Obama leans into timidity

The former president is wrong to believe progressive politics will doom Democrats in 2020

Former president Barack Obama wants to position Patrick as a viable alternative to those still clinging to a Democratic Party afraid of the shadows of its history.
Former president Barack Obama wants to position Patrick as a viable alternative to those still clinging to a Democratic Party afraid of the shadows of its history.Michael Sohn/Associated Press

And now a word from President Obama on the 2020 elections.

“I don’t think we should be deluded into thinking that the resistance to certain approaches to things is simply because voters haven’t heard a bold enough proposal and if they hear something as bold as possible then immediately that’s going to activate them. People are rightly cautious because they don’t have a lot of margin for error,” he told a roomful of wealthy Democratic voters Friday.

“This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement,” Obama said. "Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision, we also have to be rooted in reality. The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”


A system that was specially designed to benefit some while neglecting or penalizing others deserves to be completely torn down and remade. And while the former president didn’t explain what he meant by “the average American,” that lofty phrase never refers to people of color, immigrants, or the LGBTQ community. (I guess that means we’re above-average Americans.) Still, the rest of his inference was clear: If Democrats veer too far left, they will doom their chances to defeat President Trump next November.

No. What will doom Democrats is political timidity.

Obama’s comments were intended as veiled critiques of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Both have been polling high in their bids for the presidential nomination, and they’ve done so with policies as progressive as anything a serious Democratic candidate has proposed in ages. Voters are listening, and that’s a shock to many in a party that has been planted in the middle of the road for so long it might as well be a double yellow line on a highway.


It hasn’t been a consistently winning strategy. Since 1968, Republicans have claimed six of the last nine presidencies, and they did so by embracing the politics of fear, white nationalism, and division. The racism openly touted throughout Trump’s campaign and presidency is the inevitable payoff of a decades-long plan to invigorate millions of white voters, never sold on that whole America-as-melting-pot thing, to keep Republicans in power.

With Trump’s presidency, you don’t see a whole lot of existential hand-wringing about whether the GOP has moved too far right. Meanwhile, its legislators are the proud accomplices of a lawless president who, if necessary, will turn on them faster than they parrot his mendacious talking points.

Yet here’s the Democratic standard bearer fretting about whether Democrats migrating from the middle are harming their efforts to reclaim the White House.

This is the party of the Civil Rights and Voting acts, the party that put America back on track during the Depression with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Pushing for affordable health care available to all and finding ways to keep students and their families from being crushed by college debt is exactly what Democratic candidates should be espousing.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Obama made these comments a day after former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick declared his candidacy for president. Patrick is a committed centrist unlikely to make any dramatic leaps to the left or anywhere away from the very safe, soft middle. Obama wants to position Patrick as a viable alternative to those still clinging to a Democratic Party afraid of the shadows of its history. Not as progressive as Warren and Sanders, nor as fumbling and dusty as Biden, Patrick hits the chords that Obama, without mentioning his name, is endorsing.


Except that’s not a pattern for defeating an incumbent president willing to say and do anything, no matter how inflammatory, to charge his base and ride that hate into a second term. Democrats will better their chances by speaking directly to the black women whose vote they’ve always taken for granted; to young people concerned about climate change and not becoming the first generation to be worse off than their parents; and to those who believe their country’s strength is in diversity and inclusion, not walls or migrant children in cages.

Like many Democrats, Obama wants Trump to be a one-term president. Yet for nervous moderates like Obama, what may feel like the party he once led moving too far left looks to many of us like the Democrats finally finding their spine and soul again.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.