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.
If anything, the president has hurtled even more rapidly down this track since his reelection. After almost entirely avoiding the gun-control issue in his first term, Obama responded to the Newtown shootings by advancing an ambitious package of reforms. In his Inaugural Address, he reasserted his commitment to confronting climate change, another issue he had almost completely muted after legislation to control emissions failed in the Senate early in his first term. On foreign policy, he has provoked sharp resistance from conservatives by insisting on moving quickly toward withdrawal from Afghanistan and by nominating former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican who is a bête noire to neoconservatives, as Defense secretary. Obama’s decision last week to lift the ban on women serving in combat shows the same political impulse.
On many of these issues, and in similar disputes, Democrats have been constrained since the 1960s by fear of losing the blue-collar, rural, and older white voters who traditionally made up the conservative end of their electoral coalition. Reflecting that perspective, House Blue Dogs, as well as swing-state and red-state Democrats in the Senate, who represent regions with large numbers of those voters, have often discouraged the party from highlighting issues such as gun control and immigration reform, much less gay marriage.
But the ongoing racial and ideological sorting of the electorate has rapidly reduced the Democrats’ dependence on those voters. In 2012, Obama lost more than three-fifths of noncollege whites and whites older than 45; he carried only one-third of noncollege white men, the worst performance of any Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale was buried in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide. Yet Obama nonetheless won a solid victory by posting strong numbers with minorities (a combined 80 percent), the millennials (60 percent), and college-educated white women (46 percent overall and more in many key states); moreover, each of those groups expanded its share of the total vote. (For the first time, white women with college degrees cast more votes last year than white men without them.)
Similarly, Democrats last November regained House seats in districts that are more racially diverse than the national average, while continuing to suffer losses in those more heavily white: After 2012, Democrats hold just 31 of the 143 districts in which whites constitute at least 80 percent of the population.
In the Senate, the Democratic majority still relies on a significant number of members from states that lean Republican in presidential politics. But, overall, the pattern of the party’s presidential and congressional support in 2012 largely fulfilled the dreams of liberal strategists from the early 1970s, who believed Democrats could build a more ideologically forceful party if they reduced their reliance on conservative whites. As Richard Nixon’s landslide defeat of George McGovern in 1972 demonstrated, a coalition of minorities, young people, and socially liberal upscale whites was far from a majority. Four decades later, amid the headwind of a grueling recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Obama emphatically proved the opposite. The result is that the president, to a striking extent, appears unshackled from the fear of alienating conservative white voters that has shaped the way the party has governed since cultural and foreign policy issues (such as civil rights and the Vietnam War) shattered the economically based New Deal coalition in the 1960s.
“The composition of the Democratic coalition has shifted in such a way that not only makes the [presidential majority] more solid but shifts the weight toward groups that are less interested in a temporizing, triangulating politics,” says longtime liberal analyst Ruy Teixeira, coauthor of the seminal 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority. Democrats “now don’t have—and don’t need as many of those voters at the conservative end of their coalition … as they once did. So it is more cohesive than it once was, and it is easier to keep mobilized than it once was.”
Indeed, Obama is operating with a more ideologically unified coalition than Democrats have assembled at any point in recent decades. In Bill Clinton’s two elections, and Al Gore’s defeat in 2000, the share of Democratic presidential voters who identified as moderates outnumbered those who considered themselves liberals by about 20 percentage points; in 2012, Obama won almost as many votes from liberals as from moderates, as the former increased their share of the vote (to 25 percent) and the latter gave the president slightly less support than they had four years earlier.
All of the fights Obama has launched have the potential to more deeply engrave these lines, exacerbating his difficulties with the conservative white constituencies who have moved away from the Democrats, while complicating the GOP’s pursuit of the coalition of the ascendant.
Although the level of public support for Obama’s initiatives varies in polls, they generally divide the public along a consistent track that hardens partisan divisions. Pew Research Center polls over the past two years show that, with few exceptions, blue-collar and older whites, the groups at the center of the modern Republican coalition, are consistently dubious of the ideas Obama has now embraced.
In questions measuring attitudes about gun control versus gun rights, the risk of climate change, gay marriage, whether immigrants bolster or threaten traditional American values, and the requirement to provide contraception in health insurance plans, noncollege white men lean toward the conservative position on all five. Most white seniors also express conservative positions on all five issues (except guns), as do whites ages 50-64, except on gay marriage, where they split evenly.
But on guns, gay marriage, immigration, and contraception, most minorities, young people, and college-educated white women take the liberal position in the Pew surveys, often by lopsided majorities. Among adult members of the millennial generation (who are now 18-29), for instance, two-thirds support gay marriage, and just under three-fifths prioritize gun control over gun rights. The proposition that human activity is warming the climate draws less overall support than Obama’s position on the other four issues, but, once again, minorities, millennials, and college-plus white women take much more liberal positions than older and blue-collar whites.
