It’s no secret that Barack Obama wanted to be a progressive Ronald Reagan — a “transformational” president who moves the country in a new ideological direction. In some sense I think he’s succeeded. The Democratic party has certainly moved very far to the left, and so has the Republican party in the guise of Donald Trump. The government is larger and more involved in our lives than ever before, save during wartime. On the other hand, confidence in government — specifically government run by progressives — hasn’t exactly been restored under Obama. But the Reagan example was about more than ideology or even policy. Reagan left the White House personally popular, but he also left the people optimistic and confident about the country’s future and their own. The political success of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump stems from the fact that very large numbers of Americans, across the ideological spectrum, are neither confident nor optimistic about America’s prospects or their own. Obviously, Trump is tapping into that sentiment more explicitly with his “Make American Great Again” rhetoric. But nearly everything that goes with that phrase is nasty, bitter and petty — which fits the mood of a great many people in Barack Obama’s America. Sanders’ whole candidacy has been an ideological rebuke of Obama’s presidency as not transformational enough. Obviously, I think Sanders is wrong about that. But millions of his followers don’t. No matter how you slice it, the Hope and Change Obama ran on has fallen far short of the mark. The left hasn’t seen enough change, the right dislikes the change we got, and both sides are lacking in much hope at all.
As usual, Obama considers himself blameless in all of this. But I suspect historians won’t.