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.”
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