Running Into the Wind

Democrats’ chances of strengthening their hand in Congress and holding the White House in 2016 could hinge on Obama.

From left to right, U.S. President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton, former President George H.W. Bush and former President Jimmy Carter attend the opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center April 25, 2013 in Dallas, Texas. The Bush library, which is located on the campus of Southern Methodist University, with more than 70 million pages of paper records, 43,000 artifacts, 200 million emails and four million digital photographs, will be opened to the public on May 1, 2013. The library is the 13th presidential library in the National Archives and Records Administration system.
National Journal
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Ronald Brownstein
Nov. 14, 2014, midnight

It may be cold com­fort for Demo­crats dig­ging out from last week’s rubble, but their des­pair has plenty of pre­ced­ent.

(Alex Wong/Getty Images) National Journal

(Alex Wong/Getty Im­ages)Pres­id­ent Obama has weakened his party’s po­s­i­tion in Con­gress — but not uniquely so. Since World War II, with just one ex­cep­tion, every time a party has held the White House for two pres­id­en­tial terms, it has lost con­gres­sion­al seats over that peri­od — and then sur­rendered the White House in the elec­tion to re­place the out­go­ing pres­id­ent. How Obama handles his fi­nal two years may de­cide wheth­er Demo­crats re­peat that pat­tern in 2016.

The fairest way to meas­ure a pres­id­ent’s im­pact on his party’s con­gres­sion­al strength is to com­pare the party’s seat count just be­fore he first ap­peared on the bal­lot with the party’s total after the elec­tion to suc­ceed him. That gives the pres­id­ent re­spons­ib­il­ity for any le­gis­lat­ors ini­tially swept in with him, the out­comes dur­ing his ten­ure, and the shad­ow he casts over the elec­tion that chooses his suc­cessor.

Us­ing that yard­stick, we would meas­ure Obama by com­par­ing the Demo­crat­ic stand­ing after 2006 (the last elec­tion be­fore his first pres­id­en­tial cam­paign) with the party’s po­s­i­tion after 2016 (the race to suc­ceed him). For Bill Clin­ton, say, the equi­val­ent com­par­is­on would be 1990 to 2000.

So far, Demo­crats un­der Obama are down five Sen­ate seats (from 51 in 2006 to a likely 46 today, count­ing in­de­pend­ents who caucus with them) and around 45 House seats, de­pend­ing on fi­nal re­counts. Three times since World War II, a two-term pres­id­ent’s party has lost more com­bined con­gres­sion­al seats by the end of the race to suc­ceed him: Dur­ing Clin­ton’s pres­id­ency, Demo­crats lost six Sen­ate and 56 House seats; un­der George W. Bush, Re­pub­lic­ans lost 14 Sen­ate and 45 House seats; be­hind Dwight Eis­en­hower, the GOP lost 12 Sen­ate and 46 House seats.

The oth­er post-World War II pres­id­ents per­formed bet­ter than Obama. (The num­bers were 46 com­bined Sen­ate and House losses un­der John Kennedy and Lyn­don John­son; 42 un­der Richard Nix­on and Ger­ald Ford; and 41 dur­ing Harry Tru­man’s trun­cated two terms.) Only Ron­ald Re­agan de­fied the pat­tern: Be­hind him, Re­pub­lic­ans gained four Sen­ate and 17 House seats.

The 2016 elec­tion will fix Obama’s fi­nal place on that list — and de­term­ine wheth­er his party will hold the pres­id­ency when he de­parts. The only two-term pres­id­ent since World War II who passed that test was, again, Re­agan, whose vice pres­id­ent, George H.W. Bush, suc­ceeded him in 1988. Look­ing back fur­ther, the pat­tern seems to be that a pop­u­lar out­go­ing pres­id­ent can’t guar­an­tee that his party will suc­ceed him (it worked for Re­agan, and for Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, but not for Eis­en­hower or Clin­ton); but a deeply un­pop­u­lar out­go­ing pres­id­ent al­most al­ways en­sures his party’s de­feat (Tru­man, John­son, George W. Bush, and Woo­drow Wilson in 1920).

That shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing. When voters want change, it’s nat­ur­al for them to look to­ward the out party to de­liv­er it. That in­stinct makes dis­en­chant­ment with Obama the greatest po­ten­tial head­wind fa­cing Demo­crats in 2016.

A big les­son from 2014 is that Demo­crats can’t tame that gale by ig­nor­ing it. Even Demo­crats who shunned Obama this year found no shel­ter. Voters who dis­ap­proved of Obama gave Re­pub­lic­ans at least three-fourths of their vote in 18 of the 22 Sen­ate races for which exit polls were con­duc­ted. The voter blocs most hos­tile to Obama stam­peded to Re­pub­lic­ans every­where. No Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate can­did­ate in a com­pet­it­ive race car­ried white men or whites without a col­lege de­gree; in those races, only New Hamp­shire’s Jeanne Shaheen and Michigan’s Gary Peters tied or won among whites over­all. The re­ced­ing tide lowered all boats.

If Hil­lary Clin­ton runs in 2016, she will bring her own well-burn­ished brand and re­la­tion­ship with voters to the race. But it’s de­lu­sion­al to ima­gine she would be im­mune to at­ti­tudes about Obama: Exit polls in 1988 and 2000 found that 88 per­cent of voters who dis­ap­proved of Re­agan and Bill Clin­ton, re­spect­ively, voted for the oth­er party’s nom­in­ee to suc­ceed them. (In 2008, Obama won two-thirds of Bush dis­ap­provers.) No mat­ter how she po­s­i­tions her­self, Clin­ton will al­ways rep­res­ent more con­tinu­ity with Obama than any Re­pub­lic­an does.

Obama will be­queath his party im­port­ant pos­it­ive legacies. He has aligned Demo­crats with the pri­or­it­ies, par­tic­u­larly on cul­tur­al is­sues, of mil­len­ni­als, minor­it­ies, and col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men, the grow­ing groups that an­chor the party’s pres­id­en­tial co­ali­tion. (All of those groups largely stuck with Demo­crats last week.) His health care law, while still leg­ally threatened, could in­sure 20 mil­lion people by 2016. And con­tin­ued growth could dis­pel some eco­nom­ic gloom: The eco­nomy has already pro­duced more than five times as many jobs un­der Obama as it did dur­ing George W. Bush’s en­tire two terms.

The in­ev­it­ably young­er and more di­verse pres­id­en­tial-year elect­or­ate will be­ne­fit Demo­crats in 2016. But un­less Obama in his fi­nal laps can an­swer doubts about his lead­er­ship and agenda, the 2016 Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee will again be run­ning in­to the wind — and last week’s Re­pub­lic­an rout showed just how tough that can be.

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