As he prepared last week to deliver his farewell address, President Obama convened three Democratic leaders in the White House for a strategy session on the future of their party. The quiet huddle included Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the top Democrats in Congress, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia.
One topic of urgent concern, according to people briefed on the meeting: how to break the Republican Party’s iron grip on the congressional map.
Thwarted for much of his term by a confrontational Republican Congress, and criticized by his fellow Democrats for not devoting sufficient attention to their down-ballot candidates, Mr. Obama has decided to make the byzantine process of legislative redistricting a central political priority in his first years after the presidency.
Emerging as Mr. Obama’s chief collaborator and proxy is Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general of the United States and a personal friend of the president. He has signed on to lead the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a newly formed political group aimed at untangling the creatively drawn districts that have helped cement the Republican Party in power in Washington and many state capitals.
In an interview this week at Covington & Burling, the Washington law firm where he is now in private practice, Mr. Holder, 65, said that he and Mr. Obama believe Republicans have undermined the political system by creating a patchwork of legislative maps — at both the state and federal levels — that are designed to stifle the will of voters.
Echoing a number of Mr. Obama’s top advisers, Mr. Holder described fighting Republican gerrymandering as a “primary concern” for the president once he leaves the White House.
“He thinks, and I think, that this is something that threatens our democracy,” Mr. Holder said. “We have a system now where the politicians are picking their voters, as opposed to voters making selections about who they want to represent them.”
Mr. Holder is set to kick off his initiative on Thursday with a speech at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. The first major fund-raising event for the group is to take place in Chicago this spring; David Jacobson, a former ambassador to Canada and an Obama campaign fund-raiser, is hosting the event.
Mr. Holder said he anticipated that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. would also be involved, along with other “present and former cabinet members.”
For Mr. Obama, the redistricting campaign signals how personally engaged in electoral politics he intends to be after leaving office, unlike many former presidents who enjoy something of a cooling-off period. Mr. Obama has also appeared to concede in recent weeks that he spent a limited amount of time tending to the Democratic Party as an institution during his time in office, and in a television interview explained almost apologetically that the presidency is a time-consuming job.
But redistricting may be a special preoccupation among Mr. Obama and his allies: For them, Mr. Holder said, there is considerable resentment of how an entrenched House Republican majority undermined the president’s goals over three-quarters of his tenure.
“The tasks that he had placed before him were made a lot more difficult, progress a lot more difficult, than it needed to be,” Mr. Holder said of Mr. Obama. “That’s because of the Congress that he had to deal with, which was a function of the 2010 redistricting effort.”
While Mr. Holder said he committed to lead the new Democratic group well before Election Day — and spoke with Hillary Clinton about redistricting during the presidential race — he said Donald J. Trump’s victory had intensified interest among activists and donors.
The Holder- and Obama-led campaign comes amid a broader resurgence in Democratic interest in state and local elections, at a moment when Republicans control every lever of government in Washington. Candidates seeking to lead the Democratic National Committee have called for a more intensive focus on nonfederal elections, and several senior Democrats said distraught party donors were turning their attention to the states. The Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, two groups teaming up with Mr. Holder, are already recruiting candidates for upcoming off-year elections.
Mr. McAuliffe, who declined to discuss the White House meeting, said he had been in touch with Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer since the elections to refocus the party’s attention on races in the states. He said he and Ms. Pelosi had commiserated about the grim state of the congressional map.
“I said: ‘Nancy, it doesn’t matter how much money you have if we don’t have lines where Democrats can run competitively and win,’” Mr. McAuliffe said.
But Democrats have long suffered from a consuming obsession with the presidency at the expense of other elections, said Mr. McAuliffe, a former national party chairman.
“We’ve got to be smarter about how we’re building the future of this party. We have been decimated at the state level, and it’s at the state level that they draw the maps,” he said, adding: “We raise all this money in the presidential, and then everybody goes away.”
The next round of congressional redistricting is still years away, after the next decennial census in 2020. But the officials drawing the maps in most states will be chosen in elections well before then, starting with the election for governor in Virginia this year.
