Barack Obama made his most provocative foray yet into the race to replace him, issuing an unprecedented rebuke to a federal law-enforcement agency from a sitting U.S. president, and sounding the alarm about a decline in African-American voter turnout.

Mr. Obama’s interventions on Wednesday reflect growing Democratic anxiety about Donald Trump’s renewed competitiveness in an election that until recently seemed a foregone conclusion.

Of the two sets of comments, the more unusual was Mr. Obama’s criticism of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for the way it reignited the controversy around Ms. Clinton’s use of private e-mail servers while Secretary of State.

After initially making what he called “a very deliberate effort to make sure that I don’t look like I’m meddling in what are supposed to be independent processes for making these assessments,” Mr. Obama joined in widespread criticism of the timing and vagueness of the FBI’s announcement to members of Congress last Friday that it was reopening an investigation into the matter, because it had discovered potentially relevant e-mails through a separate investigation.

“I do think that there is a norm that when there are investigations, we don’t operate on innuendo and we don’t operate on incomplete information and we don’t operate on leaks,” he told NowThisNews in an interview aired Wednesday afternoon.

Although those words were much milder than attacks by Ms. Clinton’s campaign, other Democrats and even some Republicans on FBI director James Comey’s judgment (and reported flouting of advice from the Justice Department), there is little precedent for a president to make this kind of criticism. That Mr. Obama felt compelled to do so threatens to further shake Americans’ already ebbing faith in their institutions, among those who agreed and disagreed with his intervention alike.

But for Democrats and others more concerned with the imminent prospect of Mr. Trump pulling off an improbable victory next Tuesday, Mr. Obama’s comments about black turnout may have been more urgent and disconcerting.

“I’m going to be honest with you, because we track, we’ve got early voting, we’ve got all kinds of metrics to see what’s going on,” he said during a radio interview on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, which has a predominantly black audience. “Right now, the Latino vote is up. Overall vote is up. But the African-American vote is not as solid as it needs to be.”

Coming in the midst of a familiar pitch from the President about the need to help protect his policy legacy by electing a successor who would uphold rather than reverse it, this was clearly meant as a rallying cry. But it also suggested that Democratic research is mirroring publicly available data, which suggest that Ms. Clinton is proving unable – possibly in some measure because of voter-suppression efforts by Republican-dominated state legislatures – to convert historic turnout increases for the first African-American president into something more lasting.

Reports this week have suggested that early voting by black voters is down 16 per cent in North Carolina – a state Mr. Obama narrowly lost in 2012, but that Ms. Clinton is hoping will block Mr. Trump’s path to victory this time. There appear to be similar, if not greater, drops in Florida and Ohio. If that pattern holds through Election Day, battleground states with large black populations where Mr. Trump has trailed Ms. Clinton could unexpectedly be in play.

Mr. Obama’s recognition of strong Hispanic turnout points to Democrats’ hope that support from that fast-growing population, which Mr. Trump has gone out of his way to alienate, will counterbalance any declines in black turnout and possibly put heretofore Republican states such as Arizona in play. And it is also possible that a decline in enthusiasm makes some African-American voters more likely to just vote on Election Day, rather than heading to the polls early.

But with advance voting also showing a decline in turnout among young voters, another overwhelmingly Democrat-leaning group that formed a key part of Mr. Obama’s coalition, it’s little wonder that the incumbent – expected to be out on the campaign trail until Election Day – is taking much of the spotlight from his party’s nominee in the campaign’s final days.

On the same day the two interviews aired, Mr. Obama also delivered his most fiery stump speech for Ms. Clinton yet, telling a student-heavy crowd in North Carolina that because their state has the potential to block Donald Trump’s path to victory, “the future of the republic” is in their hands.

Even amid the race’s recent tightening, Mr. Obama’s former campaign director David Plouffe – along with other former Obama staffers – have dismissed liberals panicking about a possible Trump victory as “bed-wetters.” Their old boss, based on the alarm bells he rang on Wednesday, might be less dismissive.

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Nov. 02, 2016 12:34PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Nov. 02, 2016 10:00PM EDT