With his suddenly aggressive second-term agenda, President Obama is recasting the Democratic Party around the priorities of the growing coalition that reelected him—and, in the process, reshaping the debate with the GOP in ways that will reverberate through 2016 and beyond.
On issues from gay rights to gun control, immigration reform, and climate change—all of which he highlighted in his ringing Inaugural Address last week—Obama is now unreservedly articulating the preferences of the Democratic “coalition of the ascendant” centered on minorities, the millennial generation, and socially liberal upscale whites, especially women. Across all of these issues, and many others such as the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan and ending the ban on women in combat, Obama is displaying much less concern than most national Democratic leaders since the 1960s about antagonizing culturally conservative blue-collar, older, and rural whites, many of whom oppose them.
This pattern may partly reflect the sense of liberation that close allies say Obama feels because he will never have to run for office again. But even more important than the fact of his reelection may be the nature of it. Obama in 2012 faced even larger electoral deficits than he had four years earlier among the culturally conservative white voters whom Democrats have often feared to alienate by moving too far left, particularly on social and foreign policy issues. Yet his strong support from the key groups in his coalition allowed to him to not just win but to win comfortably, capturing 332 Electoral College votes and becoming only the third Democratic president ever to reach at least 51 percent of the popular vote twice.
In his victory, Obama reshaped the Democratic coalition by both addition and subtraction. Because so many of the blue-collar and older whites who formerly anchored the conservative end of the Democratic base abandoned Obama, and because more-liberal voters took their place, the coalition that reelected him was much more ideologically unified around a left-leaning agenda than has been usual for a Democratic nominee.
That outcome, insiders acknowledge, gives the president greater confidence to move forward aggressively on these issues without fear of dividing his supporters. Equally important, the fact that Obama’s key groups are all expanding within the electorate has stirred optimism among his advisers that the coalition of the ascendant could provide Democrats a durable advantage in presidential elections.
“If these things are accomplished in the next few years, if he can make progress on his agenda, I think that will help the coalition that elected him knit together more and create an identification with the Democratic Party that will endure beyond his presidency,” says David Axelrod, the senior strategist of the reelection campaign.
Obama’s ambitious agenda will create some pointed challenges for Democrats. By making it more difficult to recapture culturally conservative whites, his approach will increase the pressure on his successor to maintain lopsided margins and high turnout among minorities and young people; Republicans believe that will prove more difficult without Obama on the ballot in 2016. Even if the president deepens his affinity with his coalition’s cultural values, failing to deliver better economic growth by 2016 could also sour supporters. And while Obama’s agenda could help Democrats solidify a presidential majority, it could simultaneously make it tougher for them to control Congress, at least until demographic change ripples through more states and House districts still largely unaffected by it.
But Obama’s new thrust will also create risks for the Republican Party, especially in presidential politics. If congressional Republicans over the next four years block Obama’s initiatives on guns, immigration, climate, and other issues, they could deepen their party’s identification with shrinking parts of the electorate and widen their estrangement from the growing groups powering the coalition that has allowed Democrats to win the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. “These votes are going to continue the Democratic narrative that we are hostile to these groups,” worries Tom Davis, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “From a demographic point of view, this is a winner for the Democrats and a loser for the Republicans. They are putting a wall around these groups, and that makes it harder for Republicans” to retake the White House.
ADIOS, REAGAN DEMOCRATS
For decades, liberal political strategists have asked how the Democratic Party would behave if it could reduce its reliance on culturally conservative white voters. Throughout the past year, Obama has systematically provided an answer.
Over that period, he has accepted collisions with Republicans, as well as the most conservative members of his own party, to advance traditionally liberal positions on an array of issues, particularly social and foreign policy concerns. During the campaign, that impulse was evident in his requirement that employers providing health insurance offer no-cost contraception coverage (despite fierce opposition from the Roman Catholic Church); his move to administratively legalize young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents; his endorsements of gay marriage; and his call for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally.