Former President Barack Obama bluntly urged Democrats nervous about the state of the party’s primary field to “chill out” on Thursday, stressing that while there are differences between the numerous Democrats running for president, those differences are “relatively minor” compared to what the Trump administration is doing.
The comments from Obama build on a series of statements the former President has made about the race for his old job, injecting the popular Democrat into a nomination fight that he had largely avoided.
“Everybody needs to chill out about the candidates, but gin up about the prospect of rallying behind whoever emerges from this process,” Obama said after a lengthy answer that defend the arduous primary process that Democrats are currently in.
Obama, until recently, rarely commented on the 2020 field, but at a fundraiser here in Silicon Valley on Thursday the President cheered on the vigorous debate happening inside the party while stressing the need to get elected and warned about some of the obstacles the numerous women candidates and one gay candidate will likely face.
Obama did not mention any of the candidates by name, but it was clear that the former President – whose legacy continues to loom large over the party – is watching the debate play out with a close eye on how the candidates are positioning themselves to defeat President Donald Trump.
And the comments come as the field of Democrats vying to take on Trump has fluctuated in recent weeks with former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick launching a late-entry presidential campaign last week. Patrick, who is a close friend to Obama, largely jumped into the race of fear over the state of the current crop of Democrats could not beat Trump.
“There will be differences,” Obama said about the candidates, “but I want us to make sure that we keep in mind that, relative to the ultimate goal, which is to defeat a president and a party that has … taken a sharp turn away from a lot of the core traditions and values and institutional commitments that built this country,” those differences are “relatively minor.”
The former President added it was important to draw a line between contentious arguments playing out inside the party and the need to get elected, decrying “purity tests” because “the country’s complicated.”
“Those are good arguments to have,” he said about debates of health care and climate change, “but you got to win the election.”
He also cautioned Democratic voters from getting too wrapped up in the issues they have with individual candidates, telling the audience in California that people’s “flaws are magnified” during a primary.
“The field will narrow and there’s going to be one person, and if that is not your perfect candidate and there are certain aspects of what they say that you don’t agree with and you don’t find them completely inspiring the way you’d like, I don’t care,” Obama said bluntly, “because the choice is so stark and the stakes are so high that you cannot afford to be ambivalent in this race.”
The roughly 100-person fundraiser was hosted by Karla Jurvetson, a physician-turned-Democratic megadonor. Jurvetson was previously married to Steve Jurvetson, a venture capitalist who sits on the board of SpaceX and Tesla.
The highest priced tickets to the event went for $355,000, which guests paid to “chair the event” and attend a private “VIP reception” with the former President. Entry level tickets cost $10,000. Event attendees included Steph Curry, the All-Star guard for the Golden State Warriors, and his wife, actress and author Ayesha Curry.
The event benefits the DNC’s Democratic Unity Fund, a cache of money that will is being raised to eventually benefit the party’s general election campaign. This is Obama’s first event of the cycle for the DNC.
Obama’s comments follow similar statements he made earlier this month, where he urged the 2020 candidates to “pay some attention to where voters actually are,” warning them about going so far on certain policies that they become out of step with voters.
“My one cautionary note is I think it is very important for all the candidates who are running at every level to pay some attention to where voters actually are,” Obama said last week, specifically saying he doesn’t think candidates should be “diluted into thinking that the resistance to certain approaches to things is simply because voters haven’t heard a bold enough proposal.”
Those statements – at the time – were particularly noteworthy for Obama. But the President has now made a series of comments about the field, signaling that he may be interested in having more of a say in the race than previously understood.
One issue Obama spoke at length about on Thursday was income inequality, where he urged Democrats to “push hard” on the issue, arguing that this is “an area where the room to talk about this in bold ways is greater than it was in 2008.”
“I think it is very important for the Democratic Party to be clear and bold about saying … we are going to initiate structural changes that reduce that inequality,” Obama said.
A number of Democratic candidates – including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren – have made fighting income inequality central to their campaigns and Obama said he believes it’s one area where there is more room now for Democrats to go big.
“It is something we were aware of in 2008 and we wanted to do more about, but the first thing was putting out a big fire to make sure we didn’t have a great depression,” Obama said of the issue.
The former President also specifically related questions about his race in 2008 to headwinds the numerous women running for president and the one gay candidate, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, could face in the future.
“We have a number of women candidates and we have one gay candidate and those candidates are going to have barriers if they win the nomination or if they win the general election just like I did,” Obama said, adding that there were many people in 2008 who said, “I don’t know about Barack Hussein Obama.”
But, Obama said, those candidates can “overcome that resistance” if they are able to fame issues and have a message that shows them as “part of an American tradition of opening up opportunity and making room for people and treating everybody fairly.”