Yet the person from whom Democrats are most eager to hear at this week’s national convention is President Obama, according to the polls. They’ll get their chance Wednesday when Mr. Obama speaks, via video, to the virtual convention.
“This is Barack Obama‘s party, and it’s his legacy,” pollster John Zogby said. “He is the grand memory for the party — what was bringing back JFK, what was bringing back Ronald Reagan to the Republicans, we’re now bringing back Obama.”
It’s not just Democrats, either.
“He’s still the most popular figure in the Democratic Party,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor at the University of Houston who studies the presidency. “If they could add a figure to Mount Rushmore, it would be FDR and then him.”
When Mr. Obama takes the spotlight it will be his fifth convention speech.
He broke onto the national stage with his soaring call for unity at the 2004 convention, when he was but an Illinois state senator running for the Senate. Four years later he took the stage in a football stadium in Denver, standing amid Greek temple columns to declare a new era of politics. In 2012 he was back on stage to run for a second term. And in 2016 he delivered a departing address and passed the torch to Hillary Clinton.
Now he’s back again, hoping his former vice president can succeed where Mrs. Clinton failed, and rescue his legacy from Mr. Trump’s wrecking ball, which has already deleted many of Mr. Obama’s domestic accomplishments.
Mr. Trump suggested Tuesday that he doesn’t get the love for his predecessor.
Taking to Twitter after former first lady Michelle Obama’s Monday night convention speech, Mr. Trump said it was weariness with her husband that helped him get elected in the first place.
“Somebody please explain to [Michelle Obama] that Donald J. Trump would not be here, in the beautiful White House, if it weren’t for the job done by your husband, Barack Obama,” he tweeted.
He went on to call the Obama administration “the most corrupt in history,” pointing to the FBI’s questionable surveillance of his campaign.
“It’s called Treason, and more,” the president tweeted to his 85.3 million followers.
Mr. Obama far outstrips Mr. Trump, counting 121.6 million Twitter followers.
Indeed, when Mr. Obama shared his summer music playlist on Twitter this week, it drew more than 185,000 likes. Mr. Trump’s tweet-blast at the Obamas drew just half that.
Stanley Renshon, a psychoanalyst and political science professor at CUNY, said he expects Mr. Obama to use his speech to make his disdain clear not only for Mr. Trump, but also his supporters.
“I think Obama‘s going to do what his wife did, but more directly, which is take off on Trump and Trump supporters. There’s a harshness there that I think is reflected in the general Democratic view not only of Trump, but Trump supporters,” said Mr. Renshon, who wrote a book on Mr. Obama‘s rise and will soon publish another book titled “The Real Psychology of the Trump Presidency.”
In that way, Mr. Obama channels the anger many rank-and-file Democrats also feel both toward Mr. Trump and his millions of fans, the professor said.
In the four years since he’s departed office Mr. Obama has remained more politically active than other past presidents, making low-risk but high-profile endorsements in down-ticket races and lending his imprimatur to efforts to reshape the way congressional district lines are drawn.
He has also not been afraid to attack Mr. Trump, including last week when he suggested that changes to U.S. Postal Service operations were an attempt to stop people from voting.
Matthew McDermott, a Democratic pollster and vice president at Whitman Insight Strategies, said Mr. Obama is not kingmaker so much as wise elder within the party, helping shape its search for leaders and policy solutions.
That’s true even though Mr. Obama himself staked out positions in office that now seem out of touch with the current Democratic Party. He was late to embrace same-sex marriage and said he opposed it in the 2008 campaign, he set records for deportations, and his Obamacare program rejected a larger government role in directly providing health care.
Mr. McDermott said Mr. Obama himself has said the times are different and his platform today would look different.
“Obama‘s pragmatism is rooted in incrementalism,” he said. “Obamacare was never supposed to solve health care. The Paris Climate Agreement was never supposed to solve climate change. They were incremental solutions on the path to a more progressive society.”
Mr. Rottinghaus said Obamacare’s successes shouldn’t be discounted. He made major strides on an issue had bedeviled Democrats — including the Clintons — for decades.
Plus, Mr. Rottinghaus said, Mr. Obama bequeathed a winning coalition to Democrats, unifying young people, suburban women and minority voters.
“He was the kind of cult of personality for the party that needed some kind of unifying force,” he said.
Mrs. Clinton allowed that coalition to fray in 2016. Polling suggests Mr. Biden is in better shape to reconstitute it this year.
Mr. Obama‘s two victories are part of the reason he remains beloved among Democrats, the analysts said.
Mr. Renshon called it a “place of myth and nostalgia” in Democrats’ political psyche. The nostalgia is for the last time Democrats held the levers of power in Washington. The myth, Mr. Renshon said, is the former president’s ability to sell himself as a “pragmatist, soft-spoken, bipartisan.”
“He cloaked himself in the ambience of moderation, but he was no moderate policy-wise. And it turned out he was no moderate when he came to his view of his opponents,” the professor said.
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