President Obama gave an interview to NPR’s Steve Inskeep, released on Monday, that gave a taste of what he’ll be like as an ex-president political analyst. Mr. Obama attributed the popularity of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to “anger, frustration [and] fear” among blue-collar men in response to both economic stresses and “demographic change.”
Alluding to his own unpopularity among this voting bloc, Mr. Obama agreed that there are “certain circumstances around being the first African-American president that might not have confronted a previous president, absolutely.” He spoke of “strains in the Republican Party that suggest that somehow I'm different, I’m Muslim, I'm disloyal to the country,” and said, “that's probably pretty specific to me and who I am and my background, and that in some ways I may represent change that worries them.”
Mr. Obama was more nuanced this time, but as Mr. Inskeep noted, they bring to mind his remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser in the primary season of 2008, when he said that voters in economically depressed (and overwhelmingly white) parts of Pennsylvania “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustration.”
Hillary Clinton, still running against him for the Democratic nomination, seized the comments as proof that Mr. Obama was an elitist who would have trouble attracting traditionally Democratic voters. “The people of faith I know don’t ‘cling to’ religion because they’re bitter,” Ms. Clinton said at a campaign rally. “People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich.” Later that day, The New York Times reported, Ms. Clinton “reminisced about her father teaching her how to shoot when she was a young girl.”
One big question about the 2016 race is whether the Democrats can win back white, non-college-educated voters who recoiled from the party’s first African-American nominee. (Mr. Obama’s “Appalachian problem” is illustrated by a map showing where he did worse than 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry: an arc stretching from western Pennsylvania to the New Mexico border.) Ms. Clinton would surely love to break the “third-term jinx” and do better than Mr. Obama’s four-point victory in 2012, and getting back some of those voters would be a great help. Though Mr. Trump is winning this bloc in polls of Republican primary voters, his lack of experience and incoherent economic policies—featuring rhetoric against the rich but also a big tax cut for them—could play poorly in a general election. Ms. Clinton seems to relish facing Mr. Trump for this reason, and in Saturday’s Democratic debate, she treated the real estate developer as the presumptive Republican nominee, naming him four times while never mentioning any other GOP candidate.
Ms. Clinton barely mentioned the current president in that debate, not so much praising him as using him as cover for her pledge not to raise taxes on families making less than $200,000 a year. (“It was the same [pledge] President Obama made,” she said.) Assuming she is the Democratic nominee, Ms. Clinton will have to decide whether to build upon Mr. Obama’s appeal among younger and newer voters, or instead downplay her ties to the administration as a strategy to win back older and less-educated white voters. Will she defend the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) or let stand the perception that it’s a giveaway to the undeserving poor? Will she promote criminal-justice reform and the #BlackLivesMatter movement or try to focus on foreign policy (where she is rather hawkish, at least compared with what we can understand of Mr. Trump’s views)?
In the NPR interview, Mr. Obama also maintained his low-key approach in talking about terrorism and, in particular, ISIS: “It is also important for us to keep things in perspective, and this is not an organization that can destroy the United States.” In what may have been a reference to Republican demands that the United States stop accepting Syrian refugees and, in Mr. Trump’s case, banning all Muslims from entering the country, Mr. Obama said, “The most damage they can do, though, is if they start changing how we live and what our values are.” In response to the bellicose statements at last week’s Republican debate (including Ted Cruz’s promise to “carpet bomb” parts of Syria), the president said, “If the suggestion is that we kill tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians and Iraqis, that is not who we are and that would be a strategy that would have enormous backlash against the United States. It would be terrible for our national security.”
But Mr. Obama is on his way out of the Oval Office. It will be up to Ms. Clinton and other Democratic leaders, as well as Republican leaders who still have hope of rescuing their party from rank xenophobia, to hold firm on American values against Mr. Trump’s exploitation of anger, frustration and fear.