The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Obama Legacy

Bill Scher writes over at Real Clear Politics that liberal panic over the recent elections (as well as two disastrous midterm elections — and every other down-ballot election since Obama was elected) is overdone. He writes:

Democrats are not in trouble heading into 2016 — far from it. What has been happening is merely a particularly dramatic example of what bedevils most presidents: midterm elections.

Every U.S. president who served two full terms since 1952 has watched his party lose at least one house of Congress during a midterm. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, unlike Obama, suffered the shock of both houses flipping in a single election.

Pendulum swings are also the norm in state-level races. Democrats picked up eight governors’ mansions during Ronald Reagan’s first term, for a total of 35. After the off-year elections in Bill Clinton’s first term, it was the Republicans who had 31. Then Democrats took back the gubernatorial majority after Bush’s second midterm.

The same is true for state legislative races. The Democrats lost 524 seats under Bill Clinton, creating an even split of the more than 7,000 posts between the two major parties. Then Republicans lost 324 seats by the end of Bush presidency, giving Democrats the edge. Under Obama, the tables have turned yet again.

Fair enough and he may be right that the panic is overblown. Still, I think Scher is minimizing the extent of the damage somewhat. The Democrats have moved wildly to the left under Obama, creating a gravitational pull Democratic presidential candidates will have a hard time breaking out of. Most experts I’ve talked to say that the Democrats won’t take back the House for the rest of the decade, at least. That loss is almost entirely attributable to ObamaCare, which stubbornly refuses to be popular, even years after implementation. I also think Scher underestimates the degree to which the Obama legacy, particularly on foreign policy and the economy, will be a burden for the Democratic nominee in 2016. Obama is popular with the base of the Democratic Party, but he’s an albatross for independents and, of course, Republicans. A better politician than Hillary Clinton could finesse her way out of this bind. But I doubt Hillary Clinton is up to the job.

But what I really wanted to note is how much Scher’s reasonable, if not necessarily persuasive, essay represents a massive let down from the expectations the left had for Obama. Scher writes:

Comparisons of Obama to other two-term presidents are also a little premature. We don’t yet know what Obama’s final down-ballot tally will be. We have one-more non-midterm election to go.

And bad second-term midterm does not predict how the next set of elections will turn out, anyway. Ronald Reagan lost the Senate in 1986, yet still handed the White House to his vice president, while leaving office with high job approval ratings. Franklin Roosevelt, while not technically losing Democratic control of Congress during his long reign, had a terrible 1938 midterm that drove the conservative wing of his party into creating an informal working majority with Republicans. Nevertheless, he won a third term two years later (and a fourth term as well).

More importantly, both FDR and Reagan were ideologically transformational presidents. Each altered the ideological trajectory of America for a generation. Their second-term midterm backlashes were mere speed bumps.

Again. true (though I think holding out hope for a down-ballots Democratic tsunami is futile). But for a long while we were told that Obama was going to be just such a transformational president, and by the end of Reagan’s and FDR’s presidencies, it was pretty clear that they’d been successful at their effort. Obama has had significant successes. But he was supposed to usher in a new New Deal. Where is it? It was clear from the outset that he wasn’t up to the job. Pro-FDR candidates — Democrat and Republican — did well in the off-year and midterm elections after FDR was elected. Pro-Obama Democrats took a drubbing again and again. The best defense of the once-transformational president liberals can make today is that he’s, at best, just like every other president. A more clear-eyed assessment, I think, is that he’s been worse for his party (and I would argue, the country) than most two-term presidents. George H.W. Bush ran on an explicit promise of “stay the course” and an implicit promise of “four more years.” I don’t think those are slogans Hillary Clinton will adopt, at least not with much success. 

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