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Jules Witcover: Obama joins the midterm fray

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON – After more than 19 months on the political sidelines of the approaching midterm congressional battleground, former President Barack Obama has jumped in with both feet, rallying Democrats and other voters against Donald Trump.

In what clearly has evolved as a litmus test on his Oval Office successor, the question after Obama’s pointed assault in a televised speech in Illinois is whether it will generate high voter turnout against the incumbent, or do the same among Trump’s faithful, who are still antagonistic toward his retired predecessor.

In breaking with his moratorium on criticizing Trump, Obama cited what he called “this political darkness” in the land. It was caused, he said, by “a politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment” that “did not start with Donald Trump.” Obama called Trump “a symptom, not the cause.”

Yet Obama made repeated references to the sitting president, as he did in his recent eulogy at the funeral service for the late John McCain, who as a senator often pleaded for a return to “the regular order” of doing business in Congress through bipartisan cooperation.

At the University of Illinois, Obama pointedly observed of the Trump presidency: “This is not normal. These are extraordinary times, and they are dangerous times.” Pivoting to the November midterm elections, he added: “But here is the good news. In two months we have the chance — not the certainty but the chance — to restore some semblance of sanity to our politics.”

The Obama pitch was essentially to Democratic voters to support candidates of their party to flip 23 Republican House seats and two in the Senate. Doing so would give their party majorities that would empower Democrats to issue committee subpoenas for documents and testimony, and to enact legislation now blocked by GOP and Trump opposition.

The president first mocked the televised Obama speech, saying, “I’m sorry. I watched it, but I fell asleep. I found it very good, very good for sleeping,” At a subsequent political rally in Fargo, N.D., solid Trump territory in 2016, he drew cheers and applause as he boasted: “Isn’t this much more exciting than listening to President Obama speak?”

Therein lies the other side of the equation: whether Obama’s decision to join the midterm fray will do more harm than help to Democrats by firing up the opposition to turn out at the polls in November. He clearly is counting on bringing out more anti-Trump voters regardless of party.

Obama cited Trump remarks such as his observation after the far-right violence during the Charlottesville protest against racial discrimination that there were “good people” involved on both sides. Obama asked: “How hard can that be, saying Nazis are bad?”

But one of Trump’s strongest Republican supporters, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, tweeted: “The more President @Barack Obama speaks about the ‘good ole years’ of his presidency, the more likely President @realDonaldTrump is to get re-elected.”

Courtney Alexander of the Republican Leadership Fund also weighed in, adding House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a GOP bugaboo, to the target. “Nothing would be better than the Obama-Pelosi team traveling the country nonstop until November, reminding voters of the failed Obama-Pelosi days of higher taxes and increased government spending,” Alexander said.

Obama, however, did not peddle his “good ole years” in his Illinois speech, focusing instead on a dire warning of how Trump’s anti-democratic, authoritarian harangues are damaging America at home and abroad.

With Obama deciding to take his case to the country as Trump steps up his own carnival-style pitch to his faithful in mostly red-state regions that delivered an Electoral College victory in 2016, the midterms are already being converted into the referendum on himself that Trump fears.

To combat the so-called blue wave that many polls are predicting and Obama and the Democrats pray for, Trump and the Republicans clinging to him are pushing for a red wave of their own to save his imperiled administration in a chaotic national capital.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.

 

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