Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Former President Barack Obama took a direct swipe at President Donald Trump on Friday, slamming his attempts to “kneecap the Postal Service.”
During a podcast with his former campaign manager David Plouffe, Obama said, “You have the President throwing in this additional monkey wrench trying to starve the Postal Service. My question is what are Republicans doing where you are so scared of people voting that you are now willing to undermine what is part of the basic infrastructure of American life?”
This is just one of several statements that we have heard from the former president as the election heats up. At a private fundraiser in July, Obama attacked Trump for using “nativist, racist, sexist” fear to whip up support. Although Obama was initially reluctant to criticize Trump in direct terms, he has been speaking with greater urgency about the state of the 2020 election and the threat that our democracy faces under the current administration.
Any comment Obama makes could potentially distract from the Democratic campaign and spark a backlash against Joe Biden. And there are plenty of critics who will say it is uncouth for a former president to intervene in an election — even though he is certainly not the first to do so. After Harry Truman left the White House, he openly attacked the GOP and used his political capital to continue to redefine the Democratic Party. Republican Dwight Eisenhower went on to criticize Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. More recently, Bill Clinton played an active role in supporting his wife Hillary Clinton during her 2008 and 2016 campaigns.
Obama certainly has a major role to play in the coming months — but what is the most important contribution that he can make as Americans prepare for Election Day? Offering his support to the Biden-Harris ticket is the obvious choice, but given the state of play, this should not be his primary task.
More important will be Obama’s defense of our democracy. He remains one of the most popular and well-regarded public figures in the US. At a time when disinformation is so frequently circulated as fact, the former president has the unique opportunity to be a truth-teller who can cut through the noise.
In 2020, the nation faces a serious threat to the health of our democratic process. For years, Republican lawmakers imposed restrictions on voting, which disproportionately affect people of color, who tend to vote for Democrats. In recent months, Trump has repeatedly attacked mail-in voting, stoking unfounded fears of voter fraud, when vote-by-mail is the only way many Americans can safely cast their ballots during a pandemic that has already taken the lives of more than 168,000 people. It doesn’t inspire much confidence when the Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a GOP megadonor, has implemented changes that will eliminate overtime and slow mail delivery, while the US Postal Service has issued warnings that it cannot guarantee that all ballots cast by mail will arrive in time to be counted.
President Trump himself has explicitly shared the game plan. “Now they need that money in order to make the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” he told a Fox Business News interviewer Thursday, referring to Democrat demands that funding for the post office and election security be included in a Phase IV coronavirus relief spending bill.
“But if they don’t get those two items that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting,” Trump said.
In this toxic environment, our democracy needs a champion. During his farewell address, Obama warned that “democracy can buckle when it gives in to fear. So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”
Obama experienced the modern GOP firsthand when the Tea Party railed against raising the debt ceiling and fueled the “birther” movement. But it seems unlikely even he could have imagined what our democracy would face under the Trump administration. After one term, however, Trump has made it resoundingly clear that our country may not survive another four years of chaos and dysfunction.
President Obama must continue to be a vocal presence in the next few months. While many Democrats will want him to focus on supporting Biden’s campaign, he has a much greater responsibility. And that mission is to serve as an authority figure who will monitor our institutions and sound the alarm so that they may withstand the kinds of assaults that are sure to come in the next few months.
Trump seems intent on disenfranchising Americans, legitimizing disinformation, and abusing his position to ensure his reelection. We need someone who can remain above the fray and defend our democracy. Obama — whose approval ratings remain extremely high and who has conducted himself with dignity since leaving government — is one of the few people who can fill this role.
The nation needs him more than ever.