Our Opinion: Obama offers Dems a wise warning to pivot toward center

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Former President Barack Obama is urging the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates to temper their progressivism with a dose of pragmatism.

Far-left policies like eliminating all private health insurance in favor of single-payer health care and decriminalizing illegal border crossings may win approval from what Obama called “the activist wing of our party” but appear unpalatable to the majority of American voters, the 44th president cautioned.

“Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision, we also have to be rooted in reality,” Obama reportedly told a group of Democratic donors in Washington. “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”

If hopefuls heed Obama’s Nov. 15 remarks, they’ll find it easier to court moderates, independents and even some conservatives who have broken ranks with President Donald Trump. If they continue pushing each other leftward, the Democratic ticket may be a tough sell.

Obama’s words are as welcome as they are unexpected. Folks in the center feel squeezed by extreme positions on the right and left. If a ban on immigration from mostly Muslim countries is un-American, so is an unprecedented expansion of government power that takes health care choices away from individuals and places them in politicians’ and bureaucrats’ hands.

“The comments marked an extraordinary entrance into the primary contest by the former president, who has been careful to avoid even the appearance of influencing the direction of the race,” New York Times reporter Lisa Lerer wrote.

While it isn’t yet clear whether the candidates are paying attention, moderators in Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta seemed to be. Health care and immigration weren’t focal points this week, with candidates coalescing around shared criticism of the Trump administration and showing a more united front than in past debates.

Some pundits on the left took umbrage at Obama’s plea for a course correction. We think he’s spot-on.

Case in point: Calls for “common-sense” gun control in the wake of mass shootings this year devolved into an authoritarian fever dream of door-to-door government gun confiscation best epitomized in Beto O’Rourke’s defiant cry: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

O’Rourke dropped out of the presidential race on Nov. 1, and fellow wannabe gun-grabber Eric Swalwell gave up his ill-fated campaign in July. Fellow candidates ought to take that as a warning.

Many Americans are on board with expanded background checks and other small policy tweaks that could help prevent gun sales to people plotting violent attacks. But most Americans also support Second Amendment rights. We know Democrats who shudder at the thought of “mandatory buybacks,” an Orwellian euphemism for confiscation.

Though we oppose a ban on modern sporting rifles like the AR-15, we remind presidential contenders that the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 was not retroactive — Americans who had lawfully purchased weapons were not ordered to give them up. Any platform that includes gun confiscation is exponentially more extreme and does not merit serious consideration in a nation of free people.

In his post-presidency, Obama hasn’t been shy about gut-checking the left in an effort to rein in some of its excesses. On several occasions, he’s defended free speech on college campuses from those who seek censorship in the name of emotional comfort and decried the phenomenon of “call-out culture” on social media.

If the Trump era has made George W. Bush seem more moderate by comparison, the 2020 Democratic candidates appear to be having the same effect on Obama. Though the former president was often a foil for conservative commentators, his call for unity and gradual reform within the system should be music to moderates’ ears in these fraught times.

The Wilson Times does not endorse candidates for public office. We won’t be picking a favorite in next year’s presidential race. But for the good of a divided nation, we hope both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees will focus on issues that matter to American voters and find ways to unite their coalitions around hopeful visions for the nation’s future.

President Obama’s wise words came at just the right time. We hope the candidates are listening.