Clarence Page: Obama re-enters the political picture

Clarence Page: Obama re-enters the political picture

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Clarence Page

"Where is Barack Obama?"

I have heard that question quite often during Donald Trump's presidency, often said by liberals as a short way to ask, "Where is Barack Obama now when we really need him?" -- as if he were a caped superhero who might save them from a zombie apocalypse.

Or maybe it is simply nostalgia for another time that drives the question. Remember when everyone seemed to be asking whether Obama was secretly a Muslim from Kenya instead of asking whether Trump is a secret agent for Putin?

Ah, those were the days.

The former president has stayed busy with projects such as his foundation, a production deal with Netflix and his proposed presidential center on Chicago's South Side. But he has followed the tradition of his presidential predecessors by mostly avoiding public political statements.

Until now. On Wednesday, the former president appeared online in a three-minute video for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, an organization founded and chaired by his friend and former Attorney General Eric Holder.

Its aim: to battle partisan gerrymandering, the practice of shaping political maps to maximize the voting advantages of the political party that has the upper hand in redistricting.

"Today, technology lets the party in power precision-draw the map in a way that packs the other party's supporters into as few congressional districts as possible," Obama explains in the video. "It's why your district might be shaped like a corkscrew. But it's also how a party gains more seats while winning fewer votes, which isn't fair."

"In America, politicians shouldn't pick their voters," he says. "Voters are supposed to pick their politicians."

What's left unsaid is the advantage Republicans have built over the past couple of decades by recruiting candidates and winning offices on the state and local level, where congressional district maps are drawn.

As beloved as Obama continues to be in Democratic ranks, many also bristle at how much strength the party has lost by focusing on Washington. While national Democratic leaders have grown geriatric, the GOP groomed new leaders and rebranded itself as a party of the people against liberal elites.

The Democratic Party has lost a net of 13 governorships and 816 state legislative seats since Obama took office, the most of any president since Dwight Eisenhower, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 2009, Obama's party controlled both chambers of 27 state legislatures, according to the Quorum political research organization. Eight years later, Democrats controlled both chambers in only 13 states. Among the lost were Wisconsin, North Carolina, Iowa and West Virginia, states that were key to Trump's victory in the Electoral College, despite Hillary Clinton's winning most of the popular vote.

The NDRC is Holder's brainchild, but it also has given his friend Obama a convenient way to step back into politics, in which he always has shown a preference for long-range projects like redistricting.

Demonstrating the significance of the gerrymandering issue, Republicans have launched a vigorous campaign to counter Holder's effort. The National Republican Redistricting Trust was formed last year, just a few months after Holder's organization.

Guy Harrison, senior adviser for the new group, told the Associated Press that the new effort is targeting Democratic-leaning states where large cities and counties are split up to help Democrats gain strength elsewhere in the state -- as in Chicago and Baltimore, among others.

Considering the high-stakes redistricting battles that have been waged in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and other states, both parties' organizations are girding up for legal as well as political fights. The growing dominance of conservatives in the Supreme Court poses an additional challenge for the Democratic future, but that's just one more sign of the hole from which Democrats have to climb.

Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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