Obama comes off sidelines, thrilling Dems

It was a speech Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAzar regrets Trump didn't get vaccinated on national TV Franklin D. Roosevelt's prescient warning Harris 'root causes' immigration plan faces challenges MORE had held off from delivering.

For months, the former president refused to come off the political sidelines, even as some activists said that they wanted him to publicly take on President TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Missouri Rep. Billy Long enters Senate GOP primary Trump-backed Mike Carey wins GOP primary in Ohio special election MORE

Obama grumbled privately to close allies about Trump, but said he did not want to become even more of a foil to his successor, who frequently criticizes him on Twitter and in remarks to friendly audiences. 

He said he wanted to create space for new leaders to emerge, and that he didn’t want to suck up all the oxygen. 


That all changed on Friday when Obama took the stage at a University of Illinois auditorium and offered a blistering rebuke of Trump, calling his administration “a threat to democracy.” 

The sight of a former president going directly after his successor — Obama said that Trump was “capitalizing on resentment” and called him out for pandering to bigotry — was like nothing previously seen in modern political history. 

And Democrats were thrilled. 

“About f---ing time,” said one Obama bundler who had been clamoring for the former president to go out on the campaign trail and call Trump out. 

“His strategy was never to give a speech like the one he gave today but this time requires it, this moment requires it,” the bundler added. “No one else could do what he did. No one could do it in a way that could resonate from the mountaintops and on social media and get people’s attention.” 

Obama’s address was carried from beginning to end by all three cable news networks, a rarity for a speech by a Democrat. 

While Trump was unfazed, saying he fell asleep during the ex-president’s lengthy address, it appeared to energize Democrats who have longed for someone on their side and with Trump’s standing to noisily push back against the president. 

“It made me miss him even more than I already did,” said Democratic consultant Eric Jotkoff, who worked on the Obama campaign in 2012. “Overall it was classic Barack Obama telling hard truths to all sides of the political spectrum while reminding us that hope is still alive during these hard times.”

Obama was blistering in his approach, railing on Trump for his tax, health care and foreign policies, for his handling of the Justice Department and his reaction to the Charlottesville, Va., violence and Hurricane Maria. 

The bundler who was happy to see Obama fire at Trump said the ex-president could even have been harsher. 

“This is the moment where protocol should go out the window. He handled it very well. He could have been 10 times worse than he was,” the bundler said. 

Democrats have been in search of leadership and a message since the stunning presidential election loss in 2016. And many have been looking for someone to fill the void and stand up to an administration awash in scandal. 

And in some ways, Obama’s reappearance was a reminder that the party seems largely leaderless, searching for a new person to be its standard-bearer.

Longtime allies to Obama say there was no shift in strategy or an ‘aha’ moment that made the former president deliver the stinging address. Still, they acknowledge just how unprecedented a moment it was.

“Of course it’s different, because we are in a different moment,” said Jen Psaki, who served as communications director in the Obama White House. “He, of all people, recognizes the stakes here.”

But Psaki said the crux of the speech was “much more about who we are as a country and democracy and liberal Democratic values and that’s something he has long believed in.” 

Those around Obama say he has become increasingly disturbed by the Trump White House and has been careful about weighing in. “To his credit, he has held back even though this current president day in and day out has trashed his legacy,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley. 

“I’m sure he and his team struggled with it but they made the right step in engaging,” he said. “It was a classic speech by Obama, high-minded, cogent and articulate.” 

Democratic strategist Patti Solis Doyle — who worked on the Obama campaign in 2008 — agreed. 

"If there is one thing that unifies all Democrats, it’s their disgust for Trump,” Solis Doyle said. “He gave very specific anti-Trump red meat.” 

The bundler said Obama is strategic about the right moments to resurface — and this one moment was suited only for him. 

“He knows he’s in a unique position,” the bundler said. “He knows if not him, there’s no one else.”