Last week, former President Obama publicly commented on the Democratic presidential primary. While no candidate was endorsed, he criticized the populist campaigning tactics of progressives.
“The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it,” Obama argued. “Voters, including Democrats, are not driven by the same views that are reflected on certain left-leaning Twitter feeds or the activist wing of our party.” He added that, “the candidate’s job, whoever that ends up being, is to get elected.”
These comments from Obama are off for two reasons. The first being that most voters do not agree with the activist wing or progressive wing of the Democratic party, and two, that such ideas are not winning ideas.
To truly understand why Obama is dead wrong, one only has to go back to the 2008 presidential election that he focused around “change.” Fundamentally changing the United States’ healthcare system, economy and foreign policy were key messages of his campaign against both Hillary Clinton in the primary and John McCain in the general election. One could even say that they were revolutionary.
When discussing healthcare in 2008, Obama pushed back against fears of reform. “There’s a fear of change. A worry that we may lose what works about our health care system while trying to fix what doesn’t.” He argued that the moment for reform had come because, “we are in a different time.” Obama campaigned on ending the Bush Tax Cuts, supporting a substantial increase of the capital gains and stock dividends taxes.
At the same time, he railed against the decision to invade Iraq. Obama did not just attack McCain over his support but Clinton as well in their fight to become the Democratic nominee. In no uncertain terms, the former president ran a populist, progressive campaign in 2008.
In his two election victories, Obama defeated both John McCain and Mitt Romney by landslide electoral margins. In both campaigns, he pushed for drastic reforms that the majority of Americans supported. The same is now true for the policy proposals that Sen. Bernie Sanders is championing.
The majority of Americans agree with the activist wing of the Democratic party, directly contradicting Obama’s comments. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 84.5% of Democrats and 51.9% of Republicans support a policy of medicare-for-all. The same poll found that 78.9% of Democrats support free college tuition. Both policy measures have over 60% support from all individuals polled. Obama is not only wrong when arguing that most Democrats do not support such progressive policies but also wrong to claim that they are not winning policies.
The majority of Americans support medicare-for-all and free college, proving that in many ways, they do want to “completely tear down the system and remake it.” Obama’s own campaign strategy in 2008 showed that bold, populist ideas are what excites voters and leads to victory. The notion that a pragmatic, centrist Democrat is the best candidate to beat President Trump has already been proven wrong. If such ideas were winning ideas, then Clinton would be president. Her boring, run-to-the-middle campaign resulted in a loss to possibly the worst presidential candidate in US history.
This however, is nothing new. The strategy of centrist incrementalism also failed John Kerry in 2004 in his battle with President Bush. Throughout the campaign, Kerry often touted that he broke with his own party to support a balanced budget, while not directly opposing the Iraq War, instead arguing that it was poorly planned. Bush subsequently defeated Kerry to earn four more years in the White House.
Contrary to his recent statement, Obama should understand how to win better than anyone. His anti-establishment, populist campaign strategy worked twice by exciting the Democratic base, not ignoring it and running to the middle. Winning in this manner again will require the support of policies that not only the vast majority of Democrats support but the majority of Americans.
A campaign built around medicare-for-all and free college will increase Democratic turnout, but importantly, it will increase the turnout of independents who agree with those specific policy issues. President Trump will be defeated in 2020 by mimicking the successful 2008 Obama campaign.