The Memo: Obama returns, but Dems lack new leader

Former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMcCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination Presidential approval: It's the economy; except when it's not Time for sunshine on Trump-Russia investigation 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 ClintonHillicon Valley: Trump's exclusive interview with Hill.TV | Trump, intel officials clash over Russia docs | EU investigating Amazon | Military gets new cyber authority | Flynn sentencing sparks new questions about Mueller probe READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV Keeping up with Michael Avenatti MORE has been less reticent than Obama about jumping into the political fray during President TrumpDonald John TrumpLondon terror suspect’s children told authorities he complained about Trump: inquiry The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency 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 SchumerTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump slams Sessions in exclusive Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh accuser wants FBI investigation 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 BidenThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump Biden: Presume the 'essence' of sexual assault accusations are 'real' Sanders, Warren ask whether there’s room for both in primary 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) SandersThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenElection Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls On The Money: Midterms to shake up House finance panel | Chamber chief says US not in trade war | Mulvaney moving CFPB unit out of DC | Conservatives frustrated over big spending bills Warren suggests Mulvaney broke law by speaking to GOP donors MORE (D-Mass.) and rising stars such as Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle Booker: It would be ‘irresponsible’ not to consider running for president Senate Democrats: Kavanaugh’s classmate must testify MORE (D-Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle Booker: It would be ‘irresponsible’ not to consider running for president Senate Dems sue Archives to try to force release of Kavanaugh documents 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 ReidKavanaugh furor intensifies as calls for new testimony grow Dems can’t ‘Bork’ Kavanaugh, and have only themselves to blame Dem senator: Confidential documents would 'strongly bolster' argument against Kavanaugh's nomination 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’s book tour to include stadium events Michelle Obama teams up with BET to urge women of color to vote Healthy food has gone high end, but is the lifestyle trend worth the cost? 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.