The Obama rapid response team quickly swung into action against the latest Republican move on immigration last week. The new policy was "wrong." It was "self-defeating." It was "cruel." It wasn't "required legally," but was "a political decision."
Only two things were unusual about this strong Democratic pushback: Barack Obama was no longer in office at the time — and yet all the above responses came from the former president himself.
If the 2016 presidential election seems like a never-ending contest, with vanquished Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton constantly relitigating the campaign and criticizing the man who ultimately bested her, the tug-of-war between President Trump and his immediate predecessor has been just as intense.
"He is like our president-in-exile," joked a Democratic operative who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the former president. "His profile makes sense, because while we Democrats and really the whole country owe President Obama a lot, he does have some things to answer for in terms of our current situation" with Republicans controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
What merited Obama's latest statement against his successor was Trump's decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama executive order put in place to shield young illegal immigrants from deportation when Congress declined to pass immigration legislation the former president supported. The announcement that it would be phased out after six months, with Congress given an opportunity to pass legislation replacing it, was made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a leading opponent of Obama's immigration policies as a Republican senator from Alabama.
An Obama-era predecessor of Sessions' was quick to rebuke the current attorney general for calling DACA "an ‘open-borders policy' that admitted ‘everyone.' "
"To the contrary," former Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in the Washington Post on Sept. 6, "it was a beacon of hope for a narrowly defined group who crossed our borders before they could have fully understood what a ‘border' was."
Holder wasn't done. "States must resist Trump's inevitable deportation efforts," he continued. "The private sector must come together to defend its employees. Americans must raise their voices — and use their ballots."
Obama and Holder remain partners in an effort to persuade Democratic voters to do just that. This involves playing defense when Obama policies are attacked by the new administration, and also offense as they try to elect Democrats, especially in races that will influence redistricting after the 2020 census.
One of those efforts is getting an assist from left-wing billionaire George Soros, who spent half a million dollars on ads into a district attorney race in Texas in which a Democrat challenger beat the Republican incumbent. That has prompted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to tell other Republicans that they need to "wake up" to what Obama and others are up to.
Holder has emerged as a front man of sorts for his former bosses' unprecedentedly activist post-presidency. Before Obama even left office, Holder launched the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a tax-exempt 527 political action committee that bills itself as "an organization of Democratic leaders enacting a comprehensive, multi-cycle Democratic Party redistricting strategy over the next 5 years and beyond." The group will also support legal challenges and ballot initiatives as they try to wipe out what they argue is an unfair Republican advantage.
"Republican gerrymandered districts after the 2010 Census have put Democrats at a massive structural disadvantage," a statement on the National Democratic Redistricting Committee's website said. "That's why the most important turning point for the future of the Democratic Party will take place in 2021: when states redraw their congressional and state legislative lines." The committee did not respond to a request for comment.
"We heard a lot in this past election about rigged systems, but I want to say the biggest rigged system in America is gerrymandering," Holder said in January. "A system where the lines are drawn not to represent American communities, but benefit politicians. A system where politicians pick their voters."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who would surely like to regain the speaker's gavel after the 2018 midterm elections, and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe joined the group's initial fundraiser. "Heavyweight leadership indicates Democrats are serious about dealing with redistricting, which the party blissfully ignored before 2010," said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist.
In the meantime, opportunities for conflict have presented themselves as Trump has sought to undo many Obama initiatives. The 45th president has pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement, both negotiated by the Obama administration. Trump may be on the verge of doing the same with the Obama administration-negotiated Iran nuclear deal.
"If the president finds that he cannot in good faith certify Iranian compliance, he would initiate a process whereby we move beyond narrow technicalities and look at the big picture," said Trump-appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in a speech this month to the American Enterprise Institute.
Trump has tried to cajole a Republican-controlled Congress into repealing and replacing Obamacare, the healthcare law that was Obama's signature domestic-policy achievement and informally bears his name. The new president has called Obamacare a "disaster," a "fiction," and a "big, fat, ugly lie."
Activist former president
These types of conflicts are normal when the White House changes hands from one party to another. The new president will revoke executive orders issued by the old, such as when Obama reversed former President George W. Bush's restrictions on taxpayer-funded embryonic stem-cell research. Or when Bush reinstated the Mexico City policy banning federal money for international family planning groups that perform abortions, which had been overturned by former President Clinton eight years earlier. The former president's party will resist these changes, as when Republicans spent much of the Obama administration trying to preserve the Bush tax cuts.
What is abnormal, and arguably unprecedented, is for the departed president to remain such an active participant in this process, indeed perhaps its leader. Some legacy protection and political involvement is expected. Obama has remained a political combatant.
"I hope that current members of Congress recall that it actually doesn't take a lot of courage to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential," Obama said after the House passed a bill partially repealing and replacing Obamacare as he accepted the Profile in Courage Award at the John F. Kennedy Library in May. "But it does require some courage to champion the vulnerable and the sick and the infirm."
When Senate Republicans unveiled their version of the healthcare bill later that month, Obama blasted it as "a massive transfer of wealth from middle-class and poor families to the richest people in America." He added, "[I]f there's a chance you might get sick, get old, or start a family — this bill will do you harm."
Obama accused Trump of aligning the U.S. with "a small handful of nations that reject the future" when he left the Paris Agreement. "I believe the United States of America should be at the front of the pack," said Obama, who was, ironically, often associated with the phrase "leading from behind."
