The Memo: Obama returns, but Dems lack new leader

Former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSpicer maintains Trump inauguration had biggest audience in history Montana governor raises profile ahead of potential 2020 bid Trump was right to ditch UN’s plan for handling migrants MORE returned to the campaign trail for the first time since leaving office on Thursday, stumping for Democratic candidates in New Jersey and Virginia.

The rapturous reception Obama received was no big surprise. He remains enormously popular with the Democratic grass roots. 

But the sense of wistfulness the former president invokes among the party faithful is sharpened because, aside from him, the Democrats have no obvious leader. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“The honorific title of leader of the party goes to President Obama, but he is obviously not running for office,” said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick.

Beyond Obama, the party’s biggest names are familiar figures who have their share of baggage. Fresher faces have not yet become national stars.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCarter Page warrant reflects attack on our civil liberties Former Obama aide to Comey: 'No one is asking for your advice' Comey to Dems: 'Don't lose your minds and rush to the socialist left' MORE has been less reticent than Obama about jumping into the political fray during President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump warns Iran's Rouhani: Threaten us 'and you will suffer' Pompeo: Iran's leaders resemble the mafia NYT's Haberman: Trump 'often tells the truth' MORE’s first year. But Clinton is tarnished by her election loss, her overall approval ratings remain tepid and, in private, there are plenty of Democrats who feel that her time has come and gone.

Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE, the head of the Democratic National Committee, is the subject of a growing chorus of criticism inside the party, as The Hill reported last week. 

The party’s leaders in Congress, Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerData confirm that marijuana decriminalization is long overdue Pollster: Kavanaugh will get Dem votes Democrats slam Trump for considering Putin’s ’absurd’ request to question Americans MORE (N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), enjoy wide respect among Democrats for years of service and for their prodigious fundraising efforts. 

But as congressional veterans aged 66 and 77, respectively, they offer little that Democrats have not seen and heard before. The same goes for former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenKerry: Trump attacks on Biden are 'unbecoming of a president' Biden rips Trump immigration policy: 'One of the darkest moments in our history' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia MORE, who first ran for the White House in 1988 and is now 74.

A number of other major figures could make their own bids for preeminence, most obviously by seeking the party’s presidential nomination in 2020. 

Among the names most often mentioned are progressive icons Sens. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersCarter Page warrant reflects attack on our civil liberties Sanders advises Ocasio-Cortez: Keep doing what you've been doing Bernie Sanders mocks Trump: ‘He could change his mind tomorrow’ MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOn The Money: Trump 'ready' for tariffs on all 0B in Chinese goods | Trump digs in on Fed criticism | Lawmakers drop plans to challenge Trump ZTE deal On The Money: Trump rips Fed over rate hikes | Dems fume as consumer agency pick refuses to discuss border policy | Senate panel clears Trump IRS nominee Dems fume as Trump's consumer bureau pick refuses to discuss role in border policy MORE (D-Mass.) and rising stars such as Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisTrump: ‘Dems have a death wish’ Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas Senate Democrats block resolution supporting ICE MORE (D-Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerKavanaugh returns questionnaire to Senate panel Booker calls on Kavanaugh to recuse himself on Trump-related cases Anti-Trump protesters hold candlelight vigil by White House MORE (D-N.J.).

But that could be a chaotic battle. Tensions still fester between the 2016 camps of Clinton and Sanders, erupting with startling frequency and ferocity on social media. And some argue that the divide between progressives and the center-left is not the only cross-current the party will have to deal with.

“There is the usual ideological division kinda represented by Bernie and Clinton, but you also see a generational division starting to emerge,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who managed Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.

“Some of the younger faces in the party are talking about how it is time for a new generation and new ideas.”

For the moment, many in the party are trying to put the best face on the situation, asserting that there is nothing especially unusual about the party lacking a single leader, given that it is shut out of the White House and in the minority in both chambers of Congress.

“It would be better if we controlled the government,” said Democratic strategist Tad Devine with a wry laugh. “But in reality, we have to accept that when you are out of power, it is difficult to speak with one single voice.”

Others argue that the party is still absorbing the lessons of Clinton’s devastating loss to Trump last November and that the process will take some time.

“We’re still, as a party, at a place where people need to assess what happened in the last election and figure out where to go,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to ex-Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidSenate GOP breaks record on confirming Trump picks for key court Don’t worry (too much) about Kavanaugh changing the Supreme Court Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (D-Nev.). “I want to see everyone who is interested vie to be the leader of the party.”

Obama, who cannot run again, retains a firm grip on the party’s heart.

At his first stop of the day, campaigning for New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy in Newark, the crowd erupted into a chant of “Four more years!” 

Obama shot back, "I will refer you to both the Constitution, as well as to Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama joins stars in launch of voter registration push The Hill's Morning Report — Russia furor grips Washington Michelle Obama launches voter registration initiative ahead of midterms: report MORE, to explain why that will not happen.”

Later, campaigning in Richmond for Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the party’s nominee to be governor of Virginia, Obama took some thinly veiled shots at Trump 

“If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you aren’t going to be able to govern them,” he said. “You won’t be able to unite them later, if that’s how you start.”

Democrats know there is no new Obama waiting in the wings. Finding a successor will be neither quick nor easy. 

But they insist there is one factor binding all the different strands of the party together: the current occupant of the Oval Office.

“The party is pretty united because Trump has been so dreadful,” said Carrick. “He is definitely going to do two things: He is going to create absolute havoc inside the Republican Party and he is going to unite Democrats.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.