Looking back at a Democratic Party that has been shattered nationwide under his leadership, President Obama is accepting blame for building an organization that benefited mainly himself.
The president said Monday that he and his political team didn’t pay enough attention to local Democratic candidates after he came into office in 2009 with a recession and two wars to handle.
“We were just putting out fires,” Mr. Obama said in an exit interview with NPR. “We were in a huge crisis situation. And so a lot of the organizing work that we did during the campaign, we started to see right away didn’t immediately translate to, wasn’t immediately transferable to, congressional candidates. And more work would have needed to be done to just build up that structure.”
When Mr. Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Democrats held 257 seats in the House. This year, they had 188, a loss of 69 seats — down more than one-fourth of their total from eight years ago.
The Senate had 57 Democrats in 2009 plus two independents who sided with them — nearly a filibuster-proof majority. This year, there were 44 Democrats plus two independents who caucus with them, a loss of 13 seats and the majority.
In 2009, there were 28 Democratic governors across the U.S. Today, there are 18.
Across state legislatures, Democrats have met with similar calamity. Over the past eight years, Democrats have lost more than 900 seats nationwide.
Next year, Republicans will control all the levers of government in 25 states, and the GOP has legislative majorities large enough in two other states to override a veto by a Democratic governor. Democrats will control the legislatures and governor’s offices in only five states: California, Delaware, Oregon, Hawaii and Rhode Island.
Republicans control 68 of the nation’s 98 partisan state legislative chambers. Two-thirds of the nation’s governors are Republicans; the party controls both houses of Congress and has won the presidency.
The president took the aggressive step of endorsing 160 down-ballot candidates in congressional and state races. Eighty-seven of his candidates won, a rate of 54 percent. Most of the winners were incumbents; only 45 percent of the challengers endorsed by the president were victorious.
National Democrats targeted 32 state legislative seats held by Republicans in the key battleground states of Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. They won only eight of those seats.
In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump for the presidency, stunned Democrats have been groping for explanations. They have blamed Mrs. Clinton as a weak candidate. She has blamed FBI Director James B. Comey and Russian hackers. Mr. Obama has blamed the media for focusing too much on the stolen emails of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Echoing comments by Vice President Joseph R. Biden about Democratic leaders growing too elitist, Mr. Obama also cited in the NPR interview “failures on our part to give people in rural areas or in exurban areas a sense day to day that we’re fighting for them or connected to them.”
He blamed his administration’s agenda in part for distracting voters, mentioning his move to enforce transgender bathroom rules in local schools.
“They may know less about the work that my administration did on trying to promote collective bargaining or overtime rules,” he said. “But they know a lot about the controversy around transgender bathrooms because it’s more controversial; it attracts more attention.”
With the party still reeling and Mr. Obama leaving office, officials are focused on the selection of a new chairman to run the Democratic National Committee. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez is competing against Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who has the backing of labor unions and liberal lawmakers on Capitol Hill — namely Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who argued that the “status quo is not working” and that Mr. Ellison would bring “real change” to the DNC.
Mr. Obama, who said he is staying out of the race, nevertheless lavished praise on Mr. Perez on Friday.
“He is tireless. He is wicked smart,” the president said at a press conference. “He has been able to work across the spectrum of labor, business, activists. He’s produced.”
The president has lamented that he wasn’t able to transfer the strategy for his victories in 2008 and 2012 into a winning formula for other Democrats at all levels. A few months before his re-election four years ago, Mr. Obama predicted that his win, along with more Democratic victories, would help break the Republican “fever” that he blamed for much of the gridlock in Washington.
“What I was able to do during my campaigns, I wasn’t able to do during midterms,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s not that we didn’t put in time and effort into it. Some of that just has to do with the fact that when you’re in the party in power and people are going through hard times like they were in 2010, they’re going to punish, to some degree, the president’s party regardless of what organizational work is done.”
He said the electorate tends to be older during midterm elections, and his coalition rested on the support of younger voters.
“But we know those things are true, and I didn’t crack the code on that,” he said.
With only one month remaining in office, Mr. Obama said he has some advice for his party on how to rebuild.
“One of the big suggestions that I have for Democrats as I leave, and something that, you know, I have some ideas about, is, how do we do more of that ground-up building?” he told NPR. “What I am interested in is just developing a whole new generation of talent. For example, we know that the Republicans, funded through organizations like the Koch brothers, have been very systematic at … building from the ground up and communicating to state legislators and financing school board races and public utility commission races. I am a proud Democrat, but I do think that we have a bias towards national issues and international issues, and as a consequence I think we’ve ceded too much territory. I take some responsibility for that.”