Citizen Obama: How the president is campaigning for a philosophy, not just a candidate

President Obama speaks at commencement at Rutgers University on May 15 in New Brunswick, N.J.
President Obama speaks at commencement at Rutgers University on May 15 in New Brunswick, N.J.
(Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Getty Images)

President Obama is likely to play a more active role in the race to succeed him than any outgoing president in the modern era. But in addition to campaigning for fellow Democrats, he’s also aiming to ensure a lasting footprint for his governing philosophy.

In the summer and fall, Obama will preach the virtues of compromise, incrementalism and debate rooted in truth as paths to lasting progress, aides say. Already this spring, Obama has offered a glimpse of the message that will be central to his argument.

“As you look at the world, be guided by an honest and clear-eyed assessment,” he told graduating cadets at the Air Force Academy on Thursday. “Remember what you learned at this academy — the importance of evidence and facts and judgment.”


For a president who burst on to the national stage with a message of unity and the promise of hope and change, Obama’s valedictory message, drawing on the lessons of his seven-plus years in the White House, speaks to his frustration with increasingly cynical discourse and a political conversation he sees as drifting away from objective reality.

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Such a contemplative philosophy is hardly an easy sell in a hyperpartisan and on-demand era. But the shift in politics toward partisan poles is driving the president to make his case, directing it at times to his liberal allies as much as the electorate as a whole.

“If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want,” Obama said in a commencement address at Howard University last month.

“I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes.”

White House aides familiar with the president’s thinking cast his approach in grandly historical terms, pointing particularly to themes of his 2016 commencement addresses as something of an early draft of his version of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s parting speech about a growing military-industrial complex, or even George Washington’s concern in his farewell address over forming political parties.


The president has taken an even more hands-on approach to his speeches, going through five drafts of his Howard University address in three days, for instance.

Though his message has taken on added resonance in the post-tea-party era that has given rise to Donald Trump, aides hasten to point out that many of the views Obama is expressing are consistent with those he’s taken throughout his political career.

“Our [message] is less anti-Trump and more pro-liberal democracy,” said one White House official, granted anonymity to speak candidly about the president’s approach.

In Elkhart, Ind., on Wednesday, in a preview of his 2016 campaigning, Obama engaged in a systematic “myth-busting” of Republicans’ arguments against him and Democrats over the years.

But he also urged voters to take a broader perspective on the longer-term trends — globalization, automation and technology, for instance — that he said are responsible for their continued sense of unease.

“All these trends make it easy for people to feel that somehow the system is rigged and that the American dream is increasingly hard to reach for ordinary folks,” he said. “And there are plenty of politicians that are preying on that frustration for headlines and for votes.”


The president has stayed neutral in the Democratic race and praised both Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for mostly keeping their primary fight to the issues. But his message of late conveys a preference for Clinton’s approach to governance to Sanders’, favoring her advocacy of practical progressivism over his call for “revolution.”

At Rutgers University in May, Obama evoked the long struggle of suffragists and civil rights leaders to achieve equal voting rights.

“Each stage along the way required compromise. Sometimes you took half a loaf,” he said. “That’s how democracy works. So you’ve got to be committed to participating not just if you get immediate gratification, but you’ve got to be a citizen full time, all the time.”

In April, Obama told an audience of law students that he did not anticipate a split among Democrats, but that his party did need to guard against it.

“The danger, whether for Democrats or Republicans, is in a closed-loop system where everybody is just listening to the people who agree with them, that you start thinking the way to get to where I want to go is to simply be as uncompromising as possible,” he said. “That anybody who suggests, well, there’s another point of view, or there’s a whole half of the country that completely disagrees with us that we have to work with, well, then you must be a sellout, or you must be corrupted, or you must be on the take.”

Obama has often framed his arguments around that notion of citizenship — and notes he will be returning to private life soon enough. And the responsibilities that come with that role, he has pointed out, require being open to a variety of views.


At a journalism awards dinner in March, Obama said he had become “dismayed” by the tenor of the campaign, both the “divisive and vulgar” rhetoric, but also what he called the “sometimes well-intentioned but, I think, misguided attempts to shut down that speech.”

That feeling extended as well to “a sense that this is a game as opposed to the most precious gift our founders gave us — this collective enterprise of self-government.”

Obama’s message of incrementalism might not sound like the soaring oratory that helped propel him to prominence, but it’s long been his philosophy, said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.

“Obama not only was elected in 2008 but has framed his entire professional life around the proposition that reasonable people can disagree but they should do so in a reasonable way,” said Bennett. “I do believe that Obama in his heart still believes there’s no red America, there’s no blue America, there’s the United States of America. But it’s harder to see that metaphor at this moment.”

The president’s campaign-style speech in Indiana signaled the role the White House envisions for him in the general election. His decision not to endorse either Democrat was in large part because of what officials see as his unique ability to rally their respective camps behind him as the party’s standard bearer.

During a town hall meeting in Elkhart hosted by PBS, Obama seemed to betray some relief as he noted that the primary phase was “almost over.”


“There are some tactical differences within the Democratic Party about how do you get stuff done. But there’s going to be plenty of time for me to step in and campaign,” he said.

For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter.


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