Obama Changed His Party, Not the Country

President Obama has gotten Congressional Democrats to do what he wants. No one else is following suit.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers speaks at the 2013 Tribal Nations Conference held at the Department of Interior Building on November 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama meet with leaders of 566 Native American tribes earlier in the day at teh White House.
National Journal
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Josh Kraushaar
Feb. 17, 2015, 3 p.m.

As a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, Pres­id­ent Obama ex­pressed his de­sire to “change the tra­ject­ory of Amer­ica” along the lines of Ron­ald Re­agan, re­buk­ing the leg­acy of Bill Clin­ton’s prag­mat­ic pres­id­ency in the pro­cess. Now that his own pres­id­ency is wind­ing down, Obama is find­ing that his main leg­acy is only half-achieved. He has in­deed trans­formed the Demo­crat­ic party to his lik­ing, but failed to get any­one else to fol­low suit.

At the same time, there’s no doubt he’s suc­cess­fully pushed Demo­crats to ad­opt his favored policies with min­im­al dis­sent—and that will have last­ing con­sequences for many elec­tions to come. Des­pite un­even per­son­al re­la­tions with his own party in Con­gress, there have been very few in­stances when his party’s mem­bers have split from his gov­ern­ing course, even on is­sues where the polit­ics would dic­tate they should.

That’s the con­sequence of be­ing the most po­lar­iz­ing pres­id­ent in his­tory, ac­cord­ing to Gal­lup’s latest polling ana­lys­is. Obama main­tains strong sup­port from his core sup­port­ers, even as Re­pub­lic­ans have en­tirely aban­doned him and in­de­pend­ents have fol­lowed suit. Gal­lup found 79 per­cent of Demo­crats still back­ing him, even with a 42.6 per­cent av­er­age ap­prov­al rat­ing in his sixth year in of­fice. That un­usu­ally large dis­con­nect has em­boldened the pres­id­ent to push for­ward on con­tro­ver­sial is­sues that few oth­er Demo­crats would touch, thanks to un­yield­ing sup­port from his base.

The re­cent de­bate over the Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar threat and Is­raeli prime min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu’s sched­uled speech to Con­gress on this is­sue is a per­fect ex­ample of this new Demo­crat­ic dy­nam­ic. The Demo­crat­ic party has long been strongly sup­port­ive of Is­rael, but thanks to Obama’s pur­suit of a deal with Ir­an, re­la­tions between this White House and Is­rael have hit his­tor­ic lows. Demo­crats are now presen­ted with an un­com­fort­able choice: Back Obama and his ag­gress­ive dip­lo­mat­ic push with Ir­an, or sup­port the Is­raeli prime min­is­ter’s speech to Con­gress rais­ing ques­tions about Ir­an’s in­ten­tions.

In the past, the in­vit­a­tion of the Is­raeli prime min­is­ter to speak wouldn’t have been nearly as con­tro­ver­sial—even so close to an elec­tion. Obama knows that. And he’s us­ing this epis­ode and his lever­age as pres­id­ent to get his rank-and-file mem­bers to be less in­stinct­ively sup­port­ive of the Jew­ish state. It’s hav­ing some ef­fect: Most Afric­an-Amer­ic­an Demo­crats and many pro­gress­ive mem­bers of the party—Obama’s base—have said they’re not at­tend­ing. Even sev­er­al Jew­ish Demo­crat­ic mem­bers haven’t com­mit­ted to do­ing so.

This is what Obama’s former chief strategist Dav­id Axel­rod meant when he wrote about the pres­id­ent’s de­sire to have so-called “Bul­worth mo­ments” after be­ing reelec­ted in his new book. Trans­lated in­to polit­ic­al terms, it means push­ing his party to be more out­spoken on sens­it­ive is­sues, even when they may not be com­fort­able do­ing so. Chal­len­ging Is­rael was one of the pres­id­ent’s top second term pri­or­it­ies, ac­cord­ing to Axel­rod. The worsen­ing re­la­tion­ship between this ad­min­is­tra­tion and Is­rael was as much the pres­id­ent’s pre­con­ceived plan as the res­ult of a pro­tocol breach.

