In January 2008, when that year’s Democratic presidential primary was in full swing, the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal asked Barack Obama to place his aspirations in a historical context. What past president did he hope to emulate? Obama’s answer: Ronald Reagan. Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama explained. Ronnie’s election rewrote the history of not only his own party but also the Democratic Party, kicking off a 28-year period of rightward drift in American politics that historian Sean Wilentz has called “the Age of Reagan.” Obama hoped to reset the nation’s trajectory in a similar way; on the campaign trail that year, he spoke of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”
It was remarkably audacious rhetoric for a first-term senator. As the Obama presidency ends, and the election to select his successor limps to a conclusion, his aspiration to fundamentally change the country is the metric by which we should judge his legacy. By any reasonable standard, Obama has been the most successful Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. But the years since the 2010 midterms have been a brutal slog, and most of his recent policy gains have come through executive writ, easily altered by the next president. How much of the Obama legacy will last? To my mind, that’s the most interesting subtext to this year’s presidential election. If the Democratic primary was a passionate referendum on how the party should interpret Obama’s legacy, the Republican primary was a referendum on how to respond to it — a stupefyingly inconclusive one. In some ways, Donald Trump’s rise has actually helped paper over the GOP’s deep, pre-existing fissures when it comes to presidential politics, which will continue after this election. And since the conventions, both candidates have spent surprisingly little time talking domestic policy.
The biggest reason to be optimistic about Obama’s legacy comes from the leftward drift of young voters. It’s conventional wisdom that young people start left and move right over time, but political scientists say that the social and political circumstances during a person’s youth have an outsized impact on a lifetime’s political beliefs. Reagan’s young acolytes were a major part of his legacy. But as a Republican friend lamented to me not long ago, people who came of age at the end of the 1980s associate Republican presidents mostly with war and economic recession, and hold Bill Clinton and Obama in high esteem. Obama’s approval rating among voters born after 1980 in recent polls is in the low to mid-60s. That will shape American politics for some time to come.
But there are some interconnected dynamics playing out in this presidential election that leave reason to be pessimistic about the future. (Setting aside, for a moment, the possibility of a Trump victory.) A big part of Reagan’s legacy was the way the Democratic Party shifted right to meet him, through efforts such as the Democratic Leadership Council, but Obama Democrats never succeeded in crushing their opposition like Reagan did. The GOP has pole-vaulted rightward since 2008. And Republicans haven’t actually suffered for it — they are structurally dominant in the House and in state legislatures, and there’s every likelihood they will remain so after this election.
Furthermore, consensus is setting in among Republicans that Trump is an aberration, a one-off, not a conservative. This is a transparent attempt to avoid scrutiny and introspection about what might have gone wrong. The Dallas Morning News’ high-profile endorsement of Hillary Clinton in September charged that “Trump’s values are hostile to conservatism. He plays on fear, exploiting base instincts of xenophobia, racism and misogyny.” You don’t have to be a flaming liberal to note that this is a little ahistorical; grassroots conservatism and bigotry have an entwined history.
But strangely, that’s also been the Clinton campaign’s message. The main problem with Trump, Hillary supporters say, is his tone and temperament. Clinton’s camp has endorsed some positive left-leaning initiatives. But the main thrust of her campaign in the closing months has been a bloodless, nonideological message of technocratic competence and consensus values reminiscent of the ’90s. The campaign’s supporters tout the endorsement of every possible former Bush administration hack, no matter how minor or contemptible.
That may prove a brilliant plan to win the White House, but this year’s Republican defectors won’t keep voting Democrat. Amid the din, Democrats are missing out on a chance to articulate a vision for the country, and a philosophy of government, that builds on the Obama legacy.