Former President Barack Obama, to the chagrin of some Democrats, has spent much of 2018 on the sidelines to what top party operatives believe is a generational fight against President Donald Trump.
That ends Friday, Obama advisers tell CNN, when the former president unveils his midterm message in a speech that will be a more pointed rebuke of Trump’s first years in office.
The speech at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign comes ahead of Obama’s first campaign events of the midterms: A rally for a handful of Democratic congressional candidates in California on Saturday and an event for Richard Cordray, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Ohio, on September 13.
Obama is also planning campaign trips to Illinois and Pennsylvania in September, an Obama official said, as well as a New York fundraiser for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, an organization led former Attorney General Eric Holder, Obama’s longtime friend. Obama’s office announced his first round of endorsements earlier this year and the official said his second round of endorsements will be released in the coming weeks.
The Friday speech will be “a pointed” critique of the current state of affairs in Washington, one Obama adviser said, where the Democratic heavyweight will be “much more, much more pointed about what’s at stake right now” and how “people need to take their responsibility seriously.”
The Obama team selected his acceptance speech for the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government as the forum to lay out his midterm message because it offers a less politically charged environment for the President to explain his current political views.
“We thought it was important to find a setting where he can find a cogent, rational argument outside of the more chaotic campaign appearances that come this fall,” the adviser said. “The speech will lay down a frame and his message for fall. He will lay out his views about where we are and where we go from here.”
Another Obama office official said they could not say whether the former President will mention Trump directly but added that “regardless of whether he mentions him by name, it will be very clear who he is talking about.”
The Trump era has complicated Obama’s post-presidency. A series of former Presidents have avoided critiquing their successors and Obama has attempted to keep that tradition since leaving office two years ago. The distance has annoyed some Democrats, who believe their most potent weapon is sitting out the midterms in an effort to maintain decorum that has long left politics.
But Obama’s foray into pure politics also threatens to ignite Republicans — including the President — who have made undoing much of his eight years in office a key objective. Trump, through Twitter and at campaign events, has shown little regard for his predecessors and would likely relish the opportunity to use Obama to rally Republicans in November.
Obama never said Trump’s name during a fundraising speech he delivered earlier this year for the Democratic National Committee and instead urged Democrats to stop “moping” and get to work for candidates.
“If what you are doing requires no sacrifice at all, then you can do more,” Obama told the crowd at a sweeping multi-million-dollar Beverly Hills home. “If you are one of these folks who is watching cable news at your cocktail parties with your friends and you are saying ‘civilization is collapsing’ and you are nervous and worried, but that is not where you are putting all your time, energy and money, then either you don’t actually think civilization is collapsing … or you are not pushing yourself hard enough and I would push harder.”
That speech, in the eyes of Obama’s team, was not a preview of the former President’s midterm message. Instead, Obama’s advisers believe his midterm message will more closely resemble the remarks the former President delivered in South Africa as part of an event honoring the late Nelson Mandela.
Obama used the remarks to warn against the rise of “strongman politics” and the “utter loss of shame among political leaders” who lie. The remarks were seen as a clear broadside against Trump, despite the fact Obama never mentioned his successor.
“The politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear. And that kind of politics is now on the move. It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago,” he told the audience in Johannesburg. “I am not being alarmist, I’m simply stating the facts. Look around — strongman politics are ascendant, suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained, the form of it, where those in powers seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.”
Obama began working on his midterm messaging around the same time he delivered the South African speech, working with speechwriter Cody Kennan and other members of his team to craft political remarks that deliver an effective rebuke to the current state of Washington while also inspiring Democrats to vote.
“I think people will see this as his unvarnished take on what is happening in the political environment right now,” the adviser said.
Obama will quickly take the message on the road after he leaves Illinois.
On Saturday, the former President will kick off his campaigning for House members in California with a joint rally in Orange County for Josh Harder (CA-10), TJ Cox (CA-21), Katie Hill (CA-25), Gil Cisneros (CA-39), Katie Porter (CA-45), Harley Rouda (CA-48), and Mike Levin (CA-49).
All seven of those districts represent the best chance Democrats have to swing races from red to blue in November: Hillary Clinton, Democrats 2016 nominee, won each district, despite the fact each is represented by a Republican in Congress.
“Democrats need all hands on deck to take back the House, and we could not be more honored to have President Barack Obama’s inspirational voice and unifying message on the campaign trail, with his first stop in Southern California,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Ben Ray Lujan, a New Mexico congressman.
Obama will then travel to Ohio on September 13 for a rally with Cordray and Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Betty Sutton in Cleveland. Obama encouraged Cordray, the former Obama administration official and Ohio attorney general, to run for office and the race was long seen one the former President could get involved in.
Katie Hill, Obama’s spokeswoman, said the Friday speech will be a continuation of a series of speeches the President gave during his final year in office, where he laid out challenges he believed were facing the United States.
“Next week, President Obama will offer new thoughts on this moment and what it requires from the American people,” she said. “He will expand upon several of the themes from his summer address, including that America is at its best when our democracy is inclusive and our citizens are engaged.”
She added: “He will echo his call to reject the rising strain of authoritarian politics and policies. And he will preview arguments he’ll make this fall, specifically that Americans must not fall victim to our own apathy by refusing to do the most fundamental thing demanded of us as citizens: vote.”