Democrats ruefully acknowledge now that before the 2010 census, riding high after Mr. Obama’s 2008 victory and seemingly secure in their hold on Congress, they were far less prepared than Republicans in gearing up for legislative reapportionment. The Republican Party mounted a ferocious state-by-state campaign that gave it overwhelming control of redistricting, allowing it to lock in many victories in the 2010 midterm elections.
In the run-up to 2020, Democrats say, their goal in many places will be not to seize control of redistricting, but merely to capture one or two key offices to keep Republicans from locking them out of the process. Right now, there are 25 states in which Republicans control the whole government — the governorship and the legislature — versus just six wholly controlled by Democrats.
Mr. Holder said his initiative would unfold on three fronts: In court, where Democrats will challenge Republican-drawn maps they see as violating the law; on the campaign trail, where they will seek to win offices that influence redistricting; and through ballot referendums in states that allow voters to give direct approval to laws mandating new procedures for legislative apportionment.
Mr. Holder said he was also prepared to take an unaccustomed leap into electoral politics, campaigning for candidates around the country who can affect the redistricting process. A career prosecutor, Mr. Holder has quickly emerged as a leading figure in Democratic efforts to fight Mr. Trump; he has been retained by the Democratic-led California Legislature to help in any battles with the Trump administration.
The success of the new effort will depend in part on whether the newfound appetite among Democrats for confronting gerrymandering can be sustained as more attention turns to what will be a wide-open presidential primary, the sort of glamorous campaign that often attracts the most attention from liberal donors at the expense of less-sexy party building efforts. Republican donors have typically been more attentive to state elections; they are expected to pour money into defending the party’s hold on power outside of Washington.
Party strategists hope that having as high-profile a figure as Mr. Holder, and eventually Mr. Obama himself, will make it easier for them to solicit six- and seven- figure checks.
Mr. Holder said he and Mr. Obama believed strongly that Democrats needed to look beyond Washington. “I can remember conversations with him where it was his view that it wouldn’t take huge amounts of money to have an impact on state and local races,” Mr. Holder said, “but that it would take a substantial amount of effort.”
Leading the legal offensive will be Marc Elias, the prominent Democratic election lawyer who has already won challenges to Republican-drawn maps in several states, including Florida and Virginia.
Before 2010, Mr. Elias said Democrats had prepared for a conventional negotiation over drawing lines, in legislatures and in court, but had not matched the Republican Party’s yearslong strategy for dominating state-level elections, fueled by heavily funded outside groups.
Mr. Obama, Mr. Elias said, would help “direct the best and the brightest in the party to see this as really important.”
For the moment, at least, Democrats are portraying their campaign as a matter of fairness, criticizing Republicans for having mangled the maps in places like Ohio and Michigan, so that solidly purple states are represented disproportionately by Republicans.
Democrats believe that where states have drawn maps by nonpartisan means, or by court order, it has tended to benefit them. Republicans have tended to roll their eyes at Democratic complaints about redistricting, given how aggressively some in Mr. Obama’s party drew maps in their favor when Democrats had more state-level power.
Mr. Holder said he viewed Republican gerrymandering as more extreme than anything Democrats had engineered for their own benefit in blue states. But he declined to say that Democrats should eschew gerrymandering of their own.
Yet in a sign of tensions that might later emerge, Mr. Holder suggested that some Democratic incumbents might have to be willing to run in more competitive districts, to avoid clustering core Democratic constituencies in a tiny number of districts. Some senior black lawmakers have resisted efforts to overhaul the map in ways that would make their districts even modestly whiter and more competitive.
Democrats see Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder as potentially persuasive messengers in easing such resistance. And Mr. Holder said bluntly that black lawmakers could also win seats that are not necessarily majority-minority.
He added: “That’s a good thing for our democracy.”
Incumbents of both parties, he said, should “get more comfortable with the notion that with fairly drawn districts, elections might be more significantly contested.”