This past weekend, I wrote a piece about why Barack Obama’s presidency failed. The best criticism of that essay that I’ve read over the last few days is that I begged the question. I didn’t clearly articulate a criterion of success or failure by which to judge the Obama presidency. I was more focused on the personal shortcomings he exhibited as a statesman, which got in the way of his achieving success in office. I didn’t define the success that he fell short of.
Allow me to remedy that mistake here. When I wrote that Obama failed as president of the United States, I meant that he failed on his own terms.
During the 2008 presidential race and the early years of his administration, Obama made it clear that he wanted to be the same kind of transformational president that Ronald Reagan was during the 1980s. On the stump, he fantasized about a political realignment in America brought about by an electoral tidal wave of “Obama Republicans,” his own answer to the Reagan Democrats of old. He repeated the same ambition during primary debates with Hillary Clinton and even confessed his admiration for Reagan’s political talent during a meeting with historians at the White House in the Spring of 2010. Michael Duffy and Michael Scherer, writing about this meeting for Time magazine, explained that
as the conversation progressed, it became clear to several in the room that Obama seemed less interested in talking about Lincoln’s team of rivals or Kennedy’s Camelot than the accomplishments of an amiable conservative named Ronald Reagan, who had sparked a revolution three decades earlier when he arrived in the Oval Office. Obama and Reagan share a number of gifts but virtually no priorities. And yet Obama was clearly impressed by the way Reagan had transformed Americans’ attitude about government. The 44th President regarded the 40th, said one participant, as a vital “point of reference.” Douglas Brinkley, who edited Reagan’s diaries and attended the May dinner, left with a clear impression that Obama had found a role model. “There are policies, and there is persona, and a lot can be told by persona,” he says. “Obama is approaching the job in a Reaganesque fashion.”
Obama wanted his presidency to alter the center of gravity in American politics in the way that Reagan’s did. Unlike his successor, he understood that lasting success in democratic politics comes not from bringing one’s own party closer into line with one’s own positions, but from bringing the other party closer into line with one’s own positions. Reagan’s popularity frightened the Democratic Party to so great an extent that they felt the need to nominate the relatively conservative Bill Clinton in order to win back the White House.
An even more dramatic transformation occurred almost simultaneously in the United Kingdom. Margaret Thatcher’s electoral invincibility during the ’80s forced the British Labour Party to turn themselves from the unreconstructed socialist party of Michael Foot into the neoliberal market-friendly party of Tony Blair. Both Reagan and Thatcher achieved a level of popularity among the public so great that their rivals were compelled to imitate them. This is what Obama aspired to during the last decade. He wanted so to bestride the narrow world of American politics that the Republican Party would have to become more progressive in order to stay competitive at the polls.
It was precisely in this respect that Obama failed. He did, in fact, enjoy this kind of universal acclaim at the start of his first term. So beloved was he among the electorate that the Republican leadership in Washington would studiously avoid criticizing him by name in the early months of 2009. But whereas Reagan’s popularity only gained momentum during his first term, culminating in a 49-state blowout reelection, Obama’s lasted all of a few months. Already by the 2010 midterms it had become politically advantageous for Republican politicians to denounce the president in the most strenuous terms.
The aftershock of the Reagan revolution carried Reagan’s anointed successor into office, who was then in turn succeeded by a Democratic president doing his best Reagan impression on the campaign circuit and leading a Democratic Party remade to a great extent in Reagan’s image, at least on economic questions. By way of contrast, Obama’s anointed successor lost in 2016 to a man who was, in almost every imaginable respect, Obama’s polar opposite. It’s true that Obama’s VP is in the White House today and that Obama himself dearly hopes that his old running mate will “finish the job.” But no political job can ever be finished without forcing the other party to acknowledge the policy disputes in question as settled. The permanence of the New Deal was only settled once the Republican Party under Eisenhower decided to leave it alone. Does any one of us really believe that the next Republican president will feel compelled by electoral necessity to let the Obama-Biden legislative legacy stand? Or is more likely that he or she will resume the now time-honored Republican tradition of ripping Obama’s darling policies merrily to shreds on Day One? The answer is obvious.
Obama’s failure was that he sent Republicans running away from him and his agenda instead of colonizing that portion of the GOP most amenable to his program, as he intended to do and as Reagan did to the Democrats during the ’80s. The federal government’s 44th chief executive left office with the GOP electorate less disposed to support him, not more. It is, in many ways, the same failing that Donald Trump exhibited with regard to the winnable Democratic voters he drove away with his own, more flagrant and egregious shortcomings as a statesman. For an analysis of the (very different) shortcomings that left Obama’s legacy in a similarly precarious position, I direct you back to this past weekend’s essay.