Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Obamaworld's Problem with the Progressive Left
Welcome to Chicago
In 2020, Bernie Sanders ran for president again. Given his unexpectedly strong performance against Hillary Clinton four years earlier, there was a wide-held belief that he could build upon that showing and become a genuine front-runner in the contest for the Democratic nomination. For parts of the campaign, in 2019 and 2020, this seemed to be coming true. Sanders became, at various points, a national polling leader, and managed commanding victories in two early-voting states, New Hampshire and Nevada. He effectively split Iowa with Pete Buttigieg, and if the popular vote was your metric, he was the outright winner in the first three states that cast votes in the Democratic primary. Among moderates and establishment-aligned Democrats, there was a pervasive fear that Sanders, the democratic socialist senator from Vermont, could truly be the Democratic nominee for president. While many of his detractors raised the specter of George McGovern, the reality of Sanders’ campaign, from their point of view, was actually more chilling: Sanders could, if he reached the general election, win it all. It was not 1972. As Donald Trump himself demonstrated in 2016, any major party nominee, in this polarized climate, is effectively guaranteed a large share of the popular vote. If Sanders had serious weaknesses—advanced age, the unpopularity of the socialist label in certain swing states—he was still going to have the Electoral College haul in states like New York, California, Illinois, and Massachusetts. He was going to be a major player in the industrial Midwest. Most of the institutional forces in the Democratic Party did not want Sanders to win; most importantly for them, perhaps, they would be out of jobs.
Sanders, of course, struggled mightily against Joe Biden in the rest of the primary. He backslid from 2016, garnering fewer votes and even losing Michigan, one of his great coups against Clinton. Sanders was the runner-up in a crowded field, no easy feat, but he was nowhere close to winning. The broad progressive left, which includes outright socialists and very liberal capitalists, had to reckon with a defeat many of them did not see coming. The Sanders campaign certainly didn’t anticipate what to me seemed rather inevitable: the consolidation of the Democratic field around a single anti-Sanders candidate. Since Sanders and his allies did relatively little to shore up institutional support ahead of a 2020 bid—he carried a thin roster of endorsers, considering how well he performed four years prior—this was always going to be their chief battle. If the Sanders camp could not convince various party elites, including major elected officials and labor leaders, that he was the best choice to face down Trump, they needed a viable strategy for running through that wall of opposition. They never had one and, in the end, it showed.
They never had a plan for Barack Obama.
It’s fascinating to contrast how differently Obama and Trump exert influence over their respective parties. Both, in every sense, are the titular leaders. Trump, obviously, is the party boss everyone talks about because he wants it that way. He’s in the middle of a third bid for the presidency and he is still, despite chatter otherwise, the most likely candidate to seize the Republican nomination. Trump lorded over the 2022 midterms like no ex-president in living memory. He endorsed repeatedly in primaries, forced the takeover of various state parties, and left his imprint on every single rung of the Republican Party, to the point where the anti-Trump faction is confined to the op-ed pages of a few newspapers. Make no mistake: this is, inarguably, Trump’s Republican Party. If Trump doesn’t win next year, it’ll be Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who has risen to prominence through Trump mimicry.
Obama, comparatively, is far less engaged. He campaigned for general election candidates in the midterms and he’ll show up for fundraisers. Many of his former aides are spread throughout the Biden administration. Biden, his old vice president, has governed in a different manner—given his slim Senate majority in 2021-2022, I’d argue he’s been the more effective president on the domestic front—and there’s little evidence Obama has been on the phone, encouraging his successor to do this or that. Rather, Obama exercises soft power. He enjoys tremendous popularity with the Democratic base. Black voters revere him, as do many white liberals. His wife Michelle, at this point, may be more beloved than he is, and she would make a formidable presidential contender if she ever decided to run. The Obamas are supreme celebrities; in their newfound wealth and glamour, they are the closest contemporary America has to the Kennedys. And unlike the Kennedy clan, they aren’t shadowed by scandal or tragedy.
Obama wasn’t responsible for Sanders losing in 2020. The voters chose Biden and Sanders’ campaign couldn’t make a compelling enough pitch to the Democrats terrified of Trump winning again, the many thousands convinced that a self-identified socialist was too risky a proposition with the future of democracy (potentially) at stake. What Obama did, however, was behave as a kingmaker, and help convince the rest of the field to quickly drop out and endorse Biden ahead of Super Tuesday. I’ve always argued leftists were insufficiently prepared for this occurrence and their gripes betray a lack of understanding for the cutthroat nature of American politics. Yet it’s inarguable Obama, the de facto leader of the Democratic Party, did not want Sanders to win, and did everything he could, absent forcefully campaigning against him, to ensure his defeat. Had Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke competed on Super Tuesday, they would have undercut Biden and allowed Sanders to amass more delegates and perhaps recover some of the momentum he lost in South Carolina. It’s notable, too, Obama did nothing to convince Elizabeth Warren, Sanders’ closest competitor on the left, to leave the race. Warren lingering was good for Biden and the anti-Sanders forces.
