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Politics

In L.A., Obama urges donors not to take midterms for granted: ‘We are seeing the consequences’ of a political story based on fear

Obama meets with Democratic presidential aspirants about 2020
Former President Obama at Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago in May.
(Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Without once mentioning the president by name, former President Obama on Thursday drew sharp contrast between his eight years in office and the Trump administration.

“To a large degree, we are seeing a competition between two stories,” the former president told about 200 people at a high-dollar fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in Beverly Hills.

“There’s the story that is based largely on fear, and there is a story based largely in hope. There’s the story that says we’re in it together, and there’s the story that says there’s an us and a them,” Obama told DNC Chairman Tom Perez during a conversation at the event. Reporters were allowed in to listen to the 48-minute discussion. The rest of the event was closed to the press.

“There’s a fundamental contrast of how we view the world,” the former president said, “and I think we are seeing the consequences of when one vision is realized, or at least in charge.”

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But, drawing on what Perez called his role as “optimist in chief,” Obama added: “The good news is that it is entirely within our power to solve it. The simple message right now is that if people participate and they vote, then this democracy works.”

Obama used his remarks to outline the stakes of the midterm elections and the competing visions on the ballot. He praised what he called the “extraordinarily powerful” phenomenon of women stepping up to run for office.

Obama warned against taking anything for granted as pundits predict a blue wave could sweep Republicans from power in the U.S. House.

“I would caution us from extrapolating too much from a bunch of special elections and starting to think that, ‘OK, this will take care of itself.’ Because it won’t,” he said. “Fear is powerful.” It would be a mistake, he added, to “go back to business as usual” or assume momentum from those races will carry Democrats through November.

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The former president said he believes most Americans don’t want “a dog-eat-dog world where everybody is angry all the time.” He said that while observing “the other side,” he finds it striking that “They’re mad even when they win. Have you noticed that? They don’t look happy at all.”

He said Democrats should not get caught up in the kind of cult of personality his own candidacy inspired in some circles.

“I’m giving you the executive summary: Vote. Participate. Get involved,” he said as the crowd applauded. “And do not wait for the perfect message, and don’t want to feel a tingle in your spine because you’re expecting politicians to be so inspiring and poetic and moving. Politics, like life, is imperfect. But there is better and there is worse.”

And he defended Obamacare, his signature domestic accomplishment. “I said to the incoming president, just change the name. And claim that you have made these wonderful changes. And I’d be like, ‘You go!’ Because I didn’t have pride of authorship, I just wanted people to have healthcare.”

Criticizing Republicans for trying to “undermine and erode” the Affordable Care Act, he said they had been “peddling a lot of stuff that is so patently untrue.” He added, “Reality has an interesting way of coming up and biting you.”

Obama’s remarks came in the midst of an ongoing border crisis in which thousands of children have been separated from parents arrested for attempting to enter the country illegally. It also comes as President Trump and Congress are grappling with the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. He did not mention either storyline Thursday.

Obama did, however, open his remarks by saying he was “heartbroken” about the shooting in Annapolis earlier in the day.

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“I am hopeful that each time one of these tragedies strikes we remind ourselves that this is preventable. It’s not inevitable,” he said. “That America is not the only nation on Earth that has people who are troubled or violent, but we are unique in the weapons that those people can deploy. And it’s costly.”

The event was held at the home of Allan Mutchnik, an executive of Harbor Freight Tools, and his wife, Nicole. They have been major donors to Democratic candidates and causes, and gave tens of thousands of dollars to a committee benefiting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.

Tickets started at $2,700 to attend the discussion and see a musical performance by Christina Aguilera. Top donors who paid $100,000 received five dinner tickets, a photo with Obama, membership to the DNC finance committee and other perks.

The former president referenced Aguilera’s song, which was off the record, in urging people to stay involved.

“Governance is work,” Obama said, “and we shouldn’t expect it to be entertaining all the time. Christina Aguilera was wonderful but you don’t need to have an amazing singer at every event. Sometimes you’re just in a church basement making phone calls and eating cold pizza.”

It was a rare post-presidency appearance for Obama, who has kept a low profile and made few public appearances since leaving the White House. In March, he came to the Golden State to raise money for Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

He will continue his California fundraising swing Friday, where he will appear at a $10,000-per-person fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the Bay Area suburb of Atherton.

Coverage of California politics »

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christine.maiduc@latimes.com

For more on California politics, follow @cmaiduc.


UPDATES:

11:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional context.

10:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from Obama.

This article was originally published at 9:50 p.m.


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