This comment came up during President Obama’s press conference on Friday. From the White House transcript:
What I’ve said is, is that I can maybe give some counsel and advice to the Democratic Party. And I think that that the thing we have to spend the most time on — because it’s the thing we have the most control over — is how do we make sure that we are showing up in places where I think Democratic policies are needed, where they are helping, where they are making a difference, but where people feel as if they’re not being heard and where Democrats are characterized as coastal, liberal, latte-sipping, politically-correct, out-of-touch folks. We have to be in those communities. And I’ve seen that when we are in those communities, it makes a difference.
That’s how I became President. I became a U.S. senator not just because I had a strong base in Chicago, but because I was driving around downstate Illinois and going to fish frys and sitting in VFW halls and talking to farmers. And I didn’t win every one of their votes, but they got a sense of what I was talking about, what I cared about, that I was for working people, that I was for the middle class, that the reason I was interested in strengthening unions, and raising the minimum wage, and rebuilding our infrastructure, and making sure that parents had decent childcare and family leave was because my own family’s history wasn’t that different from theirs, even if I looked a little bit different. Same thing in Iowa.
And so the question is, how do we rebuild that party as a whole so that there’s not a county in any state — I don’t care how red — that we don’t have a presence and we’re not making the argument. Because I think we have the better argument. But that requires a lot of work. It’s been something that I’ve been able to do successfully in my own campaigns. It is not something I’ve been able to transfer to candidates in midterms and sort of build a sustaining organization around. That’s something that I would have liked to have done more of, but it’s kind of hard to do when you’re also dealing with a whole bunch of issues here in the White House.
And that doesn’t mean, though, that it can’t be done. And I think there are going to be a lot of talented folks out there, a lot of progressives who share my values who are going to be leading the charge in the years to come.
In recent history, the norm has been for the outgoing president to stay quiet (or at the very least, keep a low profile) after leaving office. In addition to the lingering effects of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton left office under a cloud after a controversial series of presidential pardons at the end of his presidency. George W. Bush’s poll numbers were in the low 30s by the time he left office due to a combination of the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, and the collapse of the housing market – all three of which happened during his second term. (Caveat: the Iraq war began in Bush’s first term, but the political and security situation on the ground started going south during his second term).
Obama is in a unique position in that he is in a much better situation than his predecessors. President Obama’s approval ratings are in the high 50s – he will leave office with Reagan-esque poll numbers. He is also popular and respected within the Democratic Party, somebody who can appeal to most of the factions vying for control and direction right now as he prepares to leave office four weeks from now. The fact that he was so successful in both his presidential runs means that he has created a model for others to follow – one that Hillary Clinton was not successful at replicating.
He will probably have some say in the form and shape the party take as the opposition for the next few years, though he will probably allow Democrats running for DNC chairman now and the primaries three years from now to let them sort things out for themselves. He also has a vested interest in rebuilding the party, because Donald Trump and the congressional Republicans’ agenda will consist in large part on trying to undo or erase much of Obama’s legacy – Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, the Paris climate change agreement, etc. Republicans will complain that Obama should give Trump the same courtesy of silence that George W. Bush gave him, but that argument ignores the fact that Dick Cheney was one of his most blistering critics in the opposition.
Keep an eye out for Obama around sometime next spring, after he has presumably taken a long vacation and settled into life as a private citizen again.