The wide-ranging proposals on gun control that Barack Obama is expected to announce tomorrow (Jan. 16) symbolize the change in attitude accompanying his second presidential term.
Rapidly accelerating a process that began during his campaign, Obama since November has confidently picked fights with Republicans—and challenged the most conservative members of his own party—on a broad range of foreign-policy and domestic social issues. Besides gun control these include immigration, the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan and the nomination of Republican senator Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary, a red flag for the GOP’s neo-conservative wing.
Obama in effect is answering a question that liberal political thinkers have asked since the 1970s: how would the Democratic Party behave if it could diminish its dependence on conservative white voters? His forceful moves on all these controversial fronts represent a calculated gamble that the evolution of the US electorate has reached a critical tipping point. When Bill Clinton moved on some of these same issues, the conservative backlash (particularly over gun control and gays in the military) contributed to the Republican landslide in 1994 that gave the party control of both legislative chambers for the rest of the decade. Obama is betting that the Democratic coalition will prove more resilient than in Clinton’s day. That’s undeniably true in presidential elections, though it could prove a problem for congressional Democrats—but more on that later.
Not Just Second-Term Syndrome
Many see Obama’s newfound aggression as a sign that he feels liberated by knowing that he will never again face the voters. “He’s reelected and he doesn’t care,” said one Democratic strategist close to the White House. “I think there are a million little things over the last year that they couldn’t do, where there was a little part of Barack Obama that said ‘I hate that I have to make these compromises.’”
But it also reflects the changing demographics that got Obama re-elected.
Since the 1970s Democrats have often been paralyzed by the fear of losing culturally conservative white voters if they moved too far left, particularly on social and foreign-policy issues. And in fact, those voters did stampede away from Obama last November in even larger numbers than in 2008: Exit polls conducted on election day found that Republican Mitt Romney carried over three-fifths of both whites older than 45 and whites without a four-year college degree.
Yet Obama not only won without them, but won convincingly. Final vote tallies have pushed his share of the national vote past 51%, making him the only the third Democrat ever to cross that threshold twice (joining Franklin Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson.)
Obama triumphed despite his decline among conservative-leaning whites because of what I’ve called the “coalition of the ascendant”—minorities, the Millennial generation, and college-educated white women. Obama won 80% of the first, 60% of the second, and almost half of the third, and each of those groups set a new record as a share of the total vote, according to exit polls. Minorities, most importantly, cast 28% of the vote, more than double their share during Clinton’s first election in 1992.
The departure of older and blue-collar whites limited the scale of Obama’s victory, but it left behind a more ideologically cohesive Democratic party base. Exit polls found that nearly four out of five Obama voters supported giving illegal immigrants a way to become citizens and almost as many supported allowing same-sex marriage.
Ruy Teixeira, co-author of the seminal 2002 book “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” says the party’s coalition has evolved over time “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.” Compared to even the 1990s, he notes, Democrats “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.”
Picking His Fights
Against that backdrop, Obama’s recent maneuvers make more sense. During his reelection campaign, he crossed a Rubicon by repeatedly instigating or accepting fights with the GOP on issues that energized this “coalition of the ascendant” even at the price of further antagonizing more conservative voters. That was evident through 2012 in his decisions to pursue an administrative path to legalization for young people brought to the US illegally by their parents; to provide access to free contraception in health insurance despite fierce opposition from the Catholic Church; and, above all, to reverse his previous opposition to gay marriage.
Since the election the president has moved further, and faster, along that same track. Obama has signaled that he intends to forcefully promote a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants here illegally—a priority for Hispanic voters, still fiercely resisted by many culturally conservative whites.