With voting in the 2020 presidential primary beginning in just a few days, many Democrats feel increasingly perplexed when it comes to discerning which candidate’s politics offers the surest path to the White House. Is it Joe Biden’s comforting bid for a third Obama administration term? Or Bernie Sanders’s tent-expanding political revolution? Or Elizabeth Warren’s thoroughly-planned promise of Big Structural Change?
In a time of choosing, it would seem wise to reflect on how Democrats last got themselves out of the political wilderness and back into the White House. There may be be better statements of Barack Obama’s political vision and philosophy, but nowhere are his political instincts laid out more clearly than in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope.
Audacity does not map out a surefire path to victory, or a tactical blueprint for other Democrats. But it does showcase the political temperament and perspective on what it meant to be a political leader that drew so many voters to Barack Obama in the first place.
What really comes through in Audacity is that Obama was dispositionally more comfortable crafting consensus than he was being a whole-hearted avatar for progressivism. One of the distinguishing features of his political style was his instinctive tendency toward conciliation. On any given issue he addressed in the book, he presented the best version of the arguments offered by the right and the left, spent time acknowledging the valid points made by those on the right, but ultimately came down somewhere closer to the left’s side of the debate.
Yet while Obama’s ultimate positions may have been reliably liberal, that act of acknowledgement may have been enough to make those who aren’t lockstep liberals at least feel heard and understood by him. True and good-faith — even generous — listening to the other side may not have yielded much among Washington Republicans, but it may have among Waukesha Republicans and independents — the gettable toss-up voters who decide presidential elections. (Remember “Obamacans”?)
It’s a lesson worth remembering for Democrats in 2020: voters are willing to cut you slack on issues you disagree on if they feel like you’ve really listened to them and given their views an honest shake. A fair hearing and genuine consideration grant them dignity and respect.
Obama was particularly careful to take this judicious, conciliatory approach to politics when it came to the most divisive social issues. Two sections of Audacity are most illustrative of his political method: one dealing with affirmative action, and one dealing with immigration.
Obama’s treatment of affirmative action is illustrative of how his political philosophy dealt with social issues generally. First, he stated his own left-of-center position: “Affirmative action programs, when properly structured, can open up opportunities otherwise closed to qualified minorities without diminishing opportunities for white students.” It’s a positive-sum framing, and he specifically proposed a narrowly-targeted scholarship for minority students to pursue advanced degrees in STEM fields, which “won’t keep white students out of such programs, but can broaden the pool of talent that America will need for all of us to prosper in a technology-based economy.”
His next move was to acknowledge the principled opposition to his own position. “Many Americans disagree with me on this as a matter of principle,” he wrote, “arguing that our institutions should never take race into account, even if it is to help victims of past discrimination.” Importantly, he granted these opponents validity and understanding, without ceding the point: “Fair enough — I understand their arguments, and don’t expect the debate to be settled anytime soon.” He then proceeded to propose a consensus position, saying: “[T]hat shouldn’t stop us from at least making sure that when two equally qualified people — one minority and one white — apply for a job, house, or loan, and the white person is consistently preferred, then the government, through its prosecutors and through its courts, should step in to make things right.”
But he went further and took a position contrary to his own side’s ideological orthodoxy. “We should also agree that the responsibility to close the gap can’t come from government alone; minorities, individually and collectively, have responsibilities as well,” he wrote. In a passage that feels particularly distant from the current political mainstream on the left, Obama then bemoaned supposed cultural ailments in minority communities, including “too much television,” too much junk food and cigarettes, “a lack of emphasis on educational achievement,” and “the collapse of the two-parent black household.”
Having said all that, Obama ultimately pivoted to transcend the debate over race-conscious policy entirely, in favor of universal solutions. “[T]he most important tool to close the gap between minority and white workers may have little to do with race at all. These days, what ails working-class and middle-class blacks and Latinos is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts: downsizing, outsourcing, automation, wage stagnation, the dismantling of employer-based health care and pension plans, and schools that fail to teach young people the skills they need to compete in a global economy.” Again embracing positive-sum logic, Obama believed that a “rising tide lifts minority boats.” He said the left needed to undertake an “honest accounting of the costs and benefits of our current strategies” to determine whether the affirmative action was really worth its political costs.
Obama’s case for universalism rested on political calculations just as much as on substantive ones. “An emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific, programs isn’t just good policy; it’s also good politics,” he plainly stated. “[P]roposals that solely benefit minorities and dissect Americans into ‘us’ and ‘them’ . . . can’t serve as the basis for the kinds of sustained, broad-based political coalitions needed to transform America. On the other hand, universal appeals around strategies that help all Americans (schools that teach, jobs that pay, health care for everyone who needs it, a government that helps out after a flood) . . . can serve as the basis for such coalitions — even if such strategies disproportionately help minorities.”
