Before he entered politics, President Barack Obama worked as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side. Much of his work involved individual interactions with local residents. Later, his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns tied much of their success to the same type of grassroots organizing and personal contact with voters.
Longtime Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer thinks this kind of retail politics could help Obama fight through the partisan vitriol that he has faced throughout his presidency.
“He often says that the reason he won the Iowa caucuses was he got to go sit in everyone’s living rooms and basically be there every morning with the campaign there for a year and a half,” he said in an interview at the SkyBridge Alternatives, or SALT, Conference in Las Vegas last week. “If he could do that for the country, go and sit in everyone's living room and meet people, he doesn’t think that he would get a lot more votes than he did, but people would feel differently about him, and [he could] break through the Fox News, right-wing caricature -- you know, the America-hating, Kenyan-born socialist schtick.”
He stressed that even if people disagreed with his policy positions, they could at least respect his personality. “He is a very good, decent person who really likes people,” he said. “It would drain some of the vitriol out of our politics.”
The former White House communications director also discussed the burdens Obama has faced as the first African-American president, particularly when weighing how to respond to the numerous instances of police brutality against young black men.
“I’m not sure there’s a lot more he can do,” he said. “It makes it harder sometimes for an African-American president. Like if he gets involved in a situation too early, like in Ferguson or somewhere else, it could inflame the other side in ways that are not constructive, so he has to be very careful where he chooses to do that.”
The black community in particular has frequently criticized Obama for not taking a firm stance on criminal justice reform and racial injustice in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and many others. But when Obama did speak out against the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, saying that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” his very personal and heartfelt remarks were politicized by right-wing critics, epitomizing the political dilemma that Pfeiffer described. Newt Gingrich, then a GOP presidential candidate, accused Obama of only empathizing with black people rather than the whole country.
“Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him?” Gingrich said.