Whatever happens on Election Day, the heroic phase of Obama’s presidency is over. It is over not simply because he will spend the rest of his term playing defense rather than conquering new ground for liberalism. It is over because the assumptions that underlay that first phase of his presidency have already been discredited.
Cast your mind back to December 2008. Democrats had just won their second back-to-back blowout election. President Obama had won the highest percentage of the vote of any Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and the highest for a non-incumbent Democrat since 1932. The 2008 election, just like those earlier ones, had produced a Congress firmly controlled by the president’s allies. It was the most liberal configuration of power Washington, D.C., had seen since at least 1965–66.
The trends seemed to be Democrats’ friends. A rising nonwhite population; an increasingly unchurched youth; a growing tendency of college-educated voters to back Democrats: If demography was destiny, the Republicans’ fate looked bleak. To add to conservatives’ misery, the country was in the midst of a financial crisis widely blamed on deregulation.
The new majority was led, finally, by a president with immense popularity and political talent. Obama inspired an enthusiasm not seen for a new president since John F. Kennedy — or maybe even Andrew Jackson. He was smart, cool, a gifted orator and a canny strategist. Republicans counseled one another not to criticize him by name.
The liberal journalist Peter Beinart noted that for decades Democratic leaders had treated the American public’s latent conservatism as a sleeping bear: The chief imperative was to avoid sudden moves that would rouse it. But the Reagan era was now over, and Democrats no longer needed to live in fear. That’s what Obama’s “yes we can” slogan meant to liberals: Yes we can move past both conservatism and Clintonian triangulation. Liberalism was living in its favored political tense: the future perfect.
Democrats could look at the political landscape with confidence, assured of three things. The country had decisively rejected conservatism and moved leftward. The idea of small government had been discredited by the financial crisis. And the president’s persuasive powers could get the Democrats through any remaining difficulties.
Now those assumptions lie in tatters. Republicans are unified and enthusiastic, independents favor government retrenchment, and Democrats have been reduced to scolding their base to stop whining and vote.