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Ex-President Obama Jumps Back Into The Political Fray


The White House is looking to move forward after a challenging week, to say the least. There were contentious confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, finger pointing after an opinion article from an anonymous Trump administration insider who called the president amoral and the return to campaigning by a high-profile critic of the current president.


BARACK OBAMA: Endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights.

INSKEEP: Former President Barack Obama attended campaign rallies in Illinois and California over the weekend.


OBAMA: The biggest threat to our democracy, I said yesterday, is not - it's not one individual. It's not one big superPAC, billionaires. It's apathy. It's indifference.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now to talk about this. Hi there, Mara.


INSKEEP: So what does President Obama's return to campaigning mean?

LIASSON: It means that President Obama wants people to turn out and elect Democrats. We're about less than 60 days away from the election, and he is hoping that he can motivate his base - of course the White House is hoping that he'll help motivate Republicans against him. They plan to use him as a foil kind of the way they use Nancy Pelosi. But Obama's track record wasn't so good when he was president for getting people to turn out when he wasn't on the ballot. And of course that's also now the big test for Donald Trump.

Midterms are often referendums on the party in power and the president. Obama is not the president. Trump is, and he is by far the No. 1 factor in these elections, even more so than previous presidents because he's decided to frame this election all about him. He even increasingly is talking about impeachment, telling rallies that if Democrats come back into power, they'll remove him from office. He talks about impeachment more than Democrats do.

INSKEEP: It is unusual for a former president to criticize a sitting president so directly. But I wonder if it was inevitable because President Trump, in addition to talking about himself, often sets himself up in tweets and public statements in opposition to Obama, in opposition to Hillary Clinton.

LIASSON: Yeah, that's true. But I think President Obama said that he would try to stay out of the fray. He would follow the model of previous ex-presidents where he's - but he said he'd only get involved where he thought that there was some kind of a threat to our basic democratic principles or values. But I do think it was inevitable. There are many Democrats who had expressed frustration with the fact that president - ex-President Obama was so quiet, had such a low profile. And now he's getting more involved, and we'll see if it helps his party.

INSKEEP: So where does the battle stand over the Senate and the House right now?

LIASSON: Right now polls show that the House is possible for Democrats to take back. The generic ballot, which is kind of a proxy for the national vote for the House, shows the Democrats are up a couple points. And the big surprise, however, is the recent polls that we've seen for Senate. Republicans should have been poised to pick up a handful of seats in the Senate - after all, there are a lot of red-state Democrat incumbents running for Senate in states where Donald Trump won, in some cases won by double digits. But we saw a bunch of polls from Missouri and Indiana and Tennessee where the races are a dead heat. Democrats are really holding their own, and that was a surprise.

Over the weekend, there was a report that Mick Mulvaney, President Trump's budget chief, told a group at a private fundraiser that Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas, might even lose his seat. And in an even bigger surprise, the president is deciding to make a trip to Mississippi. Republican presidents should never have to campaign for a Republican Senate candidate in Mississippi.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to sort this out a little bit. It is a moment where if you're a Republican, even if you thought you were going to win a lot of races, you would tell your supporters, oh, things don't look good because you want to make sure the energy stays high and the contributions stay high. But does this sound like serious, serious worry on the Republican side?

LIASSON: I think that it's not panic, especially in states like Texas and Mississippi, but it just shows you that the Senate, which was considered a different kind of battleground than the House, place where the Republicans would almost certainly pick up seats - that doesn't look so certain anymore.

INSKEEP: There was a moment when Republicans right after 2016 were saying, hey, we might run the table. We might get up to 60. We might have a veto-proof - or rather a supermajority and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. I guess there's no chance of that anymore.

LIASSON: No chance of that. I still think it's possible that they net one or two pickups, but that also could be true for Democrats. Things have really changed.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much, really appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.