The Memo: Obama returns, but Dems lack new leader

Former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaIntelligence for the days after President Trump leaves office Barack Obama sends Valentine's message to Michelle: 'She does get down to Motown' For 2020, Democrats are lookin’ for somebody to love 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. 

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“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 ClintonO’Rourke heading to Wisconsin amid 2020 speculation The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers scramble as shutdown deadline nears Exclusive: Biden almost certain to enter 2020 race MORE has been less reticent than Obama about jumping into the political fray during President TrumpDonald John TrumpBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' ACLU says planned national emergency declaration is 'clear abuse of presidential power' O'Rourke says he'd 'absolutely' take down border wall near El Paso if he could 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 SchumerBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' House passes border deal, setting up Trump to declare emergency Christie: Trump doesn’t give nicknames to people he respects 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 BidenO’Rourke heading to Wisconsin amid 2020 speculation NBC, CNN to host first two Democratic presidential primary debates Feinstein says she thinks Biden will run after meeting with him 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) SandersHillicon Valley: New York says goodbye to Amazon's HQ2 | AOC reacts: 'Anything is possible' | FTC pushes for record Facebook fine | Cyber threats to utilities on the rise O’Rourke heading to Wisconsin amid 2020 speculation Amazon to pay Bernie Sanders in federal income taxes: report MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren's 'ultra wealth' tax is misleading Hillicon Valley: New York says goodbye to Amazon's HQ2 | AOC reacts: 'Anything is possible' | FTC pushes for record Facebook fine | Cyber threats to utilities on the rise O’Rourke heading to Wisconsin amid 2020 speculation MORE (D-Mass.) and rising stars such as Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHillicon Valley: New York says goodbye to Amazon's HQ2 | AOC reacts: 'Anything is possible' | FTC pushes for record Facebook fine | Cyber threats to utilities on the rise O’Rourke heading to Wisconsin amid 2020 speculation 2020 Dems slam Trump's plan to declare national emergency MORE (D-Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerO’Rourke heading to Wisconsin amid 2020 speculation 2020 Dems slam Trump's plan to declare national emergency NBC, CNN to host first two Democratic presidential primary debates 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 ReidKlobuchar: 'I don't remember' conversation with Reid over alleged staff mistreatment Dems wary of killing off filibuster Reid praises Warren, stops short of endorsement 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 ObamaGOP senator dedicates heart photo to wife from Senate floor for Valentine's Day Barack Obama sends Valentine's message to Michelle: 'She does get down to Motown' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — House moving to vote on deal after signals Trump will sign 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.