment and fairness,” which he contrasted with another idea:

I think where we get into trouble sometimes is when we try to suggest that some groups are more — because they historically have been victimized more, that somehow they have a status that’s different than other people, and that we’re going around scolding folks if they don’t use exactly the right phrase. Or you know, that identity politics becomes the principal lens through which we view our various political challenges.

These are not earth-shattering ideas. But they are strikingly different from the approach the left has taken over the past five years, when anti-racism has meant not an individualized assessment of bias or discrimination but the sense that any disparity is per se bigotry. In Washington, for example, a traffic enforcement task force stopped enforcing rules against drivers using illegal fake license plates out of concern for racial equity. School systems across the country have faced pressure to stop using tests to place kids into advanced courses because Black and Hispanic kids do worse on the tests than White and Asian ones.

Even when pushing for much more sensible ideas, progressives have a tendency to over-rely on identity as a lens. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, long the go-to source for mainstream Democrats for nerdy details about the social safety net, recently issued an analysis of a low-income housing assistance program that was titled, “High Hardship Among Black and Latinx LBGTQ Renters Underscores Need for More Housing Vouchers.”

Does it? As Obama notes, this kind of approach makes Democrats sound to a lot of people “as if you’re not speaking to me and my concerns or, for that matter, my kid’s concerns and their future.”

In a book proposal written while he was in law school, recently rediscovered by the historian Timothy Shenk, Obama was even more pointed. In the proposal he wrote that “precisely because America is a racist society we cannot realistically expect white America to make special concessions towards blacks over the long haul” and criticized identity-politics entrepreneurs who “fervently insist on the pervasiveness of white racism” but “have adopted a strategy that depends on white guilt for its effectiveness.”

Of course, when he became a practicing politician, Obama didn’t talk like that. Instead, he talked the way that analysis implies he ought to have talked — mostly downplaying race and racism and trying to build a broad coalition around economic issues. And strikingly, in 2012 Obama won a majority of votes of low-income White people, while Donald Trump won them in 2016 and 2020.

My belief is that a large number of Democrats are aware on some level that Obama’s approach is correct, but they are hesitant to openly criticize dysfunctional norms and practices the way he does. White Democrats worry that they won’t get the same leeway he does, and want their non-White colleagues to say what they won’t. Black and Hispanic politicians, meanwhile, resent being used in this way.

I sympathize with both sides. But I also hear Democrats taking about how the future of democracy is on the line. And I worry that millions of vulnerable people could lose much-needed health care and abortion rights if Republicans win. So my conclusion is clear: Everyone needs to get over themselves and do what it takes to win.

Most of all, everyone needs to recognize how utterly ruthless Obama-the-politician was in taking the advice of Obama-the-pundit. In his campaign book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama confesses not only that “I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment” when he sees Mexican flags at pro-immigration rallies, but also that “I feel a certain frustration” when he has to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing his car.

Obama did not wait for a Hispanic politician to give him the OK to strike a moderate posture on immigration. He realized that people wanted to hear that he understood and empathized with their concerns, and didn’t think being skeptical of immigration made you a racist. And so that’s what he said, boldly and directly. And for his trouble, he won elections and was able to allow hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the US illegally to remain in the US. He also passed a sweeping health-care overhaul that substantially reduced racial disparities in access to health insurance, and he did it without frontloading racial equity as a consideration because he knew many voters in Iowa and rural Wisconsin wanted to hear how his program would benefit people like them.

This approach won’t address all of Democrats’ political challenges — to state the obvious, it would be good if inflation were lower — but it would be a step in the right direction. It’s not even that complicated. All it would take is a little courage (audacity, as Obama might say) and some willingness to throw the occasional elbow.

And Democrats should know that the risks are smaller than they seem. Not only did Obama win two terms, he’s also the guy everyone wants to speak at their rally.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans.”

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