How Obama Inadvertently Set the Stage for Trump’s Presidency

His healthy job approval ratings masked a deep, widespread dissatisfaction of a country desperate for change.

President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with Vice President-elect Mike Pence as he gives his acceptance speech in New York.
AP Photo/John Locher
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Nov. 9, 2016, 4:43 a.m.

Don­ald Trump re­made the Re­pub­lic­an Party along the way to his shock­ing rise to the pres­id­ency. One of his un­wit­ting ac­com­plices was Pres­id­ent Obama.

In­stead of of­fer­ing voters a de­tailed policy agenda, Obama won the pres­id­ency in part thanks to his iden­tity, an iden­tity that power­fully ad­dressed a his­tor­ic­al wrong. In the pro­cess, he made it pos­sible for Trump to ad­vance to the pres­id­ency on the strength of an en­tirely dif­fer­ent sort of iden­tity, one that ap­pealed to an in­tensely loy­al base of white, work­ing-class voters.

Obama’s mis­take was re­fus­ing to ac­know­ledge the im­port of the Re­pub­lic­an wave elec­tions in 2010 and 2014 and de­clin­ing to pivot to the middle, which fueled the in­tens­ity of the con­ser­vat­ive op­pos­i­tion. By spend­ing his fi­nal two years do­ing end-runs around Con­gress on im­mig­ra­tion and res­ist­ing any changes to his sig­na­ture health care law, he all but in­vited Trump’s auto­crat­ic prom­ises to fix things.

Obama and his leg­acy were among the biggest losers in Tues­day’s as­ton­ish­ing up­set. Re­pub­lic­ans will now ex­er­cise the vast powers of the pres­id­ency and con­trol the Sen­ate and the House by com­fort­able mar­gins, and they will al­most cer­tainly roll back Obama’s health care law. If Trump lives up to his pledge to ap­point a con­ser­vat­ive jur­ist to fill the Scalia va­cancy, the Su­preme Court will have a con­ser­vat­ive ma­jor­ity in the years ahead. The mur­der­ous tur­moil in the Middle East and on­go­ing IS­IS threat to the Amer­ic­an home­land were ma­jor factors in this elec­tion, as polit­ic­ally sig­ni­fic­ant as Trump’s ig­nor­ance about for­eign af­fairs. Obama’s un­will­ing­ness to call ter­ror­ism by its name, pre­fer­ring to preach about Is­lamo­pho­bia in the wake of hein­ous ter­ror­ist at­tacks abroad, was an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated factor in Trump’s im­prob­able can­did­acy.

From the be­gin­ning of her cam­paign, Hil­lary Clin­ton chose to mo­bil­ize the Demo­crat­ic base, run as a third term of Obama’s pres­id­ency, and de­cline to of­fer many policy dis­tinc­tions. Any­one hop­ing for a more cent­rist ad­min­is­tra­tion had to read between the lines, or de­cipher art­ful leaks. On pa­per, her strategy made a lot of sense: Demo­crats feared that if she raised ques­tions about the Ir­an deal or Obama­care, the Obama co­ali­tion would lose its en­ergy. Break­ing from Obama was as fraught with risk for Demo­crats as break­ing with Trump was for Re­pub­lic­ans. As it turned out, though, dis­af­fected voters wanted change re­gard­less of its agent, and Clin­ton’s cau­tious ap­proach pleased only Demo­crat­ic true be­liev­ers.

After the Demo­crat­ic con­ven­tion, Clin­ton spent pre­cious little time in the blue-wall Rust Belt states, many of which ended up vot­ing for Trump and as­sur­ing her polit­ic­al de­mise. The Mid­west­ern white vote, which gave Obama wide­spread sup­port in 2012, turned on him dur­ing his second term. One telling an­ec­dote: To­ward the end of the cam­paign, Obama re­portedly wanted to cam­paign for Clin­ton in Iowa, the state that launched his own polit­ic­al ca­reer. He was in­formed the state was out of reach—a clear sign that he wouldn’t be an as­set in per­suad­ing any re­main­ing un­de­cided voters.

Many poll­sters and ex­perts dis­missed the per­sist­ent and over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans who thought the coun­try was on the wrong track, in­stead hold­ing out hope that Obama’s per­son­al pop­ular­ity was a more im­port­ant in­dic­at­or. What we saw from the elec­tion res­ults was that Obama’s cha­risma and likab­il­ity masked deep dis­sat­is­fac­tion with his policies. Clin­ton’s eth­ic­al prob­lems over her email serv­er, the sug­ges­tion of pay-for-play at the Clin­ton Found­a­tion, and her tone-deaf polit­ic­al sens­ib­il­ity all figured in her de­feat. But if voters had felt good about the coun­try’s dir­ec­tion, Clin­ton would have cruised to the White House. As it stands, Trump is on track to win more elect­or­al votes than any Re­pub­lic­an since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

After Trump’s vic­tory speech, Clin­ton strategist James Carville lamen­ted on MS­N­BC: “We’re a party without a lead­er.” The big ques­tion is wheth­er Demo­crats will listen to the polit­ic­al ad­vice of their out­go­ing pres­id­ent—an ap­proach that led them badly awry in three of the last four elec­tions—or wheth­er they’ll look to forge a more cent­rist path, per­haps with the ad­di­tion of some anti-Trump Re­pub­lic­ans in the fold.

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