Requests for Barack Obama are pouring in from Democrats around the country – candidates are desperate for his help in what they feel is an existential midterms battle, one in which each race could help determine control of Congress and governments in the states.
To these candidates, American democracy itself is on the line. And while Obama agrees with them on the stakes, many of those invitations are about to get turned down.
More than a dozen advisers and others who have spoken with Obama say the former president’s approach in the fall campaign will remain limited and careful. That cautious approach comes as Obama tells people his presence fires up GOP opposition just as much as it lights up supporters, that he has more of an impact if he does less and that he can’t cloud out the up-and-coming generation of Democrats.
Obama’s small staff has instead been coordinating which appearances he’ll make and which ads he’ll record with President Joe Biden’s White House political operation and the Democratic National Committee. A similar effort already happened with fundraising emails his name has been put on – political coordination between a sitting and former president, which – like so much else in current politics – is unprecedented.
Democratic operatives say they’re eager to see Obama play an active role – even now, they say, his best role is driving up crucial Black voter turnout in places like Philadelphia and Detroit – even as they note his appeal is shifting. Among the disinterested voter blocs are a rising generation too young to remember his 2008 win, those who argue that his failure to deliver on soaring promises helped set up the crisis of faith and political despair that has followed and those who have gotten tired of seeing how little he’s engaged.
He’ll make a handful of appearances on the campaign trail, bundling appearances for candidates for Senate and governor and secretaries of state, arguing that Democrats winning those races is essential to preserving democracy.
But beyond the midterm season, Obama sees a larger purpose to this latest phase of his post-presidency life. No matter how the midterms go, the former President will host what he’s calling a Democracy Forum two weeks after Election Day – the first event that he’s hoping to turn into an annual gathering, reflecting a recalibration of the Obama Foundation to focus on democracy in America and around the world.
“We’ll explore a range of issues – from strengthening institutions and fighting disinformation, to promoting inclusive capitalism and expanded pluralism – that will shape democracies for generations to come,” Obama writes in an announcement of the event going out to donors and others involved with the foundation, first obtained by CNN. “We’ll showcase democracy in action around the world, and approaches that are working. And we’ll discuss and debate ideas for how we can adapt our democracies and our institutions for a new age.”
Ben Rhodes, a longtime adviser who has been helping plan the Democracy Forum, said that the foundation’s work is removed from politics but will reflect Obama’s priorities.
“All the things he might care about as an ex-president – climate change, health care, avoiding war – all connect back to whether or not democracy survives, and frankly whether or not the worst-case outcomes happen in terms of who’s in charge of countries,” Rhodes said. “He sees it as the thread that connects everything he’s doing.”
Stepping back from an unwanted post-presidency role
A common feature of Obama’s post-presidency period will be noticeably missing in this first midterm election under Biden.
Gone will be the rounds of mass campaign endorsement lists for statewide, House and state legislator candidates that Obama had been putting out since leaving the White House. The decision to stop those lists is a function, people who’ve been working with him say, of stepping back from the extended leadership role he played in the Democratic Party during the Trump years – a role they say he never wanted.
Now Obama will only endorse candidates who have already been endorsed by Biden, to prevent any sense of potential daylight between them – and no further endorsements are coming this year.
Obama continues to occupy a unique place in politics: A former President who really wants to leave politics behind but whose popularity is growing; a man already six years out of office who is still more than a decade younger than Biden and other top Democratic leaders – not to mention Donald Trump, the man who succeeded him and appears set to run again in 2024.
“I’m not sure I can think of him as an elder,” said Rep. Mike Levin, who was one of six first-time House candidates in California with whom Obama did a joint event for in 2018. All six went on to win. Levin in an interview last week was still talking about the 2008 race almost as if it just happened.
Much of Obama’s focus has been the multi-million-dollar deals continuing his transformation from president to brand. With the Emmy last month for the national parks documentary he narrated for Netflix, he’s a Tony short of becoming an EGOT, if his production company is included.
Some Democrats mock his various ventures as “Obama, Inc.” Among them: Switching his podcast deal from Spotify to Audible, expanding productions under his Netflix deal and a second volume of memoirs – adding to the already 768-page book published in 2020 that stopped chronologically at the killing of Osama bin Laden during his first term.
And with the early construction of his library Obama has moved from flashy PowerPoint demonstrations for donors to actual beams and columns on the South Side of Chicago, he is still courting multimillion dollar donors to fund it.
“He’s happy Biden is president,” a friend of Obama’s told CNN. “And he’s being post-president as he sees fit.”
And there are Democrats who are happy to see him take a step back.
“One person is still in the ring as the one we look to to advance our values. The other guy is a celebrity,” said one high level Democratic operative. “If your passion is politics, you want to be with the person in the arena.”
Still, Obama has quietly strategized with political leaders at home and abroad – from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to new, young, leftist Chilean President Gabriel Boric or British opposition leader Keir Starmer – while avoiding getting into the daily fray.
“This idea that he should be the guy to sway people’s minds is just silly. That’s not his role. Does he speak inspirationally? Yes,” said the Obama friend. “But he’s a pragmatist.”
Even the limited amount of appearances Obama has continued to do – as he’s tried to get back to the kind of post-presidency he was hoping for before Trump’s election – demonstrate how worried he is about anti-democratic trends on the rise and progressives giving up hope.
