Obama made the comments during an interview with Peter Hamby on the Snapchat original political show "Good Luck America" that aired Wednesday morning.
"You lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you're actually going to get the changes you want done," Obama said. "The key is deciding, do you want to actually get something done, or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with?"
His comments drew a sharp rebuke from several progressive Democrats.
"We lose people in the hands of police," Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., shot back. "It’s not a slogan but a policy demand. And centering the demand for equitable investments and budgets for communities across the country gets us progress and safety."
Other members of the so-called "Squad" joined Omar in pushing back against Obama's comments.
"Rosa Parks was vilified & attacked for her civil disobedience. She was targeted. It's hard seeing the same people who uplift her courage, attack the movement for Black lives that want us to prioritize health, funding of schools & ending poverty, rather than racist police systems," Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., tweeted.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., said she's "out of patience" with criticism of the language that activists used.
"The murders of generations of unarmed Black folks by police have been horrific," she tweeted. "Lives are at stake daily so I’m out of patience with critiques of the language of activists. Whatever a grieving family says is their truth. And I’ll never stop fighting for their justice & healing."
Rep.-elect Cori Bush, D-Mo., echoed that sentiment, saying the movement is not a slogan but a "mandate for keeping our people alive." Bush cited the fatal police shootings of Breonna Taylor in her Kentucky home in March and of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. (The Missouri Democrat has previously said the Ferguson protests propelled her to enter politics.)
"With all due respect, Mr. President—let’s talk about losing people," Bush tweeted. "We lost Michael Brown Jr. We lost Breonna Taylor. We’re losing our loved ones to police violence. It’s not a slogan. It’s a mandate for keeping our people alive. Defund the police."
The movement to "defund the police" – redirecting funds away from police departments toward other government agencies – gained traction among activists after the death of George Floyd in May. Cities around the country, including New York City, Los Angeles and Portland, have already reallocated funding from their police department budgets.
But Obama is not the only high-profile Democrat to suggest the "defund the police" movement is politically unpopular.
Democrats, who held a 35-seat advantage in the House before the election, will see their majority shrink by at least 9 seats, making it one of the thinnest margins in decades, following a better-than-expected performance by down-ballot Republicans.
In the weeks since the election, Democrats have traded blame over who's ultimately responsible for the lackluster showing, in which the party lost a number of freshmen representatives who won during the 2018 midterm election, partly by reaching into districts that Trump had won in 2016.
Moderates have pointed fingers at their colleagues who embraced the "defund the police" movement and for not pushing back harder against socialism.
“I think the ability, using terms like ‘defund the police,’ have led to Democratic losses in this last year,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said during a WAMU interview.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip and the highest-ranking Black lawmaker in Congress, said the slogan had the potential to lose public support for Black Lives Matter and other movements on the left.
“I came out very publicly and very forcibly against sloganeering,” Clyburn, D-S.C., said during an interview on CNN’s "State of the Union." He compared it to the "burn, baby, burn" slogan that became popular during the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, and which Clyburn said cost support for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
"We can't pick up these things just because it makes a good headline, it sometimes destroys headway," he said. "We need to work on what makes headway rather than what makes headlines."