WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama is set to launch a political offensive designed to focus his party’s energies in the midterm elections, breaking from his self-imposed political exile with a message that will draw a sharp contrast with President Donald Trump.
Since leaving the White House, Obama has taken pains to remain above the political fray — sometimes to the disappointment of his fellow Democrats who’ve lacked a national voice to rally behind in opposing the new administration. But even as he may not target Trump by name, "no one will come away thinking he held back or held his punches," a source close to the former president told NBC News.
Obama will preview the overarching message of the midterm push Friday with a major address in downstate Illinois, less than 100 miles from where he launched his bid for the White House more than a decade ago.
The setting itself will send a message, as Obama accepts an award for ethics in government in a region that has been a conservative stronghold.
Aides say it will build off the themes of his presidential farewell address, establishing the factors that have contributed to the heightened national polarization and then outlining what can be done to move beyond it.
It will urge Americans to embrace activism over apathy and reject "the rising strain of authoritarian politics and policies," as well as highlight ways in which many have already stepped up and engaged in the political process — some for the first time.
He was still finalizing his remarks Thursday, aides said. But he wants to talk about "which vision of America is the one that’s going to win out — a big, inclusive vision of America, or a small, fearful vision of America," one aide said.
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"America has always been a story of progress, but also of backlash to that progress. We’re in one of those moments of backlash. And we didn’t get here overnight," the aide said. "People in power want us to believe that the rest of us are powerless to solve our problems through democracy. And when people stop showing up, like in 2010 and 2014 where fewer people voted, a vacuum forms, and a politics of fear and resentment fills that void."
Trump "is a symptom, not the cause of what ails our democracy," the aide added. "He’s just capitalizing on what’s been the Republican strategy for years."
Obama will follow his speech Friday with a campaign rally Saturday in southern California, where Democrats are targeting a half-dozen congressional seats that could put them back in the majority for the first time since 2011. Next week he’ll campaign for Ohio gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, who previously served as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was created as part of the Dodd-Frank legislation Obama signed as president.
Later this month he’ll campaign again in Illinois and also in Pennsylvania and raise money for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC).
During the two midterm elections of his presidency, Obama’s mobilization was limited by a humbling political reality: Most congressional Democrats facing stiff political headwinds wanted to demonstrate independence from their party leader. In 2018, Obama’s deployment is sparing and strategic by his own design. Aides say the few major events are designed to send a larger message to his party about what he thinks their priorities should be.
They point to his partnership with the NDRC as one example. Democratic numbers in governor's offices and state legislatures were decimated at the end of Obama’s eight years. The former president took his share of responsibility for the fact that he was not able to transfer his own political success to the party more broadly during the span of his presidency.
Obama has already endorsed 81 candidates — many in state legislative races. A second wave of endorsements he will make in the coming weeks will be focused on additional state races that will be pivotal to determining which party oversees the process of redrawing congressional and legislative boundaries. He will also emphasize the importance of redistricting in his remarks in the states where it could have the most impact.
Separately, the political organization that sprang from Obama’s first presidential campaign has been at work in key congressional races. Organizing for Action has had volunteer leaders in more than two dozen congressional districts to help build on grassroots efforts. The Chicago-based operation maintains close ties to the president, and sent an email to its online network from him Thursday.
"History has also proven that virtue alone is not enough. A better vision will only prevail if we work tirelessly on behalf of that vision," Obama writes. "If we want a more representative, more just, more inclusive democracy, we need to keep fighting for it."
Trump’s 2016 victory was as much a surprise to Obama as anyone. But despite his deep concerns about him he insisted he wanted to offer his successor the same deference shown to him by his predecessor, George W. Bush. It was a decision based in part on his desire to give space for a new generation of Democratic leaders to emerge, but also his understanding that publicly attacking Trump early and often would only give him a prominent foil against which to rally his own party.
He has weighed in on major political developments rarely and without specifically mentioning Trump. He used his eulogy to the late Sen. John McCain last Saturday in part to praise their shared commitments to American values. Despite political differences, "We never doubted we were on the same team," he said.
Obama’s political reemergence comes just days after his vice president made his debut on the campaign trail. At a campaign event Wednesday he barely mentioned Trump, but as Obama is expected to do urged Democrats to keep engaging in the political process — especially younger voters.
"Don’t tell me you can’t get involved because you are so demoralized. Get off your rear end and get out and vote!" he said on a college campus in New Jersey. "You can own this election!"
"I think Barack getting out is going to make a big difference," Biden told NBC News Thursday after an event in New York.