“I’m not sure he would have been at COP26 and Copenhagen and holding a summit on democracy here at home if he wasn’t recognizing what’s happening broadly,” said Eric Schultz, a senior adviser who’s been working with Obama since the White House days, referencing last year’s climate summit in Scotland and a major speech on democracy in Denmark earlier this year.
Staying involved behind the scenes
As much as Obama likes to insist that he’s ready to start playing a more background part, he consulted with both Biden and Schumer about the failed attempt to push through a bill on voting rights. He was also on the phone after Biden’s Build Back Better legislation collapsed, backing the idea of slimming down the bill to just be climate change provisions and whatever else was needed to get West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s support.
He spent months on phone calls with tech leaders and advocates, building up to a speech he delivered at Stanford in the spring aimed at rallying the elites and intellectuals into getting involved with what he described as essentially unregulated social media companies.
A few weeks later, he gathered several Black journalists – The New York Times Magazine’s Nikole Hannah-Jones, Los Angeles Times executive editor Kevin Merida, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wes Lowery, Columbia University School of Journalism dean and New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb and Washington Post global opinion editor Karen Attiah – in his Washington office to talk about the ways in which disinformation works its way into Black communities, and what could possibly be done to combat that.
“He was in a space of how he could be helpful, how he could help to move things along from the seat he is in currently,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of the advocacy group Color of Change, who also attended the meeting.
Obama’s staff, meanwhile, has remained in regular touch with Biden’s political staff at the White House, strategizing about opportunities to speak up on the President’s behalf. He was a sounding board for Biden on the Afghanistan withdrawal and followed up with a strong statement of support.
Obama is still important stamp of approval during moments of celebration as well, like when he called in August to congratulate the President after passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.
Obama’s disdain for the current turn in the Republican Party is clear and his pitch is a more dispirited take on the hopeful pitch he used to make – that Democratic ideas are more popular and that the more people who vote, the better Democratic candidates will do.
Attendees at a rare Obama fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in San Francisco saw a man in his new element: Tieless, in a large chair in the home of a co-founder of Qualcomm, delivering long answers to a room full of tech billionaires on a handheld microphone as he fielded set-up questions lobbed at him by Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson.
They were struck by the intensity of his attacks on Republicans. But they also noted how he seemed to be reflecting fresh on harbinger moments from his own presidency, like when he pleaded with Republican senators not to blow up the norms of government by blockading Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court and marveling again how he said they didn’t care.
The former first lady still hates politics
One person Democrats almost certainly won’t be getting is the Obama they always say they want to see even more: the former first lady.
Michelle Obama will be hitting the road herself, but her limited six-city tour won’t start until after Election Day. Instead of campaigning, she’ll be appearing with celebrities like David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey to promote the new self-help-minded sequel to her blockbuster 2018 memoir.
Her last campaign appearance was a recorded speech played at the virtual 2020 Democratic convention. She told friends at the time that she felt too dejected about the state of the country – between Trump, the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial divisions that were freshly exposed that summer – to bring herself to campaign more than that.
At their portrait unveilings at the White House last month, she delivered what she said she knew was a “spicy speech” about the peaceful transfer of power. But she won’t be hitting the trail again, despite the many campaigns who believe her power is unmatched in connecting with the Black women who have proven the most important constituency in winning elections for Democrats.
Instead, the Obamas are sticking to a rhythm that developed in the 2018 cycle: He’ll do the direct campaigning and she’ll take a less direct role as the leader of her officially non-partisan, multi-celebrity, co-chaired registration and turnout effort non-profit, When We All Vote.
Focusing on the foundation more than midterms
Always returning to the Martin Luther King quote about the “long arc of history,” Obama’s interest has remained less on the midterms or 2024 than on the network of nearly 1,000 young leaders at the center of his foundation.
Gift Siziva, a young Obama leader from Zimbabwe who is now planning to run for his nation’s parliament in next year’s elections, said that seeing democracy threatened in America has made him more connected to Obama and to the repositioned work of the foundation.
“To find the American democracy being tested itself by different phases and episodes over the last five years,” Siziva told CNN, “makes me understand that – for democratic crusaders globally – the fight for democracy is our reality.”
It’s also a reflection of the type of young people who’ve been brought in – when Sheila Babauta was introducing Obama at last year’s international climate conference, for example, she had already been part of a march outside demanding more. While protesters were literally taping themselves to the streets in Glasgow, other activists were already waiting to speak to Obama in a small two-hour session he held after his speech.
“These moments are like an electric car when it goes to a charging station. It fills my battery and gets me going,” said Juan Monterrey, one of the inaugural Obama scholars and Panama’s delegate to last year’s climate convention.
Babauta, a local legislator in her native Northern Mariana Islands, said her own association with the former president as a foundation young leader has filtered down to the children at a youth center on the island of Saipan where she works. The children “asked if me and President Obama and I are BFFs” after they found a picture of them together.
Obama is often the moderator but sometimes pipes in with advice, like when he met with European leaders in a closed-door session at his democracy speech in Copenhagen during which he pushed back on a question about how to handle opposition.
“Sometimes it just turns out they’re mean, they’re racist, they’re sexist, they’re angry. And your job is then to just beat them because they’re not persuadable,” Obama said, according to a transcript obtained by CNN.
But he warned them also: “Sometimes we get filled up in our own self-righteousness. We’re so convinced that we’re right that we forget what we are right about.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the status of Gift Siziva’s campaign. He is planning to run for parliament in Zimbabwe next year.