Ohio congressman Tim Ryan is campaigning to replace Nancy Pelosi as the House minority leader. In an interview with the Washington Post, he argued that Democrats need a strategy for appealing to voters that doesn’t rely on President Obama’s personal popularity.
“If we don’t have Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, we can’t win elections. That is an unsustainable model. He can’t run again, so it’s not even like we can say, well, every four years we’ll win.”
Indeed, Barack Obama can’t run again … OR CAN HE???
Such is the question posed by this Change.org petition, which was … well, it was posted by a friend of mine. It’s called “President Obama: Run for Speaker of the House in 2018,” and it outlines a practical and eminently constitutional path by which Obama could become the second-most-powerful elected official in America two years from now.
Here’s the whole deal: The president’s Chicago residence is in Illinois’$2 1st Congressional District, which is represented by Bobby Rush. If Rush were to step aside in 2018—not entirely implausible, as he turns 70 today and has served in the House since 1993—Obama could run for Rush’s seat while campaigning nationally for other Democratic House candidates on the premise that he’d be selected as Speaker if the party won a majority. The Dems will need to flip either 24 or 25 districts to take the 218 seats necessary to control the 435-member chamber, and that currently seems like a long shot—but it’d be less of one with a popular national figure to rally around. Current House Dem leader Nancy Pelosi’s national favorability rating is 28.5 percent, according to Huffington Post’s poll aggregator; Obama’s approval rating by the same measure is 53.5 percent. As the petition notes:
Barack Obama is leaving the White House with his standing nearly as high as it’s ever been. He is by far the most popular politician in the country. In 2008 he beat John McCain in 237 congressional districts (as currently drawn), and today he’s certainly more popular than Trump in a majority of the 435 districts.
Donald Trump, of course, lost the national popular vote and is the least popular incoming chief executive in modern history by a large margin. Speaker Obama would be a formidable national foil to President Trump, and not just for the attention he’d command from the public and the press. An Obama who occasionally speaks out about issues of public importance while mostly, like, working on his memoirs is one thing. An Obama with formal powers over the legislative process is another thing altogether, and the prospect of putting such a trusted figure in a high-leverage position would likely motivate midterm Democratic turnout more than anything Obama may be planning to do as a civilian.
This plan wouldn’t be guaranteed of success even if Obama were interested in it. (For what it’s worth, he reportedly does plan to become involved on at least some level in organized efforts to improve the Democratic Party’s fortunes in local races.) In 2012, Obama only beat Mitt Romney in 207 congressional districts, and his current relatively high approval rating reflects the reality that, as a soon-to-be-ex-president, he’s no longer involved in contentious advocacy for specific policies. He’d likely become less popular the minute he stepped back into the political fray. But the hypothetical Obama for Speaker campaign would still pretty clearly be the Democrats’ best chance at swinging Congress.
There are also precedents in American history for both the continued involvement of ex-presidents in national government and for the linkage of local House campaigns to a national agenda. William Howard Taft became the chief justice of the Supreme Court after his term in the White House, while John Quincy Adams served in Congress for 17 years after leaving the presidency. More recently, Newt Gingrich organized the Republican Party’s successful 1994 congressional takeback attempt around his own potential Speakerdom and advocacy for the party’s “Contract With America” manifesto. An Obama run for Speaker would be extremely surprising, but there’s nothing stopping it from happening apart from his own presumable interest in taking a break from the spotlight after eight stressful years.
On that note, though, it’s worth pointing out that Obama has actually had a very short national political career thus far. He was only elected to the Senate in 2004, and he’s only 55 years old today. That’s pretty young! In an era of shorter life expectancy, John Quincy Adams ran for Congress at age 64—and, as it happens, he did so after the election as president of a loose-cannon populist with authoritarian tendencies who engaged in white-nationalist ethnic cleansing and had claimed Adams’ own presidency was illegitimate. Does history ever repeat itself as neither tragedy nor farce, but as a reason for hope?