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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