Or take con­struc­tion of the Key­stone XL pipeline, which has been in­def­in­itely delayed by this ad­min­is­tra­tion, with shift­ing ra­tionales for do­ing so over time. The pro­ject has long held over­whelm­ing pub­lic sup­port, in­clud­ing from a plur­al­ity of Demo­crats. It’s evid­ent by now that the on­go­ing post­pone­ments are a res­ult of the pres­id­ent’s true-blue op­pos­i­tion to the pro­ject, not out of fi­del­ity to the leg­al pro­cess, where the chal­lenges have all run their course.

There’s been no sig­nal from the White House that the pres­id­ent wants to make a deal in­volving Key­stone, des­pite spec­u­la­tion that he could use the pro­ject as lever­age for an­oth­er Demo­crat­ic pri­or­ity such as in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing. One of the pres­id­ent’s en­vir­on­ment­al al­lies, the Na­tion­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil’s Susan Ca­sey-Le­fkow­itz, told NPR last week that “I ac­tu­ally can’t ima­gine a scen­ario in which the pres­id­ent al­lows this pro­ject to go for­ward.”

Un­der a dif­fer­ent Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent, it’s likely Key­stone wouldn’t even be a po­lar­iz­ing is­sue. A March 2014 Pew poll found that a 49-per­cent plur­al­ity of Demo­crat­ic voters sup­port the Key­stone pipeline, in­clud­ing 40 per­cent of self-de­scribed lib­er­als. Hil­lary Clin­ton has dog­gedly avoided tak­ing sides on the is­sue, not want­ing to pick a fight with the White House. But only 16 per­cent of House Demo­crats and 20 per­cent of Sen­ate Demo­crats voted to ap­prove the pipeline, mean­ing it’s just shy of a su­per­ma­jor­ity that could over­ride a pres­id­en­tial veto.

By ig­nor­ing the elect­or­ate and steer­ing the coun­try in an un­mis­tak­ably pro­gress­ive dir­ec­tion his fi­nal two years in of­fice, he’s en­sur­ing that his pres­id­ency will be more of an eight-year mirage for lib­er­als, rather than one known for win­ning last­ing sup­port for policies that would move the coun­try in a left­ward dir­ec­tion.

Con­sider: Many of his biggest achieve­ments could be rolled back by a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent, and even Hil­lary Clin­ton may change course on some is­sues, if she’s elec­ted. Health care re­form re­mains un­pop­u­lar and cer­tain pro­vi­sions, such as the law’s in­di­vidu­al and em­ploy­er man­dates, could be re­pealed after Obama leaves of­fice. Obama already is lay­ing the ground­work for his suc­cessor to com­mit more troops in the Middle East, giv­en the de­teri­or­at­ing se­cur­ity situ­ation throughout the re­gion. The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s new for­eign policy man­tra of “stra­tegic pa­tience” could well be trans­lated in­to “avoid­ing the tough but ne­ces­sary de­cisions.” And by re­ly­ing heav­ily on ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders to im­ple­ment en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions and of­fer­ing leg­al status to some il­leg­al im­mig­rants, he could eas­ily see a GOP suc­cessor res­cind­ing those meas­ures.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s push for a pro­gress­ive leg­acy has cost him con­trol of Con­gress, los­ing dozens of mod­er­ate Demo­crats whose sup­port would be valu­able in get­ting his agenda passed. What’s un­der­played is the oth­er side of the equa­tion—how many re­main­ing Con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats have been re­li­ably fol­low­ing the pres­id­ent’s lead. As long as the pres­id­ent is in of­fice, he will con­tin­ue to set the dir­ec­tion for his party. But after he’s out of of­fice, the largely-lib­er­al group of Demo­crats re­main­ing will have to de­cide wheth­er to steer their own course, or main­tain their role in Obama’s im­age.Those are the con­sequences of push­ing through an agenda without com­prom­ising and without win­ning pub­lic sup­port. Something’s go­ing to give, even­tu­ally. 

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