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.