President Barack Obama on Monday offered one of the most blunt assessments of the Democratic party’s failure to win the White House in 2016, arguing that the party needs to reframe its debates for suburban and rural voters.
In an interview on NPR posted Monday morning, the outgoing president chalked up Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win, but failure to woo voters in more rural states like Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan, to structural hurdles based on where Democrats live, as well as the party’s failure to frame the debate for voters.
“We have a scrambled political landscape right now. There are some things that we know are a challenge for Democrats – structural problems. For example, population distribution, oftentimes younger voters, minority voters, Democratic voters, are clustered in urban areas,” Obama said.
The president continued: “As a consequence, you’ve got a situation where there are not only entire states but also big chunks of states where, if we’re not showing up, if we’re not in there making an argument, then we’re going to lose. And we can lose badly, and that’s what happened in this election.”
While he denied that there was anything wrong with the “core argument” of the Democratic message around issues like raising the minimum wage, he admitted that there were “failures on our part to give people in rural areas or in exurban areas, a sense day-to-day that we’re fighting for them or connected to them.”
“Some of it is the prism through which they’re seeing the political debate take place. They may know less about the work that my administration did on trying to promote collective bargaining or overtime rules. But they know a lot about the controversy around transgender bathrooms because it’s more controversial, it attracts more attention,” Obama said.
“I think that on something like the Affordable Care Act, you have people who are benefiting right now from Obamacare who either don’t know it’s Obamacare or consider that as a given and then end up voting on Second Amendment rights. So part of the reason it’s important to show up, and when I say show up, I don’t just mean during election time, but to be in there engaging and listening and being with people, is because it then builds trust and it gives you a better sense of how should you talk about issues in a way that feel salient and feel meaningful to people.”
Obama reflected on his own path to the presidency, noting that he embarked on a conscious effort to connect with suburban and rural voters starting during his election to the US Senate in 2004.
“Even during my low points in the presidency, when, you know, poll numbers were bad and news cycle was critical, people always felt as if I still cared about them – which meant that in 2012, I might still lose the overall vote and some of these counties or some of these voting districts, but I might lose 55-45 or 60-40 rather than 80-20,” Obama said.
The president added: “That’s as a consequence of not only them seeing me in these places but it’s also a consequence of me actually being there and hearing them.”
Obama’s comments on Monday came as Democrats and many on the left continue their autopsy of Clinton’s upset loss to President-elect Donald Trump.
During Monday’s interview, Obama also reiterated his pledge to spend part of his time out-of-office coaching Democrats and identifying potential future Democratic leaders, a pledge that has not necessarily encouraged many Democrats still bitter about the election outcome.
Indeed, some on the left have already attempted to brush aside Democratic National Committee chair candidate Tom Perez, the head of the Department of Labor who some view as a White House favorite (though Obama has not weighed-in on the race).