by Aaron Kliegman
In 2008, just days before he was elected president, Barack Obama spoke of “fundamentally transforming” the United States — not improving or even changing the country, but remaking it as something different. Whether Obama lived up to his revolutionary rhetoric is a debate for another time. The point here is to show he was a figure outside of the mainstream, someone who sought to challenge the political establishment of the Democratic Party. He wanted — and failed — to begin a liberal ascendancy across the country.
In many ways, Obama governed as a radical. He spent nearly $1 trillion on a stimulus package, overhauled the nation’s health care system, tried to promote Iran’s murderous regime as a Middle Eastern power, and generally had little time for the complaints of Republicans (or anyone) with whom he disagreed. Obama’s ideology and, for the most part, his policies were politically far-left.
Today, however, Obama is the perfect, mainstream Democrat. He is both the towering figure in the establishment and beloved by the base. In fact, a Harvard-Harris poll found that Democratic voters prefer to identify themselves as “Obama Democrats” rather than “liberals” or “moderates” or “progressives.”
How did the radical become the establishment? Bernie Sanders is largely responsible.
“I can tell you very happily, and I think any objective observer would confirm what I’m saying, is that in the last year and half or so, the Democratic Party has moved in a far more progressive direction than they were before I ran for president,” Sanders told CNN in 2018.
Sanders is right: His 2016 presidential run, which made him a household name, has helped push the Democratic Party further to the left. And the process is ongoing. Now we have the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her so-called Squad taking up much of the Democratic Party’s oxygen. It is now routine for Democratic presidential candidates to support late-term abortions or Medicare for All. Democratic leaders turn a collective blind eye to progressives demonizing Israel.
In this political environment, the Democratic Party has shifted such that Obama, who was once toward the progressive, left wing of the party is now at its center. Obama hasn’t changed; the party has.
I thought about these changing dynamics while reading Edward-Isaac Dovere’s latest article in The Atlantic. Titled “The Hidden History of Sanders’s Plot to Primary Obama,” the piece explains how Sanders came so close to challenging Obama in the 2012 Democratic primary that Harry Reid, then the Senate majority leader, had to intervene to stop him. Sanders’s deputy campaign manager denied the report.
More important than the bit about 2012, however, is when Dovere details how Obama and Sanders have a “particularly fraught relationship.” Dovere writes that to Obama, Sanders is “unrelenting, unrealistic, so deep in his own fight that he doesn’t see how many people disagree with him or that he’s turning off people who should be his allies.” To Sanders, Obama is “overly compromising, and so obsessed with what isn’t possible that he’s lost all sense of what is.”
By all accounts, Obama doesn’t like Sanders and doesn’t want him to be the Democratic nominee. And yet, Obama is intent on staying out of the nomination process unless absolutely necessary. He wants the party to be unified in the general election to defeat President Trump. Moreover, Obama seems ready to endorse and campaign for Sanders if he is the nominee.
This spat — if that is the right word — is all the more interesting because, while Sanders is the Democratic front runner leading in the polls, Obama’s in-party approval rating is consistently above 90 percent. Democrats would elect Obama again if they could.
The reports on Obama and Sanders are the latest signs of a clear split in the Democratic Party. This divide could be exacerbated later this year. What if the choice in the Democratic presidential race comes down to Sanders and Michael Bloomberg? The democratic socialist versus the billionaire — what a spectacle it would be. Or what if there is a brokered Democratic convention, with too many candidates still in the race to give anyone a clear mandate? In either case, Obama might need to come down from his throne to intervene. Even if he has the clout to appeal to most segments of the party, it is easy to foresee a real bloodbath (politically speaking, of course) if Obama endorses before there is a nominee.
This is all to say that a divided Democratic Party could be in for a chaotic summer. And with the party becoming increasingly progressive and ideological, the chaos could be that much messier. Some Republicans and conservatives may rejoice at the thought, but I am mainly troubled by how radical the Democratic Party has become. And it’s hard to see the situation getting better.
Aaron Kliegman is a freelance writer based in Virginia. Previously, he was a staff writer and news editor at the Washington Free Beacon, where he wrote analysis and commentary on foreign policy and national security. Aaron’s work has been published in a range of publications, and he has a master’s degree in international relations. Aaron is now writing regular columns for the Inner Circle as a contributor, and I am excited to have him on the Gingrich 360 team. — Newt
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