Obama’s approach to immigration feels in some ways the most distant from the modern Democratic party line. He began his discussion of the issue by acknowledging the cross-racial “anxieties … about the wave of illegal immigration flooding our Southern border — a sense that what’s happening now is fundamentally different from what has gone on before. Not all of those fears are irrational.” Specifically, he worried that while immigration may provide economy-wide benefits, it “also threatens to depress further the wages of blue-collar Americans and put strains on an already overburdened safety net.”
While he conceded that some anti-immigrant sentiment is grounded in xenophobia, he believed that “[f]or most Americans, though, concerns over illegal immigration go deeper than worries about economic displacement and are more subtle than simple racism. In the past, immigration occurred on America’s terms; the welcome mat could be extended selectively, on the basis of the immigrant’s skills or color or the needs of industry. [. . .] Today it seems those terms no longer apply. Immigrants are entering as a result of a porous border rather than any systematic government policy[.]”
Obama empathized with “Native-born Americans [who] suspect that it is they, not the immigrant, who are being forced to adapt.” At bottom, he concluded, “the immigration debate comes to signify not a loss of jobs but a loss of sovereignty, just one more example — like September 11, avian flu, computer viruses, and factories moving to China — that America seems unable to control its own destiny.”
After mining the anxieties of the American electorate, Obama turned inward. In what resounds as a now-remarkable admission for a Democratic presidential aspirant, Obama wrote: “[I]f I’m honest with myself, I must admit that I’m not entirely immune to such nativist sentiments. When I see Mexican flags waved at proimmigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.” After a heated meeting between one of his Senate staffers and a group of immigration activists, Obama felt the urge to explain to the activists that “American citizenship is a privilege and not a right; that without meaningful borders and respect for the law, the very things that brought them to America, the opportunities and protections afford those who live in this country, would surely erode[.]”
He then shifted his lens, discussing the immigrants he met at a naturalization workshop: a Mexican woman whose son was serving in Iraq; a young Colombian man studying at a local community college; a young girl who wanted Obama’s autograph to show to her social studies class. Ultimately, Obama said, “I was reminded that America has nothing to far from these newcomers, that they have come here from the same reason that families came here 150 years ago[.]”
Putting all of these views and interests together, Obama concluded: “We have a right and duty to protect our borders. We can insist to those already here that with citizenship come obligations — to a common language, common loyalties, a common purpose, a common destiny. But ultimately the danger to our way of life is not that will be overrun by those who do not look like us or do not speak our language. The danger will come if we fail to recognize [their] humanity[.]”
The Democratic Party of 2020 is largely a response to the Obama years. Democrats watched elected Republicans meet President Obama’s conciliatory style of politics with zealous opposition and relentless bad faith. And they watched that same Republican Party consistently get rewarded for it: first winning back the House, then the Senate, and finally the presidency for Obama’s chief sideline antagonist. Those years understandably radicalized many Democrats to see the Republican Party as a fundamentally broken and harmful force in our politics.
While it’s fair game to write off most Republican politicians at this point, the key is to avoid doing the same for voters who might be tempted to support them. So when it comes to winning back the much-studied Obama-Trump voters, it seems worthwhile to recall just how Obama won them in the first place. What he did was give them a charitable hearing — to bypass the often noxious terms of debate offered by Republican leaders in Washington to instead consider the concerns of well-meaning voters who might disagree with him. He saw the value in making those who disagreed with him at least feel heard.
One takeaway from The Audacity of Hope and Obama’s political method is that what matters is not just the position you take, but how you take it. Those in your camp want to know the bottom-line. But those outside of the camp will want to know how you think, and if you gave them a thought.
Obama’s approach to politics resembled less that of an activist or a politician than of a judge. He sought consensus where possible, and didn’t let his political decisions speak for themselves, but backed them up with the reasoning showing how he arrived at them. Showing your work — the values underlying your political beliefs, the counterarguments you took into account, and so on — is a double-win: it makes a stronger case for your ultimate position, while providing voters who may disagree with the opportunity to at least recognize commonality in the underlying values you share.
Democrats seeking the presidency in 2020 would do well to remember this. The values underlying your policy positions matter a lot more than their technocratic details or dollars and cents. One of those values is how you treat dissenters, navigate disagreement, and mediate disputes. It is possible to stay true to progressive values while sustaining a bridge to voters who may be skeptical. It requires believing that most people are fundamentally good and decent. It means recognizing their humanity.