Trump's Antics Don't Override Voters' 'Basic Interests,' Obama Warns

Former President Barack Obama warned fellow Democrats not to focus their energies on his successor Donald Trump's antics heading into the 2022 midterm elections, saying the party should instead aim to prove its value to voters as Republicans have sought to broaden their appeal beyond the closest adherents to Trump's "Make America great again" movement.

In his first major interview of the 2022 midterm election cycle over the weekend, Obama told Pod Save America hosts Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor that the modern Democratic Party has seemingly become absorbed with maligning the "outrageous behaviors" of Trump and GOP candidates in his mold.

"We join that game," he said, "and we spend enormous amounts of time and energy and resources pointing out the latest crazy thing he said, or how rude or mean some of these Republican candidates behaved. That's probably not something that, in the minds of most voters, overrides their basic interests: Can I pay the rent? How high are gas prices? How am I dealing with child care?"

He pointed to the results of the 2016 election—namely, the sizeable shift to Trump among blue-collar workers and the collapse of traditional Democratic strongholds in manufacturing cities in America's Rust Belt—as a sign of that, where Democratic strategists fell victim to the shock-and-awe tactics of the Trump campaign.

"We thought, if we point that out, it should be enough," Obama said.

But while character helps, he added, it's not everything.

"We are going to have to engage in the issues," he added.

Obama urged Democratic candidates to try harder to make a case that their policies will lead to higher wages, a more sustainable health care system, and more robust labor protections.

But the hosts also pointed to a recently unearthed, 250-page manuscript Obama had written while in law school in which the former president charted a new, populist course for the Democratic Party built around the American working class, a coalition that helped Obama to victory in Great Lakes battleground states that would later turn to Trump.

Barack Obama
Former U.S. President Barack Obama goes to cast his vote at an early voting venue on October 17 in Chicago. Obama intends to campaign for Democrats in Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin ahead of the high-stakes November 8 midterm elections. Jim Vondruska/Getty Images

Most polls today show economic issues rank as the top concern for most voters, while other wedge issues—crime, immigration, even abortion—tend to poll as top of mind for a much smaller fraction of the electorate.

Meanwhile, Obama argued that conservative media has largely depicted Democrats as a caricature of themselves, using the most outrageous examples of "cancel culture" as a representation of a coastal liberal elite that looks down on middle America.

This particularly matters when policies Democrats have championed—like Medicaid expansion—that Republicans oppose remain popular among a significant majority of voters, he said.

Others in the Democratic Party, including progressives like Bernie Sanders, have begun to caution that Democrats are focusing too much of their energies on issues like abortion access, which—while critical to their base—tend to have a less robust influence among independents and other, on-the-fence demographics Obama said might feel turned off or even maligned by social justice concerns around race or other topics anathema to their worldview.

"We have to be able to speak to everybody about their common interests," Obama said. "What works for, I think, everybody is the idea of basic equal treatment and fairness. It's an argument that's compatible with progress on social issues, and is compatible with economic issues."

Excluding people from the conversation, however, could lead to issues in building that coalition. Where Democrats "get into trouble," he said, is when activists try to suggest some historically maligned groups somehow have a status that's different than other people, creating an environment of identity politics that becomes the principle lens through which we view our various political challenges.

"To me, I think that for a lot of average folks ends up feeling as if you're not speaking to me and my concerns or for that matter my kid's concerns and their future," he said. "It feels as if I'm being excluded from that conversation rather than brought into the conversation."