Nearly two years out of the White House, former President Barack Obama is facing another political test.
To the delight of many Democrats, he’s stepped back into the fray that former presidents often try to avoid, campaigning for Democratic candidates ahead of the midterms and blasting the political culture of the Trump era.
But Obama’s return poses challenges for both the former president and his party. For one, Obama has struggled to turn admiration for him into votes when he’s not on the ballot. Democrats lost significant ground in the 2010 and 2014 midterms and his enthusiastic campaigning for Hillary Clinton didn’t carry her across the finish line in 2016.
Perhaps more importantly, Obama’s public re-entry into politics could serve as a motivating factor for Republicans, potentially handing the GOP a gift at a time when they face an uphill battle to maintain their grip on Congress.
“This is perfect for us,” said U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Pennsylvania Republican running for the Senate. “It will energize Republicans as a reminder.”
For their part, Democrats say an Obama visit is a huge boon. Massive crowds give candidates and the party a chance to organize, update contact lists, motivate new donors and boost volunteerism.
Michael Halle, the campaign manager for Richard Cordray, the Democratic candidate for governor in Ohio, said Obama’s visit sent a message about the stakes of the race, which could have implications for redistricting and voting rights in the future.
“First and foremost, it’s important for the people who live in Ohio,” he said. “But secondly, there are also significant national implications, and I think the [former] president weighed those in making the decision.”
An aide to the former president said Obama is aware that he does not have a strong record of aiding Democrats in midterm elections and that his presence can have the effect of galvanizing Republican voters.
The aide said Obama would take a strategic approach to the midterm races and pointed to the light footprint that the former president kept earlier in his post-presidency. That’s when he recorded a get-out-the-vote robocall for Democrat Doug Jones, rather than travel to Alabama to appear with Jones ahead of his upset Senate victory. The aide cast the decision as an example of how Obama could still lend his voice in a part of the country where he is less popular.
Scott Mulhauser, who served as Vice President Joe Biden’s deputy chief of staff during the 2012 election, said Obama left office as the “most admired man in the country, and his popularity has only increased since.”