Opinion

What on Earth is Obama doing?

Ben Jealous needs the former president's help in Maryland, but instead he's helping a corrupt Illinois billionaire

In his post-presidency, Barack Obama has mostly tried to stay out of politics, spending a lot of time goofing off with billionaire friends, writing a book, creating TV shows, and collecting vast sums in buckraking speeches. But he has finally started to dip his toes back into the political waters, recently releasing endorsements for the 2018 election and cutting his first ad spot of the election cycle for the billionaire Illinois gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker.

What's been most striking about this political re-entry is its profound worthlessness.

Exhibit A is the list of people he snubbed in his endorsements. He did not endorse Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York's 14th Congressional District, nor Democratic senators facing tough elections battles like Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), or Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.). To be fair, his blessing might not be of that much use for those senators, and Ocasio-Cortez is safe in a deep-blue district.

But that is not true of Ben Jealous, the former head of the NAACP who is in a tight race for the Maryland governorship and whom Obama pointedly didn't endorse.

Down by 16 points in the latest poll this month, Jealous could badly use Obama's help. His Republican opponent, Larry Hogan, is popular. Jealous is betting on winning by stoking lefty enthusiasm with progressive policy and populist rhetoric about economic and social justice. As a result, he is facing near-mutiny from wealthy Maryland liberals, a great many of whom are in favor of social justice if and only if it does not deduct one single cent from their personal pocketbooks.

There's an argument to be made that this was a political miscalculation, and it's possible that Jealous could lose on that basis. But that argument was hashed out in the Maryland primary, and Jealous was the victor. The way the Democratic Party is advertised to work is that internal decisions about the party's political orientation will be decided in the primaries, and then all party factions will unite behind whoever wins.

What's more, Obama is enormously popular among wealthy liberals, and among the African-American voters of Maryland (which has the fourth-highest percentage of black residents of all states, just slightly behind Georgia). If anyone could swoop in and get Maryland Democrats to focus on the greater goal of ousting the Republican enemy, it is him. And let's not forget that the Democratic Party is at a historical low ebb at a time of extreme political crisis, with a loopy Republican president and cronies committing crimes left and right. The nation desperately needs as many good Democrats in elected office as possible.

But not only is Obama refusing to even endorse Jealous (who incidentally would be the first black governor in Maryland history), he is also campaigning openly for a deeply compromised white male billionaire. Pritzker is a man who is not just a milquetoast centrist with millions in overseas tax havens, but also was caught on federal wiretaps in 2008 cynically speculating with then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) about how local black opinion might be manipulated through choice of appointment to Obama's vacant Senate seat.

So why is Obama sticking his neck out for this guy, but not Jealous? One highly compelling explanation is that Pritzker's sister Penny (a billionaire in her own right) has been one of Obama's big money contacts since the beginning of his national career in 2004. "Her early involvement with Obama has been long credited with opening the door to an elite world of campaign financiers who then turned on the spigot, making him a financially viable candidate," writes Natasha Korecki in Politico. She was his national finance chair during his 2008 campaign, and he appointed her to be secretary of the Department of Commerce during his second term. Now she's on the board of directors of the Obama Foundation.

We see that in the pinch, Obama's wretched class politics swamps all other considerations. Pritzker, his family, and now Obama are all part of the logrolling wealthy liberal elite, trading donations, jobs, and favors back and forth both in government and out. The politics of someone like Jealous would radically disrupt this comfortable arrangement, attacking corrupt insider privileges and hiking taxes to create a more egalitarian society. Thus he cannot be in the well-upholstered centrist liberal clubhouse.

If that means a Republican holds the Maryland governorship, by Obama's lights, so be it.

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