A painful Democratic rift over Barack Obama’s political legacy is finally bursting into the open.
For years, the former president’s popularity among Democrats stifled any public critiques of his stewardship of the party — a period in which the party suffered tremendous losses at the state and local levels.
But now that Obama and the political operation that succeeded his campaign, Organizing For Action, have expressed interest in playing a role in the task of rebuilding, it’s sparking pitched debates over how much blame he deserves for the gradual hollowing out of a party that now has less control of state-elected positions than at any other time in nearly a century.
That degree of mistrust — rooted in the idea that OFA was always primarily interested in advancing the president’s political interests, often at the expense of the party — is already showing signs of hampering Obama’s former Labor Secretary Tom Perez as he pursues the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. And the wariness — expressed by nearly three dozen Democrats in interviews — also threatens to create a divide between Obama’s loyalists and the rest of the party.
“[With] all due respect to President Obama, OFA was created as a shadow party because Obama operatives had no faith in state parties. So I hope the OFA role is none. I hope OFA closes their doors and allows the country and state parties to get to the hard work of rebuilding the party at the local and grass-roots level,” said Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb, echoing a sentiment that has dominated private chatter among state party chairs for months. “OFA had no faith or confidence in the state parties so they created a whole separate organization, they took money away and centralized it in D.C. They gave us a great president for eight years, but we lost everywhere else."
While Obama has taken some responsibility for the party’s down-ballot failures — Democrats now have unified control over just six states, and 10 fewer governorships than when he took office, while Republicans have taken over the U.S. House and the Senate — his political allies have made clear that he hopes to help the Democratic comeback through his involvement with a redistricting effort. And the groups around him, like OFA, intend to play a role when it comes to organizing, recruiting candidates and training activists.
That’s a reversal from Obama’s longtime lack of interest in the party’s infrastructure, dating back to when his advisers felt that he had to run against the state party establishments in his challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2008.
The former president’s newfound interest in party-building is partly about preserving his White House legacy when it’s under attack from Republicans — which is in the interest of his fellow Democrats — but there has thus far been no coordination between Obama’s political world and the rest of the party’s leadership structure.
“I have not been briefed on the future of OFA and the president’s involvement,” said Donna Brazile, the DNC chair.
And that silence is what alarms Democrats who resentfully remember a president who for years couldn’t be bothered to replace then-DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, even after she became a source of intraparty controversy. They recall a commander in chief whose campaign was seen by state party officials as circumventing them, rather than working with them. And they think back to a party leader who didn’t want to get too closely involved in governor’s races ahead of 2010’s redistricting, which many of them say is a reason for Democrats’ state-level bloodbath in the ensuing years.
Still, there is no consensus over the amount of blame Obama should get for Democrats’ woes. To Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina state legislator and until recently a DNC member, the finger-pointing is “a territorial ego game."
“A lot of what happened with regard to the party at every level was the congressional leadership,” said former Pennsylvania Rep. Jason Altmire — who lost his seat in 2012 after the state’s electoral map was redrawn — deflecting the responsibility from Obama alone. “Democrats as a whole overreached greatly leading up to 2010 and unfortunately for Democrats that was right before redistricting."
“If you look at the organizational work that OFA did, they absolutely knew what they were doing, they were effective, they won two presidential elections, they helped get people like me in 2008 — a 22-year-old — elected to the state legislature because of their organizational efforts. So I think the more the better, I don’t have a problem with having 100 different organizations out there,” added Brown. “We’re still in the stage of a grief period where folks are blaming others, and that appears to be what these folks are doing."
That tension has reached the point where state chairs pitching donors now feel the need to explain what their local committees can legally do that an external effort like OFA cannot. Those state leaders also went out of their way to ensure that the data and supporter lists from Clinton’s campaign would revert to the party after the election. OFA’s data treasure trove, after all, didn’t settle at the DNC until 2015 — three years after Obama’s reelection.
“It created a shadow organization that was recruiting the same volunteers [as the DNC], using resources from a very limited number of donors, and therefore, as a result it weakened the DNC and the impact that the DNC and state parties could have on politics during his tenure,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison, a candidate for DNC chair. “You’ve got five organizations knocking on the same door with five different messages. That’s not conducive. In the age of Trump we need to be a lean, mean, strategic machine."
Harrison and Adam Parkhomenko, a former Clinton campaign and DNC organizing official who is now running for the party vice-chairmanship, have both raised that problem in the party’s public candidate forums in recent weeks. And that public airing has spurred a round of talk between state-level Democrats over the extent to which they wish to see a return of the Obama machine — which, after all, is the only Democratic one to win nationwide since 1996.
“Resources that are financial, and other resources like data and ideas that people are trying to bring to fruition in terms of organizing kits and materials: that’s what the DNC needs to spend its time doing, so the only outside apparatus we should have in terms of the party is the [state] parties,” said Parkhomenko, pointing to years of low investment and attention paid to local Democratic committees. “The lack of party and DNC [capacity] was a big contributing factor to what happened in the last election, [and] hopefully it will be a lesson to our party to never let this happen again."
A major question now confronting DNC members is the extent to which this lingering frustration with Obama’s political operation has a material effect on the race for party chairman: while Perez is widely seen as the Obama-wing candidate due to his praise from the former president and backing from former Obama White House officials like former Vice President Joe Biden, former Attorney General Eric Holder and former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Obama has not formally endorsed him, and Perez was never involved with OFA itself.
The concerns over OFA’s role as a parallel organization to the DNC are just as ripe when it comes to Our Revolution, the heir to Bernie Sanders’ campaign: a group that has not handed over Sanders’ golden email lists to the DNC, and which has endorsed Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, widely seen as the Sanders-wing candidate.
But those questions are operational, and not about the broader issues facing the reeling party. For those questions, Democrats insist, they can’t afford to sideline Obama, their most popular and successful figure.
“OFA should fold into the DNC. Having two organizations is redundant, and dilutes and confuses the mission. Given the urgency of the moment, we need laser-like focus, with clear lanes and cohesion, not duplication,” said former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. "President Obama, I hope, will be fully engaged in helping the party rebuild. We need his inspiration, his ability to fundraise, his brilliant strategic mind and his ability to convene and mobilize. He can also help to engage millennials and communities of color, in addition to the work he will be doing on redistricting. He is also the best messenger of our generation: we need him."
“People might have differences with some things he did about party issues,” added Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy. "They all might have wanted him to do something one way or something another way, but clearly he’s a gigantic draw in the Democratic Party. He should be heard. He has a voice, and if he’s inclined to use that voice, I’m inclined to listen."
As such, even the biggest skeptics of Obama’s political organization agree that the former president is likely to be the party’s most potent surrogate and potential fundraising tool in combating Donald Trump. They just don’t trust his political operation to carry out the groundwork.
“We all welcome President Obama and Vice President Biden, they’re heroes and giants in the Democratic world. This has nothing to do with them, this has everything to do with the political operatives in the D.C. bubble and not out in Nebraska,” said Kleeb. “I’m sorry, you had eight years to build us a party, but you failed. So no, sorry, we do not want you. Thanks, but no thanks."
Edward-Isaac Dovere contributed to this report.