Obama's final State of the Union speech was about his legacy. While Obama has accomplished a lot–far more than often given credit and his speech detailed what he did–one of his great failings is his inability to restructure the Democratic party and build a new majority coalition to support his policies. Instead, he leaves the Democratic Party far weaker now than when he was first elected, and his legacy more fragile and timid than it should be.
Many saw Obama’s 2008 victory as potentially significant. His presidency portended the possibilities of a critical political realignment. He represented generational change as the first Gen X president. It was the passing of the political torch from the Boomer Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush when he defeated the Silent or Greatest generation candidate John McCain. He was the first non-white president, supposedly the first post-racial one, and his candidacy seemed to bring young people and non-traditional voters into the Democratic Party. His election produced enormous Democratic congressional majorities, and all signs were that he was capable of being a transformative president who would politically restructure the American political landscape.
But then somewhere along the line the Obama realignment collapsed, dead by 2010. Yes the Affordable Care Act passed, as did Dodd-Frank, the stimulus bill, and a host of other important measures. Yet all of them suffered from the same fate–their sense of timidity. Whenever Obama had a chance to look history in the eye he looked away from making the type of reforms that would do two things. One, that would truly restructure American politics. Two, reform that would link his reforms to building a new political coalition to support them and be the basis upon which to build a new and future Democratic Party.
The Affordable Care Act is insuring millions of new people but it is a warmed over Republican idea largely imitating Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts model. It makes few changes in the basically free market model for health care delivery and it does little to address major issues such as cost. Dodd-Frank was a watered down version of significant Wall Street reform that has been weakened even more by regulatory agencies. Neither of these laws makes transformative changes in the health care insurance or financial regulatory markets, and polls suggest they are largely misunderstood or disliked. In terms of foreign policy and the environment, Obama has made some progress, but it not clear the Middle East or the world is safer now than eight years ago or that he has made the progress toward the green economy he promised. And should a Republican win the White House and retain Congress, many of Obama’s accomplishments may be undone.
Obama leaves the Democratic party far weaker today than when he was elected. The statistics are chilling. In 2009 there were 257 Democratic House and 58 Senate members, today there are 188 and 44. In 2009 there were 4,082 Democratic state legislators, today there are 3,163. In 2009 55% of state legislators were Democrats, today it is only 43%. In 2009 Democrats controlled 27 legislatures and 28 governorships, today it is 11 and 18. No matter what the statistics, the Democratic party is weaker today than in was in 2009.
The collapse of the Democratic party under Obama is even more glaring given that demographic trends potentially suggest a brighter future for the party. Yet there are signs that Millennials, the most liberal and largest generation in American history, once excited by Obama in 2008, have disengaged. In a famous 2010 New Yorker cartoon a character exclaims that “Obama has the potential to get a whole new generation disillusioned.” Granted part of Obama’s problem was Republican intransigence, but he even had problems getting his own party members to follow him.
The weakened Democratic Party under Obama explains the 2016 presidential campaign. The choice for the nomination is Hillary Clinton–a candidate from the party’s old establishment–or Bernie Sanders–essentially an outsider to the party. Obama has left the Democratic Party without a varsity team of players, and the JV and freshman teams are also thin. This will also make it difficult for Democrats to recruit strong candidates to retake Congress. The weakened Democratic Party at the state level puts reapportionment and election laws in the hands of Republicans who are using both to further entrench themselves.
What should Obama have done? In his first year in office when he had Democratic majorities he should have enacted policies that made major structural reforms that would have benefitted and empowered his voters. He alienated many of his supports by following Bush’s policy of bailing out the banks but he did little for homeowners. He should have raised and embraced inflation-indexed minimum wage laws, expanded earned income tax credits for working families, and taken bolder moves to address structural income and wealth inequalities. He also could have pushed to support the Employee Free Choice Act which would have updated the New Deal era National Labor Relations Act. This law would have reinvigorated labor unions. Obama also should have pushed for federal laws on voting, such as outlawing voter identification in national elections, allowing for same day registration, and permitting ex-felons to vote.
Instead of using his political capital, public support, congressional majorities, and a demand for change to adopt real transformational policies, his spent it all on timid reforms that while good, really failed to build the future coalitions and politics he needed to support his legacy for the future. Instead, his biggest accomplishment may be in how he help sustain the forces to undermine his own legacy.