Like some other centrist Democrats, Galston worries that Obama’s strategy could prove vulnerable if the party’s next presidential nominee can’t inspire as much turnout among minorities and millennials as he did, and thus must win a larger percentage of moderate white voters resistant to some of the president’s new priorities. Obama’s direction also presents a challenge for Democratic congressional hopes, and not just because turnout among the minorities and millennials now critical to Democratic success usually falls off in midterm elections. (That falloff was a critical factor in the GOP’s 2010 landslide.)
To hold congressional majorities, Democrats must win a larger share of conservative white voters than in presidential races. That’s because the two-senator-per state system exaggerates the influence of small preponderantly white rural states and also because the Democratic coalition tends to cluster around big cities, benefiting House Republicans in more exurban and rural districts. Redistricting has compounded that effect. Although Obama beat Mitt Romney by almost 5 million votes, Romney carried at least 225 of the 435 congressional districts, nearly final results show.
These dynamics complicate Obama’s hopes of moving legislation through the House and Senate. As Obama himself noted in a New Republic interview last week, Republicans representing these conservative-leaning districts will feel pressure to oppose him even on initiatives that command majority support nationally. (On the list of his priorities, analysts give immigration reform a much better chance than climate or guns, because more Republicans feel compelled to settle the immigration issue after Romney’s dismal performance with Hispanic voters.) Merely raising the prominence of these issues could create hurdles for congressional Democrats in red-leaning districts or states by more closely identifying the Democratic Party with liberal cultural views resisted there. “If you are a Democrat, he is taking you into some uncharted waters,” Reed says. “It has worked so far for him, but it’s not clear it’s going to work for everybody else.”
If nothing else, Obama’s course means that if Democrats are to recapture the House anytime soon, they will likely need to do so by maximizing their gains in districts that have large populations of minorities or suburban socially liberal whites, rather than the blue-collar and rural Blue Dog districts they stressed when they regained the majority in 2006. And that’s much more likely to happen in a presidential year such as 2016, when minorities and young people turn out in much larger numbers, than in an off year such as 2014, when the electorate tilts back toward the older whites largely opposed to Obama’s new thrust.
While the potential threats to congressional Democrats from Obama’s agenda have received substantial attention, the flip side of that equation has generated far less discussion. Key analysts in both parties believe, however, that by raising issues such as immigration, guns, and climate change, Obama is baiting a trap for Republicans: Either they crack and he records legislative victories that deliver achievements for his base, or they block him and further distance themselves from the growing groups powering the Democratic presidential majority. “The risk is that they consign themselves to being a largely regional, congressional party for the foreseeable future,” Axelrod says. “I don’t think they can win a national election and take a Manichean view on all of these things, reject them reflexively. There’s a real paradox here in that they can maintain their House districts by and large—although I think they will lose some suburban seats if they keep this up—but they can’t win national elections.”
Davis, the former Republican House member who now serves as director of federal affairs for the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche, worries that Axelrod could be right. “The president is playing that coalition hard and forcing Republicans to react to it,” Davis says. “You look at the economy last year: 7.8 percent unemployment on Election Day, and he got elected. They have rewritten the script on identity politics.”
Mike DuHaime, a top political adviser to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a possible 2016 Republican presidential hopeful who has supported a state-level assault-weapons ban but opposed gay marriage, says the best way for the GOP to avoid that trap is to resist the temptation to demand litmus-test opposition to Obama on all of these fronts. “For us as a party to grow, there has to be room for disagreement on these issues, and on many of them … there hasn’t been in recent years,” DuHaime says.
Republicans might also scramble this alignment somewhat in 2016 by selecting a younger or ethnic candidate who could personally relate to voters in the new Democratic coalition better than their last two AARP-eligible nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney. “This rising group of Republican leaders, generationally, stylistically … much more understand the imperative of connecting with some of these nontraditional voters,” Reed argues.
Where both sides agree is that Obama’s confident and confrontational course will reshape the competition between the parties in ways that could echo for decades. Yale University political scientist Stephen Skowronek, author of The Politics Presidents Make, a landmark book on presidential strategies, says Obama may not break Republican opposition enough to record many legislative victories on his second-term agenda. But even so, Skowronek says, forcing debate on these issues could have ramifications for years—just as, for example, Ronald Reagan’s confrontation with the air-traffic controllers’ union helped inspire Republican challenges to public-employee unions three decades later.
“If Obama can build his party and isolate the Republicans ideologically and politically, that’s not nothing,” Skowronek says. “That could, over the long term, lead to a real shift in governing and the constellation of interests that are represented in governing. I don’t see that happening under Obama, but maybe it’s the beginning—as Reagan was the beginning.”
This article appeared in the Saturday, February 2, 2013 edition of National Journal.