Why Obama’s ‘lazy’ line about 2016 voters is irking Democrats’ left flank
Many did not. The Washington Post previously reported that 4.4 million voters who backed Obama in 2012 stayed home in 2016. And more than a third of them were Black.
Obama, back on the stump for presidential nominee Joe Biden in the waning days of the 2020 election, is still disappointed about that and wants to make sure it does not happen again.
That was clear from his remarks Tuesday to voters in Florida — a state Obama won but Clinton lost. Since hitting the trail to campaign for his former vice president, Obama has chastised last time’s no-shows.
“We can’t be complacent. We were complacent last time. Folks got a little lazy. Folks took things for granted. And look what happened. Not this time, not in this election.”
It’s a point he also made last week while trying to turn out the vote in Pennsylvania, a state that previously supported Obama but that went for Trump in 2016.
When I hear people say, ‘Well, I don’t know, I voted last time. Things didn’t change as much as I thought.’ Listen, we’ve never come close to seeing what it would be like if everybody voted. In 2008, that was the highest voting rate in modern presidential history. You know what? We only got to 61 percent. That means 39 percent of the folks didn’t vote who were eligible to vote. What would happen if suddenly we started getting 70 percent voting rates? What would happen if we got 60, 70 percent of the people voting instead of 55 percent of people voting?
It’s safe bet to say that had more people voted — especially at rates similar to 2008, the 2016 election might have turned out differently. And if that had happened, many of Obama’s policies would still be in place. Obama is trying to prevent that from happening again.
But what Obama does not appear to do in these speeches is speak to the reasons many voters stayed home — and it’s not always (or even mostly) rooted in laziness.
As much as conservatives attempted to paint Obama as a “radical leftist,” many of his policies were fairly centrist — something that Clinton planned to continue if elected. And it was her centrism that led many voters to vote for her Democratic primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in the 2016 election — and again in 2020. The fact is that some left-leaning voters stayed home in 2016 because the personal politics of many voters are to the left of those of establishment Democrats like Clinton — and that continues to be the case in 2020.
Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said that Obama expressing his disappointment in low voter turnout in swing states could be just what some irregular or first-time voters need to show up to the polls this year. He pointed to early voters in North Carolina surpassing 2016 numbers as proof of that.
“Fear, anger, frustration and confusion always drive people out in one way or another — whether they are against someone or for something,” Seawright said. “And in this case, I think wrapping those things up in who Donald Trump is and how he’s governed will drive people out to vote for Joe Biden, Kamala D. Harris and Democrats down the ballot.”
“To still categorize people as being lazy, when it was anything but, is frustrating,” Benjamin Dixon, host of “The Benjamin Dixon Show” on YouTube, told the Fix. “And he always throws that at Black people.”
He added: “If anything, it’s counterproductive. He’s making it more difficult to make us convince leftists and Black people specifically to come out and vote when he’s sitting around lecturing us.”
And that’s to say nothing of how unnecessarily difficult it was for many Americans to vote, particularly those of color who tend to vote Democratic. According to the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, 14 states put new voting restrictions in place before the 2016 election.
It’s possible to appeal to those voters without casting them as lazy or complacent. Look no further than Michelle Obama, who did that in her Democratic National Committee speech in August. After describing efforts to curtail voting, she pleaded for turnout and spoke to the left flank of Democrats this way:
But this is not the time to withhold our votes in protest or play games with candidates who have no chance of winning. We have got to vote like we did in 2008 and 2012. We’ve got to show up with the same level of passion and hope for Joe Biden. We’ve got to vote early, in person if we can. We’ve got to request our mail-in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow up to make sure they’re received. And then, make sure our friends and families do the same.
We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown-bag dinner and maybe breakfast, too, because we’ve got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to.
Barack Obama went on to list complaints about Trump’s presidency — the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the economic downturn, stoking white supremacy, etc. — and warned that if those who oppose Trump don’t show up, things could continue or get worse.
But it’s a safe bet that most liberal voters already believe that Trump has done a poor job leading America. Obama’s approach may be an effective way to motivate some of these voters, but it leaves others frustrated.