The Political Lessons of Obama

He strengthened the Democratic Party’s ties to emerging constituencies, but narrowed its appeal to working-class whites who propelled Trump to the presidency.

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at McCormick Place in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, giving his presidential farewell address.
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Jan. 11, 2017, 8 p.m.

In his bit­ter­sweet farewell ad­dress this week, Pres­id­ent Obama made a pas­sion­ate case for both his policy agenda and his civic vis­ion of a na­tion strengthened by di­versity. But his words won’t settle the Demo­crats’ dif­fi­cult de­bate about his polit­ic­al leg­acy.

Through two terms, Obama deepened the Demo­crats’ con­nec­tion with a con­stel­la­tion of grow­ing groups, namely minor­it­ies, the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion, and col­lege-edu­cated whites, es­pe­cially wo­men. That co­ali­tion al­lowed him to join the ranks of An­drew Jack­son and Frank­lin Roosevelt, the only Demo­crats to win a pres­id­en­tial pop­u­lar-vote ma­jor­ity at least twice.

But Obama also nar­rowed the Demo­crats’ ap­peal, both demo­graph­ic­ally and geo­graph­ic­ally, in ways that helped Re­pub­lic­ans seize con­trol of the White House and Con­gress and es­tab­lish their biggest ad­vant­age in state gov­ern­ments since the 1920s.

Both these pos­it­ive and neg­at­ive trends for the Demo­crat­ic Party pred­ate Obama’s first cam­paign, and the lat­ter trends were ac­cen­tu­ated by Hil­lary Clin­ton’s unique weak­nesses in 2016. But Obama in­tens­i­fied these dy­nam­ics with a dis­tinct­ive strategy that bound Demo­crats to the polit­ic­al pri­or­it­ies of their heav­ily urb­an­ized new co­ali­tion, es­pe­cially on cul­tur­al is­sues from gay rights to im­mig­ra­tion re­form. That came at the price of fur­ther ali­en­at­ing the GOP’s com­pet­ing co­ali­tion of older, blue-col­lar, and re­li­giously de­vout whites, who live largely out­side of urb­an areas. And it was those voters who mo­bil­ized to nar­rowly elect Don­ald Trump and pre­serve Re­pub­lic­an con­trol of Con­gress.

Most ana­lyses over­state the Demo­crats’ down-bal­lot losses un­der Obama be­cause they only start count­ing after he took of­fice in 2009. That denies him cred­it for the can­did­ates he helped elect dur­ing his re­sound­ing first win in 2008. Com­pare the Demo­crats’ stand­ing after the 2006 elec­tion—just be­fore his first race—with their po­s­i­tion after Novem­ber’s con­test. Us­ing that stand­ard, Demo­crats will end the Obama era with 39 few­er House seats (233 to 194), three few­er Sen­ate seats (51 to 48), and 12 few­er gov­ernor­ships (28 to 16).

Those losses are for­mid­able, but hardly unique. Parties al­most al­ways lose ground else­where while they hold the White House. In two-term pres­id­en­cies since World War II, the in­cum­bent pres­id­ent’s party lost more House seats un­der Bill Clin­ton (54), George W. Bush (45), and Richard Nix­on and Ger­ald Ford (44). The pres­id­ent’s party lost the same num­ber of seats as Obama did un­der John Kennedy and Lyn­don John­son (39) and few­er seats un­der Dwight Eis­en­hower (26). Sen­ate losses ex­ceeded Obama’s un­der Bush (14), Eis­en­hower (11), Kennedy and John­son (8), and Clin­ton (6), while Re­pub­lic­ans gained two sen­at­ors un­der the Nix­on and Ford ad­min­is­tra­tions.

Obama lost few­er gov­ernor­ships than un­der the Kennedy and John­son (15) and Nix­on and Ford ad­min­is­tra­tions (13)—and lost more than un­der Eis­en­hower, Clin­ton, and Bush (9 each). Only in lost state le­gis­lat­ive seats (850) did Obama sig­ni­fic­antly ex­ceed any of these pre­de­cessors.

Ron­ald Re­agan was the great ex­cep­tion to all this: Dur­ing his two terms, Re­pub­lic­ans gained 18 House seats, four sen­at­ors, four gov­ernors, and 237 state le­gis­lat­ors. Re­agan was also the only two-term pres­id­ent since World War II whose party held the White House when he left.

Yet it is un­der­stand­able why many Demo­crats join Matt Ben­nett of the cent­rist group Third Way in be­liev­ing “the party is in worse shape” after Obama than after Bill Clin­ton. Though the party’s re­l­at­ive losses were com­par­able un­der each pres­id­ent, Demo­crats now hold a smal­ler ab­so­lute num­ber of House and state le­gis­lat­ive seats, as well as sen­at­ors and gov­ernors, than in 2001. And for Demo­crats, los­ing the 2016 race to a can­did­ate as flawed as Trump “is much, much worse than los­ing a ba­sic­ally tied elec­tion to Bush in 2000,” as Ben­nett told me.

Be­cause the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion has grown so clustered in urb­an cen­ters, the party’s ca­pa­city to com­pete for House or state le­gis­lat­ive seats bey­ond met­ro­pol­it­an areas dra­mat­ic­ally eroded dur­ing Obama’s pres­id­ency. Sim­il­arly, Demo­crats have struggled to win Sen­ate and gov­ernors’ races bey­ond cul­tur­ally cos­mo­pol­it­an states that are mostly along the coasts.

Obama reached far enough bey­ond those con­straints in heav­ily blue-col­lar Rust Belt states to as­semble two sol­id Elect­or­al Col­lege ma­jor­it­ies. But Hil­lary Clin­ton couldn’t match that out­reach and fatally re­treated even fur­ther in­to the party’s core urb­an re­doubts: Des­pite com­fort­ably win­ning the pop­u­lar vote, she car­ried less than one-sixth of the na­tion’s counties.

“The les­son of this elec­tion is … you have to have an over­arch­ing mes­sage for the coun­try and it has to have a mean­ing­ful eco­nom­ic com­pon­ent,” said Dav­id Axel­rod, formerly Obama’s chief strategist. A clear mes­sage of the Obama years is that Demo­crats can­not con­sist­ently con­trol Con­gress or most state gov­ern­ments un­less they com­pete bet­ter among white voters, es­pe­cially those without col­lege de­grees. The next gen­er­a­tion of Demo­crat­ic lead­ers must find ways to bet­ter align the voters Obama un­deni­ably ad­ded to his party with more of those that he lost.

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