President Obama’s 2nd Term Strategy: Real Benefits and Real Costs

President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address laid-out a Liberal policy agenda, validating it in terms of government’s power to help Americans, the need for the rich to contribute more towards Federal deficit-reduction, and our common status as American citizens.  While the tone was amicable compared to that of the President’s bold (some said brash) 2nd Inaugural Address last month, he nonetheless doubled-down on his staring match with the diminished but probably secure Republican majority in the House of Representatives–a chamber he needs in order to pass most of the agenda he laid-out in the Address.

President Obama--2013 State of the Union Address

President Obama during the 2013 State of the Union Address last night. The President has become more confrontation-prone towards House Republicans over the course of the past 2 years; now it seems to be his standing approach in dealing with them, even in central policy speeches. Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/Agence France Presse/Getty Images.

Do you remember President Obama campaign pledge to be the postpartisan President during the 2008 Election?  I do, and that promise is now completely gone.  That is a pretty good mark of how far the President–and the country–has come.

“Bipartisanship is stupid,” a friend–a fellow graduate student in political science–said almost exactly 4 years ago, and I essentially agreed.  Don’t the 2 parties exist in order to represent different material interests or values?  Why would either party agree to work with the other on their legislative priorities, unless it is thereby able to attain what for its members is a higher policy priority in exchange for concessions on a lower priority?

Republicans seemed to feel this way; in general, they never gave President Obama a chance.

I should clarify that I have always liked the idea of bipartisanship in the sense that I do not believe that the other party is just evil or stupid, or that it serves entirely illegitimate interests.  When I was younger I had a little more trouble embracing this notion, but ironically it was shortly before the President George W. Bush Presidency fizzled in 2006 I have accepted that you can tell a lot of clashing stories with reference to the same facts.  (In a different context, 1 of my professors once called this the “Rashomon effect.”)  Taken to an extreme, the sentimental call for bipartisanship ignores premises on which democracy was based–that the meaningful political questions of the day can still inspire people with legitimately-differing opinions, and that the political parties should explain the respective philosophies that motivate them and propose policies which they both think will work and will help them to achieve their values.  At an extreme bipartisanship seeks to dilute that ideal into “Well, here is what I want to do; you should get on-board or you’re being a bad American.”

I’m not saying President Obama was either foolish or disingenuous to call for a bipartisan coming-together (though I do think he was a little naive).  Consider the professions President Obama came from: He has been a lawyer, a Constitutional law professor, a South Chicago community organizer, an Illinois State Senator, a US Senator from Illinois, and 4 years after election to the US Senate he became President of the United States.  During his 4 years as a US Senator he saw President W. Bush have about 4 months of good news and policy successes before the bill started coming due for the information manipulation, unsustainable policies and political contradictions of his 1st term; after that Congressional Democrats found their voice, went on the offensive and enjoyed successive wave elections.

What am I getting at?  Well, Governor Romney did at least have a plausible critique of the President: Barack Obama never ran anything.  I find the President’s policy record compelling and I have found him to be a consistent champion for the right causes; binding those 2 findings together are Barack Obama’s good political instincts.  But the fact remains that his record of dealing with resistance from Congress indicates significant amounts of denial and even avoidance behaviors.  Democrats and Republicans have made those charges.  This isn’t damning–and as I’ve said before, the President has won more political battles than he has lost.  But rather than explain this in terms of President Obama’s professorial inclinations, I think this is best-explained through the fact that his political experience prior to becoming President was through community-organizing and serving in 2 legislatures: Our President has a lot of experience marshaling those who share his causes but before becoming President had never really herded the legislative cats himself.

The low point of my confidence in President Obama’s political abilities came in mid-November 2010, just after the Republicans had their best wave election since the 1920s or 1930s.  While admitting that he had just suffered an electoral “shellacking,” President Obama nonetheless explained his loss in terms of failure to get his message out.

