“Political coalitions are tricky things to manage in the United States. Ours is a country of more than 320 million people but only two major political parties—so each side’s voting bloc tends to be unstable at the margins, where national elections are actually won and lost. It is hard to build a winning coalition, harder still to maintain it during the laborious process of governing, and hardest of all to hand it off to a designated successor. It takes a politician of the highest caliber—a Roosevelt, a Reagan—to accomplish all this.
As last week’s results clearly demonstrated, Barack Obama is not cut from such an Augustan cloth. The political coalition he built in 2008 burst apart in spectacular fashion. His successor will not be Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, but Donald Trump, the man who accused him of being a foreigner.
No lame duck president has ever had to suffer such ignominy. If Obama were to quietly steal out of town on January 20, as John Adams and John Quincy Adams did upon their defeats, nobody could blame him. Even so, Obama’s coalition fell apart because he failed utterly to maintain it during his tenure.
For eight years, we have heard stories about Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant.” Single women, millennials, Latinos and Asians, gays and lesbians, and so on, drove Obama to a fantastic electoral victory in 2008 and would power the Democrats for a generation—or more—to come.
While these blocs were integral to Obama’s triumph in 2008, there were other, more humdrum factions as well—the typical ones that every Democratic politician, be he as cool as Obama or as boring as John Kerry, has to win over. The suburban women of Florida’s I-4 corridor. The blue-collar workers in Dubuque and Erie. The African Americans in Detroit and Milwaukee, who are always counted on to deliver an enormous haul for the party. These voters are not the stuff of highfalutin’ think pieces for liberal magazines, but they were nevertheless an essential part of Obama’s victory.
They abandoned his successor last week. Not altogether, of course—but enough to serve the Democrats a shocking defeat.
There had been warning signs from virtually the start of Obama’s tenure. He won a smashing victory in 2008 by sweeping the traditional swing states and adding new ones to the list—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. But voters in all these states signaled at some point over the last seven years that their loyalty was not unconditional. Starting with Bob McDonnell’s whopping victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2009, then Scott Brown’s surprise Senate triumph in Massachusetts, and finally to the Tea Party wave of 2010—it was evident by the halfway point of Obama’s first term that personal affection for him did not necessarily translate to support for his policies or other Democrats. Then came 2012, in which the president was reelected with 3.6 million fewer votes than he received four years prior. The admonition was repeated in 2014, when the Republican wave that hit the House of Representatives in 2010 wiped the Democrats out of their Senate majority.
Obama’s response to these electoral setbacks was to pretend they did not happen. Again and again, he stubbornly refused to change course. When he lost his filibuster-proof Senate majority in 2010, he passed an unfinished version of Obamacare through the budget reconciliation process. When he and House speaker John Boehner were on the cusp of striking a grand bargain on taxes and entitlements in the summer of 2011, he insisted on additional tax hikes at the last minute, skunking the deal. When he won a narrow victory in 2012, he called for extensive gun control legislation, framing the debate in Manichean terms that alienated those Midwestern voters who had the gall to support him and the NRA simultaneously. When the Democrats lost the Senate in 2014, he enacted immigration reform through executive fiat and brokered a highly unpopular deal with Iran.
Last but not least, he handed off leadership of his party to Hillary Clinton. Weighed down by personal and professional issues, she was his opposite in almost every way. During the Democratic primary battle of 2008, she had been a useful foil for Obama, illustrating his point that it was time for a new approach to governance. Now, she was the heir apparent—as if his voters would not care either way. Turns out they did.
Much of the blame for last week’s defeat obviously belongs to Clinton, who was a terrible candidate. But one cannot overlook Obama’s responsibility in this epic debacle. He blessed Clinton’s candidacy early in the cycle, despite the fact that she was under investigation by the FBI. And for years prior, he had acted as though he could do as he wished and retain the loyalty of his voters.
He was wrong. Clinton dramatically underperformed with the white working-class in the Midwest. She did not receive sufficient margins from African Americans in the Rust Belt or the South. And though she had the noxious Trump as her opponent, she failed to make up for these setbacks with swing voters in places like suburban Charlotte or Philadelphia. Nor did she make many inroads with traditional GOP constituencies in Milwaukee and Grand Rapids, who had been turned off by the bombastic Republican in the primaries. Even the Latino vote disappointed, leaving Florida out of reach and Colorado surprisingly close. Only the Harry Reid “machine” in Nevada functioned as expected.
When Obama leaves the White House in two months, the Republican party will hold more public offices than at any point since the Great Depression. The president’s greatest political ambition will therefore go unrealized: He is not the 21st century’s Ronald Reagan; he is its Woodrow Wilson.
The 28th president was quite a bit like Obama, a cerebral type with unceasing confidence in his superior intellect and moral purity. But Wilson’s ambition to recast society in his own image outstripped his political acumen. Elected in a landslide in 1912, he only narrowly squeaked by in 1916. Four years later, his would-be successor lost to Warren Harding, one of the most unspectacular specimens ever to occupy the Oval Office. Wilson tarnished the reputation of progressivism so badly that the GOP would enjoy complete control over the government for the ensuing decade. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt—a pragmatic man who lacked Wilson’s scholarly disposition but had an intuitive grasp of what the people expected of him—who would become modern liberalism’s hero.
Maybe some Democrat down the line will re-create Obama’s coalition and reshape it in a durable way. After all, Obama was on to something back in 2008. There are common interests among working-class whites in the Midwest, college kids, minority voters, and suburban women. Democrats have thought for a decade that this coalition was waiting to emerge. Not so, but a gifted politician could unite that group and build a coalition for the long haul. Such a leader would have to be more like FDR or Reagan than like Wilson—or Obama.”