Former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE returned to the campaign trail for the first time since leaving office on Thursday, stumping for Democratic candidates in New Jersey and Virginia.
The rapturous reception Obama received was no big surprise. He remains enormously popular with the Democratic grass roots.
But the sense of wistfulness the former president invokes among the party faithful is sharpened because, aside from him, the Democrats have no obvious leader.
“The honorific title of leader of the party goes to President Obama, but he is obviously not running for office,” said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick.
Beyond Obama, the party’s biggest names are familiar figures who have their share of baggage. Fresher faces have not yet become national stars.
Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE has been less reticent than Obama about jumping into the political fray during President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE’s first year. But Clinton is tarnished by her election loss, her overall approval ratings remain tepid and, in private, there are plenty of Democrats who feel that her time has come and gone.
Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s ‘wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE, the head of the Democratic National Committee, is the subject of a growing chorus of criticism inside the party, as The Hill reported last week.
The party’s leaders in Congress, Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Health Care: US showing signs of retreat in battle against COVID-19 | Regeneron begins clinical trials of potential coronavirus antibody treatment | CMS warns nursing homes against seizing residents’ stimulus checks Schumer requests briefing with White House coronavirus task force as cases rise Schumer on Trump’s tweet about 75-year-old protester: He ‘should go back to hiding in the bunker’ MORE (N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), enjoy wide respect among Democrats for years of service and for their prodigious fundraising efforts.
But as congressional veterans aged 66 and 77, respectively, they offer little that Democrats have not seen and heard before. The same goes for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE, who first ran for the White House in 1988 and is now 74.
A number of other major figures could make their own bids for preeminence, most obviously by seeking the party’s presidential nomination in 2020.
Among the names most often mentioned are progressive icons Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.) and rising stars such as Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook McEnany says Juneteenth is a very ‘meaningful’ day to Trump MORE (D-Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants Black lawmakers unveil bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-N.J.).
But that could be a chaotic battle. Tensions still fester between the 2016 camps of Clinton and Sanders, erupting with startling frequency and ferocity on social media. And some argue that the divide between progressives and the center-left is not the only cross-current the party will have to deal with.
“There is the usual ideological division kinda represented by Bernie and Clinton, but you also see a generational division starting to emerge,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who managed Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.
“Some of the younger faces in the party are talking about how it is time for a new generation and new ideas.”
For the moment, many in the party are trying to put the best face on the situation, asserting that there is nothing especially unusual about the party lacking a single leader, given that it is shut out of the White House and in the minority in both chambers of Congress.
“It would be better if we controlled the government,” said Democratic strategist Tad Devine with a wry laugh. “But in reality, we have to accept that when you are out of power, it is difficult to speak with one single voice.”
Others argue that the party is still absorbing the lessons of Clinton’s devastating loss to Trump last November and that the process will take some time.
“We’re still, as a party, at a place where people need to assess what happened in the last election and figure out where to go,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to ex-Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid says he’s cancer free White House gets jolt from strong jobs report Murkowski, Mattis criticism ratchets up pressure on GOP over Trump MORE (D-Nev.). “I want to see everyone who is interested vie to be the leader of the party.”
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Obama, who cannot run again, retains a firm grip on the party’s heart.
At his first stop of the day, campaigning for New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy in Newark, the crowd erupted into a chant of “Four more years!”
Obama shot back, “I will refer you to both the Constitution, as well as to Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaThe Hill’s Morning Report – Treasury, Fed urge more spending, lending to ease COVID-19 wreckage Budowsky: Michelle Obama or Tammy Duckworth for VP Michelle Obama urges class of 2020 to couple protesting with mobilizing, voting MORE, to explain why that will not happen.”
Later, campaigning in Richmond for Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the party’s nominee to be governor of Virginia, Obama took some thinly veiled shots at Trump
“If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you aren’t going to be able to govern them,” he said. “You won’t be able to unite them later, if that’s how you start.”
Democrats know there is no new Obama waiting in the wings. Finding a successor will be neither quick nor easy.
But they insist there is one factor binding all the different strands of the party together: the current occupant of the Oval Office.
“The party is pretty united because Trump has been so dreadful,” said Carrick. “He is definitely going to do two things: He is going to create absolute havoc inside the Republican Party and he is going to unite Democrats.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.