You see, the loss of 7 Senate seats (starting in January of that year), 63 House seats, 6 Governorships and about 700 seats in the State Legislatures nationwide in a high-turnout Midterm Election came about because people just didn’t understand all the great things President Obama and the Democrats were doing.  Wow…

But the fact remains that President Obama was re-elected by a pretty-solid margin for a Presidential Election, with an unusually-high unemployment rate and Republicans running an extremely well-financed campaign around a message of limited government and citizen independence that had them excited.  They had a lot of existing elected officials nationwide to help them carry that message to most parts of the country.  There had been discipline problems, but this message and the 2012 Republican National Convention had largely assimilated intraparty differences of opinion while maintaining substantive policy positions.

Yet as it happened, the Republicans performed worse nationwide in the 2012 Elections than the consensus of the pundits had allowed.

The reason for this was positively identified by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight by late-August of last year, and is simple: The constituencies that tend to support Liberal policies now form a natural majority in Presidential Elections.  This situation has been developing steadily for the past 20 years, though it was not always perceptible on the surface; this year was a fairly-strong test of it.  The Republicans actually dominated the vote of self-identified independents, and they had a bad election year anyway.  As a consequence, President Obama has realized that Democratic Presidential candidates don’t require the support of constituents who might be antagonized by Liberal causes and legislation.  Being “outed” as a Liberal doesn’t preclude election for President by a popular vote majority.

For some, the strategic tack the President should take in light of this realization is straightforward: Divide and conquer.  But the truth is, this situation poses a choice in which both courses of action offer benefits and costs.

Ron Brownstein noted as much in an interesting article for National Journal on the demographic changes that have created an electoral majority for Democratic Presidential candidates: President Obama’s turn from appealing to the center to appealing to his base, crossing a threshold by actively-supporting gay marriage in 2011 and perhaps hitting full-bore with his combative 2nd Inaugural Address, is not just a personal political tack but a bid to capitalize on massive demographic changes that actually make it easier for Democratic Presidential candidates to ignore or even alienate the White working-class voters the Democratic Party used to need in order to win.

The importance of the diverse Democratic Party base to President Obama’s election and re-election is a story that has already been told, but President Obama’s pursuit of a Liberal agenda of immigration reform, new gun control, rescinding the Defense of Marriage Act and new climate change legislation reflects his recognition that aggressively pursuing his party’s platform is actually good politics.  This hasn’t been true for Democratic Presidents since Lyndon Johnson won passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).

So we’ve come along way from Senator Zell Miller (D-GA)’s 2003 lamentation that the Democratic Party was A National Party No More because it had alienated social and fiscal Conservatives…or have we, in a more-comprehensive sense?  While appealing to the Democratic base may actually be advantageous to Democratic Presidential candidates now, this strategy comes with a probable cost: it may actively disadvantage the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives. Even without the partisan gerrymandering that so heavily favors Republicans in the Midwest and the South, Congressional races tend to have about 2/3 or less of the turnout of a Presidential Election; even non-partisan Congressional Districts probably aggregate towards a natural Republican majority in the House because of political geography–working-class Whites live in wide distribution through suburban and rural America–and the Voting Rights Act’s mandate to create a proportional number of majority-minority Congressional Districts where possible (which makes drawing adjacent Conservative-leaning Congressional Districts easy).  So, for a Democratic President to promise and proceed to govern from the Left could help the Democratic Party dominate the Executive Branch for the foreseeable future–but it also could also keep the Democrats out of the House for years, perhaps indefinitely, because this strategy basically takes a dump on socially-Conservative parts of the electorate that are more-likely to vote down-ballot, especially in the Midterm years.

I remember the expansion of the party’s ranks in 2006 and 2008. Some of those Congressional gains, at least in 2008, were probably based on the post-Financial Crash reaction against the Republicans and the coattails from President Obama’s high-turnout, massive 2008 Presidential win. But some of those Congressional gains could have been permanent (at least Districts we could have retaken if not held through 2010).  Brownstein’s argument is President Obama’s decision to go to the left was made possible by structural changes in the electorate; it still wasn’t inevitable or even the only plausible strategy.  He suggests, and I think the evidence corroborates, that we had to choose between our Congressional majority and investing in strategic dominance over the Presidency–at least for the next few Congressional terms, and maybe a lot longer.

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