Ten days after leaving office, Obama issued a statement through a spokesman condemning Trump's controversial immigration and travel executive order. The statement said "the president fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion," a reference to Obama, the ex-president, not Trump, the Oval Office's current occupant.
Obama was treated differently by his own predecessor, even though he took frequent jabs at Bush both during the 2008 campaign and long after taking office. "He deserves my silence," Bush said of Obama in a March 2009 speech. "There's plenty of critics in the arena. I think it's time for the ex-president to tap dance off the stage and let the current president have a go at solving the world's problems."
Annie Linskey and Victoria McGran wrote in the Boston Globe in June, "There's a longstanding practice among the fraternity of former US presidents: Don't publicly criticize your successor, but if you must, do it only in the most oblique way possible."
"I want to be respectful of the office and give the president-elect an opportunity to put forward his platform and his arguments without somebody popping off in every instance," Obama said at a press conference near the end of his administration, acknowledging Bush had been "gracious." "As an American citizen who cares deeply about our country, if there are issues that have less to do with the specifics of some legislative proposal but go to core questions about our values and our ideals, and if I think that it is necessary or helpful for me to defend those ideals, I'll examine it when it comes."
Conflict between Obama and Trump was inevitable. Obama is only 56, less than a year older than the median age at which presidents have taken office. He didn't even leave Washington, D.C., after moving out of the White House, and has a residence in the Kalorama district of the capital, about 25 minutes walk from his old home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
For his part, Trump helped build his political following by questioning Obama's birthplace and eligibility for the presidency. Obama in turn ridiculed Trump at a White House Correspondents Dinner, a slight that by some accounts contributed to his motivation to run in 2016 after flirting with campaigns in prior years and never launching them.
Trump has criticized his predecessor even more than Obama found fault with Bush, and often in less refined terms. Trump has also blamed Obama holdovers for White House leaks and questioned, without producing evidence, whether the previous administration wiretapped Trump Tower or otherwise subjected him to illegal surveillance. Some contend Trump has shed so many political conventions, it invites Obama to do the same.
Obama has since thrown his weight behind the Holder-chaired National Democratic Redistricting Committee, going beyond merely defending his legacy or his ideals. He's atoning for his biggest failure as a Democratic Party leader: the pounding Democrats took in down-ballot races during his eight years in office.
Obama prospered personally. He was elected and reelected, the first Democrat to win an absolute majority of the popular vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 2008, he took the biggest percentage of that vote of any Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But Democrats lost 12 governorships, nine Senate seats, 62 House seats and over 900 state legislative seats, enduring what Obama memorably described as a "shellacking" in both midterm elections.
Redrawing the lines
The former president has said publicly that this is partly due to his own failings. But he has also seized on an opportunity both for personal exculpation and activism by blaming a Republican redistricting advantage. "We lost control of a lot of not just congressional seats but also governorships and state legislative seats and that happened to be the year that the census was done and you start doing redistricting," he told reporters at a press conference. "And so those Republicans took advantage of political gerrymandering to lock in majorities even though in numerous subsequent elections Democrats have actually cast more votes or more votes have been cast for Democratic congressional candidates than Republicans, and yet, you end up having large Republican majorities.
"So, there are just structural problems we have to deal with," Obama added. "But, look, you can't make excuses about the rules. That's the deal, and we have to do better."
Obama is trying to help Democrats do better. He reemerged to headline a fundraiser for the group in July, less than six months after leaving office. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee reportedly raised $10.8 million for its affiliates in the first half of 2017.
The Obama-Holder group plowed $500,000 into Virginia Democratic Party coffers to support Ralph Northam's quest to be elected governor over Republican Ed Gillespie. Virginia's next governor will be elected in November and will have veto power over the redrawn district lines in 2021 after the census.
Democrats have had increasing success statewide in Virginia, which hasn't voted for a GOP presidential candidate since 2004. But Republicans still hold both houses of the state legislature, including a nearly two-thirds majority of the lower chamber, and seven of the 11 congressional seats. Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, ironically helped his party take over statehouses with the 2010 census in mind. Northam is the sitting lieutenant governor.
Republicans express confidence in their own redistricting efforts and note they have enjoyed a turnout advantage in recent off-year elections. They also point out that Democrats failed to recreate the Obama coalition in the first presidential election in which he wasn't on the ballot.
But not everyone is convinced. "I think we're asleep at the switch on this," said a Republican strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. "This [Obama-Holder redistricting committee] is no joke."
One high-profile Republican elected official who has been sounding the alarm is Abbott, the governor of Texas. Liberal groups have been trying to turn the Lone Star State blue for years, knowing that would strike a devastating blow to the GOP's Electoral College chances. Texas is one of just four states where Clinton outperformed Obama.
Abbott just watched George Soros pour $500,000 into ads in a Harris County district attorney race where a Democratic challenger unseated the Republican incumbent. He thinks the Obama-Holder campaign could command significant resources.
"If Republicans don't wake up about this threat, it could cause dramatic changes in the electoral map in this country," Abbott told the Washington Examiner. "If they are able to redraw the maps, all the best political strategies are going to be thwarted not by people who vote but by judges who vote, as Obama and Holder know."
Until then, Obama finds himself back in the thick of the political action. He's still taking his shots at Trump, and administration alumni such as Holder are providing cover. And he's working on a goal that eluded him while in office: rebuilding his party's bench at the state level.
It's like he's never left.