In a speech delivered before the 2019 meeting of the Democracy Conference, former United States President Barack Obama argued for a more moderate approach to left-wing politics. Obama stated, “Voters, including Democrats, are not driven by the same views that are reflected on certain left-leaning Twitter feeds, or the activist wing of our party. And that’s not a criticism to the activist wing. Their job is to poke and prod and text and inspire and motivate. But the candidate’s job, whoever that ends up being, is to get elected.” The remarks were interpreted by many to be an attack on the party’s left flank, particularly Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Do you agree or disagree with Obama’s remarks? What approach do you think the Democratic Party needs to take to defeat President Trump in 2020?

Prof. Gordon Fellman (SOC)

The 2020 presidential campaign features two gigantic splits. First, of course, the Republicans/Democrats split. Second, that between centrist Democrats accepting Bill Clinton’s leading the Democratic Party away from its working class base to align with corporations and banks, and the further left orientation of Sanders, Warren, the Squad and others to renew and extend the FDR New Deal vision of government serving work, health, education, and other social needs of all the population. Barack Obama, whatever his merits and accomplishments as President, continued the Clinton alliance with the upper .01%. Polls show the public leaning much to the left of the Clinton-Obama establishment in whose candidacy of Joe Biden the centrist Democrats would renew their alliance with the super-rich at the expense of the other 99% of the population. Are the Democrats bold enough to renounce placating the super-rich and supporting humane policies to benefit the entire population?

Gordon Fellman is a Professor of Sociology specializing in the sociology of empowerment, masculinities, psychoanalytic sociology and public sociology.

Daniel Blair

I didn't take Obama’s remarks to be a criticism of a particular candidate so much as a reflection of a larger feeling among establishment Democratic politicians that the discourse around the direction of the party is being dictated to an unhealthy degree by a small group of younger, more progressive online activists. Obama believes that there is necessarily a tension between catering to these activists and appealing to the more moderate electorate as a whole. There is certainly a divide between these groups, however the evidence suggests that the vast majority of Democrats and many independents are aligned on economic issues, while many of the Rust Belt Democrats and white working-class voters that Obama won and Hillary Clinton lost felt alienated from the Democratic Party on cultural issues instead. It is unclear, then, how Obama would like to placate this ‘moderate’ center without sacrificing hard-earned advances on areas dealing with race and gender.

Daniel Blair is a graduate student in the Politics Department at Brandeis specializing in political theory. 

Jeremy Cynamon

I find it rather amusing that President Obama now speaks derisively about the 'activist wing' of the Democratic Party, when it was the wing with which he aligned himself during his first presidential campaign. More to the point, as I see it, the notion that the American electorate can be understood using a simple left-right spectrum has been disproved time and time again. Yet it is precisely upon this mistaken notion that Obama bases the implicature of his view, namely that candidates too far to the left cannot be elected. But if the American electorate cannot be understood on this reductive spectrum, then it does not follow that a more 'centrist' candidate is necessarily more electable. This folk wisdom is wrong. If anything, moderate candidates seem to be less effective at motivating significant swaths of the electorate, especially those in younger age cohorts. Recent history certainly suggests as much.

Jeremy Cynamon is a PhD candidate in the Politics Department at Brandeis specializing in political theory and public policy.

Prof. Lucy Goodhart (IGS)

One thing one can learn from this prompt is that President Obama’s remains the consummate communicator. Mr. Obama clothes his criticisms in compliments. He anticipates the opposition and seeks to circumvent it. His rhetoric is a lightly held but pointed weapon. An obvious question is why Obama spoke publicly — especially when he can be accused of putting his thumb on the scale for former Vice President Joe Biden. Yet, for President Obama, securing the Democrats in the White House, particularly after Trump’s victory, is an important goal.The important question is whether we should listen. And, here, one has to think, “This is a former President. He understands what it is to campaign, knows the daily work of reaching out to voters, and gets how important it is to listen to their wants and needs.” Do I think his remarks warrant attention? You betcha.

Lucy Goodhart is a lecturer in the International and Global Studies and Politics departments, specializing in the global economy and elections.