Once more, in 2023, those close to Obama are hoping to snuff out a prominent progressive Democrat. This time, it’s not Sanders himself, but the Chicago mayoral candidate he’s rallying for tonight. Both Sanders and Warren are firmly supporting Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner, against Paul Vallas, a centrist Democrat who is very close to Chicago’s business elite and Obama administration alumni. Johnson, who is Black, is the candidate of the teachers’ union, a conventional left-of-center Democrat who wants to bolster the social safety net and raise taxes on affluent residents and financial institutions. In 2020, Johnson embraced the cause of defunding the police, but he has since retreated from the movement, instead talking about the need to hire new police detectives. He told me he is a great admirer of Obama. On policy, he is proudly of the left, but not beyond the American mainstream. He would probably govern Chicago in the manner Michelle Wu, a Warren acolyte, has governed Boston. If he has a vulnerability beyond crime—Chicago’s murder rate is stubbornly high and Vallas, who is white, is reminding every voter he can Johnson wanted to cut police budgets in 2020—it’s on the issue of Covid and school closures. Chicago’s public schools were shuttered for an entire year, far longer than New York’s, and Johnson has not retreated from the stance that restricting in-person learning for that long a period of time was the right decision to make.
Vallas, the former Chicago schools chief, is not as right-wing as his critics portray him, but he’s happily taken the endorsement of Chicago’s police union, led by a Donald Trump supporter, and accepted financial backing from Kenneth Griffin, one of the Republican Party’s most prolific donors. Vallas is not so much a Republican as he is a neoliberal Democrat. He is, in his views on education and taxation, very much a throwback to the Clinton years, when privatization of public services, tax cuts, and union skepticism were all embraced. Vallas isn’t entirely anti-labor—the police and several other unions are supporting him—but he is a staunch opponent of the Chicago Teachers Union. And he harbors the inherent belief that unions must be weakened for school reform to happen. Any champion of charter schools, as Vallas remains, carries this conviction at their core. If only the unions got out of the way, they argue, the kids could learn. That was Vallas’ approach in New Orleans and Philadelphia, where he led schools systems.
Obama is not openly supporting Vallas, just as he remained officially neutral in the 2020 Democratic primary. It’s obvious, though, who he’d prefer to win. Arne Duncan, his Education secretary and a former aide to Vallas, is a top endorser. So is Dick Durbin, the Illinois senator, who is one of Obama’s original political allies. David Axelrod, Obama’s old campaign guru, has signaled his preference for Vallas as well. Vallas promises a mayoralty, when it comes to business and policing, not much different than Rahm Emanuel’s. Obama’s national political brand would become distinct from Clintonian triangulation, but it was no accident Emanuel ended up his first chief of staff and men like Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers oversaw the recovery from the 2008 economic crash. If Obama and his allies were liberal in orientation, they were both warier of federal spending and more deferential to corporate power than the Biden administration would come to be in the 2020s. There were left-leaning economists and educators in the late 2000s who were plainly ignored.
Vallas remains the front-runner. The April 4th runoff is incredibly tight, and Johnson could manage a victory if he can convince enough white liberals, South and West Side Blacks, and Latinos to come out for him. Obama would certainly make a congratulatory call if that happened. But what would the greater Obamaworld do if Johnson actually won in their backyard? What if, even in a high crime era, the voters of Chicago decided that Vallas, a champion of the kind of education reforms Obama hoped would flourish everywhere—privately-run charter schools, an emphasis on standardized tests and making public funding dependent on them—is not the mayor they want? I still think Vallas has the best chance to win. His message on policing is easily digestible and Johnson wasn’t a known commodity until recently. Vallas has an impressive roster of endorsers, including the man who once defeated Obama, Bobby Rush. He will have support from older Black voters wary of high crime and Johnson’s brand of progressivism. What is clear, regardless, is that Obama’s inner circle will not step aside and allow Johnson to run his best race without their firm opposition. Durbin, a United States senator, certainly needn’t intervene in a mayoral election. He’s doing it anyway, and that should tell you much of what you need to know.