‘The Baton Got Dropped’: Obama Alums Run to Finish What He Started
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So many Obama administration alumni are running for office this year that the former president’s staff has lost count, but they’re keeping close tabs on whether they’re winning their primaries—and nearly all are, everywhere around the country.
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That’s a big change from the years when Barack Obama was in the White House, when almost no one who’d worked for him stayed involved in politics and—with the exception of a few, like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Massachusetts State Sen. Eric Lesser—weren’t at all interested in running themselves.
They were done. They loved the president, and couldn’t imagine anyone or any campaign would live up. They cashed out. They marketed themselves on the strength of Obama’s strategy and cachet. Some took corporate jobs. They assumed Hillary Clinton would win, and they could settle down to watch their guy be hailed as the man who led the country into a new progressive era.
Now they’re anxious. They go through waves of depression, seeing years of their work disappearing overnight, every night. They hate Donald Trump. They hate what they think he’s done to the presidency. They want that Obama-inspired progressive era to come to pass—and in order to make it a reality, they’re focused on defeating Trump, not simply by opposing him, but by out-organizing him.
“‘Resist’ is too passive,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who upon her 2017 victory became the first Obama alum to win election since he left office. “We’ve got to focus and build a progress and a movement going forward,” she told me in an interview for the latest episode of POLITICO’s Off Message podcast.
Durkan, who in 2009, became the first openly gay U.S. attorney appointed by a president, was one of those members of the Obama administration who had written off politics, content to practice law. Those plans changed after the election of Donald Trump and the implosion of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s political career after revelations that he’d molested young boys.
Suddenly, there was an opening. And like other former Obama appointees, his talk of the presidency like a relay race—passing the baton, picking up where he left off and running even further ahead—was so deep in her head that she says she didn’t even realize he was the reason she thought of it that way.
“The baton got dropped,” Durkan said, “and so people are looking at what we can do.”
Durkan was an early appointee, and she said that coming in to the Justice Department after eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency showed her how much of an impact a presidency can have, both for and against what she believes in.
“We saw the immense amount of positive we could do in our communities,” Durkan said, adding that she saw also how much gets done when no one is looking, which she said is happening every day with Trump and the Trump administration.
“Not only are they rolling the clock backwards—they are—they’re in there dismantling, brick by brick. What he tweets in the morning drives the news cycle, and in the meantime, there’s an enormous amount of harm being done to the country,” she said.
Democrats—especially Obama alumni—still can’t get enough of the former president. They devour each Obama subtweet-style comment obliquely attacking Trump. They retweet everything he says or does. And, most importantly, they’re just as eager to vote for Obama veterans as they are to see Obama.
Lauren Baer, a former State Department aide who is running for a U.S. House seat in Florida, said she’s found voters are “incredibly nostalgic for the Obama era now.” “To the extent that people know about and hear about my ties to the admin, that reminds them of a time when the government didn’t always get everything right, but tried its hardest to work in the best in the interest of all Americans.”
Voters are “interested in it, they’re interested in the work that I did for him,” said Buffy Wicks, a top Obama organizer who last week won a 12-way primary for a California Assembly seat in the Bay Area.
Wicks likes to tell a story of being 40 weeks pregnant on election night 2016, expecting that she might be in labor with her daughter as the first female president was elected. Instead, she felt lost—until the Assembly seat came open. Even for California politics, the campaign got huge. Valerie Jarrett, the longtime top Obama adviser came to do events with her. David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, knocked on doors with her. Dan Pfeiffer, a former top White House communications aide, did an event with her for Pod Save America, the wildly successful progressive political podcast he co-hosts with other ex-Obama aides. Other alums hosted Wicks for house parties, and wrote her checks from near and far.
“It’s been critical for me,” Wicks said. “It’s my number-one donor network.”