Barack Obama leaves office as a remarkably successful president who was nevertheless frustrated by the predominantly conservative politics of his time. Obama took important steps toward forming a new political coalition that someday may become dominant, but he could not fully displace the political regime founded by Ronald Reagan and the decades-long conservative tilt of American politics. If that is to happen, it will have to be the work of a future president.
To explain Obama’s legacy, I will draw on my Yale colleague Stephen Skowronek's cyclical theory of political time. Skowronek argues that the possibilities for presidential leadership are shaped by each president's relationship to the political regime in which he or she is elected.
In Skowronek’s system, a regime features a dominant political party that sets the tone and the agenda for politics, even if it doesn’t win every election. The dominant party and the electoral coalition that keeps it in power tend to shape what seems politically possible at the time.
Political regimes rise and fall in cycles. They start out robust, even revolutionary. But as time goes on, they weaken. Their supporters split into factions and fight among themselves. New problems and demographic shifts make old agendas seem increasingly irrelevant, and sap the regime’s authority. The opposition party eventually adapts, pushes the dominant party off the mountain top, starts a new regime with a new winning coalition, and the cycle of political time begins once again.
The shift from the New Deal regime to the Reagan regime
An example of a regime is the New Deal/civil rights coalition that lasted roughly from 1932 to 1980. The Democratic Party and its New Deal coalition were the dominant forces in politics during the period, producing (mostly) liberal and pro-union economic policies, creating modern civil rights law (with the help of liberal Republicans!), and expanding the administrative and welfare states.
But as time went on, the Democrats' Northern and Southern wings found themselves increasingly at odds over race relations, school prayer, and what eventually became known as the “culture wars.” The Republican Party regrouped and chipped away at the Democrats' dominance, and since 1980 or so we've been living in the Reagan regime, in which the Republican Party and the conservative movement have set the basic terms of politics.
Newly elected presidents have one of four possible relationships to the existing regime. The new president can be affiliated with the dominant party or opposed to it. And the president can take office when the regime is still robust or when it is vulnerable to being overthrown.
Reconstructive presidents like Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan begin as oppositional leaders when the existing regime is weak; they successfully topple it and begin a new one. The presidents of their party who follow them (for example, Martin Van Buren, Ulysses S. Grant, Harry Truman, and George H.W. Bush) are affiliated with the now dominant regime while it is still strong. They try to keep its factions united and its commitments going strong through changing times.
At the end of the regime come disjunctive presidents like John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter. These poor souls have the misfortune to lead the dominant party when the regime is running on fumes and the party's factions are at each other’s throats. Skowronek calls them “disjunctive” because things tend to fall apart on their watch, leading to a new reconstructive presidency.
Obama had a better shot at overthrowing Reaganism than Bill Clinton did
The fourth category of presidents may be the most interesting of all. These presidents include Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. They are oppositional leaders who take office when the dominant regime is still robust. They are unable to fundamentally change the politics of their era, so they have to learn to live within it. Because they are swimming against the political tides, their authority and their political legitimacy are always in question; the dominant party throws everything it can at them, trying to destroy them.
Skowronek calls these leaders preemptive presidents, because they try to preempt the dominant party's politics by triangulating, borrowing ideas from the dominant party, and seeking a "Third Way." For example, Richard Nixon had built a career as a Cold War conservative. Yet because he won the presidency during a period dominated by Democrats — the New Deal/civil rights regime — he wound up consolidating the welfare state, beginning federal affirmative action, and creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
Similarly, the liberal Bill Clinton, a preemptive president during the Reagan regime, balanced the federal budget, ended “welfare as we know it," and famously announced that "the era of Big Government is over." The tacking and weaving of preemptive presidents often infuriates partisans on both sides. The other party denounces them as unscrupulous, criminal, and illegitimate; members of their own party often deride them as sell-outs.
When Obama was elected in 2008, he was an oppositional leader in the Reagan regime; pundits correctly asserted that the United States was still a center-right nation. The big question was: Where was Obama in political time? Was the Reagan regime ripe for overthrow in 2008, or was the conservative moment still in charge? If the former, Obama could be a Ronald Reagan of the left, beginning a new era of politics. If the latter, he would have to adjust to the status quo and chip away at it, galvanizing opposition in the process.
In 2008, Obama certainly campaigned as if he planned to be a reconstructive leader. One of his slogans was “hope and change”; he noted that Ronald Reagan had altered the trajectory of politics in ways that Bill Clinton never did. And certainly Obama’s political opponents accused him of attempting to fundamentally change the United States — for the worse! In their eyes, he was a dangerous radical out to destroy the country.
Yet the odds were always against a reconstructive presidency. The Great Recession was still gaining force as Obama took office. Unlike FDR, who refused to cooperate with the outgoing Hoover administration, Obama decided to work with Bush administration officials, blurring responsibility for the economic crisis and making a complete repudiation difficult. Similar problems occurred in foreign policy. Obama ended torture by intelligence agents but concluded that it was politically impossible to prosecute anyone for it; he tried but failed to close Guantanamo; and early in his presidency he presided over a surge in Afghanistan and began expanding Bush’s use of drones.
A left-wing social movement did not emerge in support of Obama. A right-wing movement did.
Reconstructive presidents are often supported by powerful mobilizations that carry them into office and support their revolutionary ambitions. Lincoln was supported by anti-slavery forces; Roosevelt by the labor movement and the birth of modern liberalism; Reagan by the New Right and the conservative movement. Nothing like this happened for Obama. His Democratic party is not a social movement party. But the Republican Party still is.
Far from being supported by social movements, Obama’s policies spurred not one but two social movements on the right in opposition to him: The Tea Party and Trumpism. Obama’s campaign arm, Obama for America (later Organizing for Action) never turned into the social movement that liberals had hoped for. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign may well be harbingers of the future of the Democratic Party, but during Obama’s time in office they were simply not as powerful as right-wing political movements.
In office, Obama found himself opposed at every turn by powerful forces of conservative politics. The Reagan regime, although greatly weakened by time, proved strong enough to check his reconstructive ambitions. And the more Obama succeeded, the more he galvanized opposition. Unlike FDR and Reagan, Obama did not overcome his political opponents. Rather, like Nixon and Clinton, he enraged them.
Obama accommodated himself to these forces as best he could. He presented himself as moderate and bipartisan, always willing to listen. He borrowed ideas from his political opponents and recast them in liberal terms. Obamacare was based on Republican ideas — Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts program, in turn modeled on ideas taken from the Heritage Foundation.
But after the Tea Party revolt and the 2010 elections, further legislative reforms were foreclosed. Obama was forced to make a humiliating accommodation in the debt ceiling crisis of 2011, when Republicans threatened to refuse to raise the federal debt ceiling — which would have led to world-wide economic disaster — unless Obama agreed to huge cuts in programs. Obama couldn’t push immigration and environmental reforms through Congress and instead turned to administrative regulations and executive agreements to achieve his goals, making his accomplishments more vulnerable to reversal.
Far from dismantling the National Surveillance State and the war on terror begun by George W. Bush, Obama consolidated and continued them. He tried but failed to disentangle the country from Bush's misadventures in the Middle East, in many ways expanding and perpetuating American commitments there.
In a final insult to Obama’s authority, Senate Republicans simply refused to appoint anyone to the Supreme Court during his last year in office, preventing him from establishing a liberal majority in the Court for the first time since 1969, during the heyday of the New Deal/civil rights regime.
Like many preemptive presidents, Obama had a number of significant accomplishments; indeed, despite the fierce opposition he faced, he is probably the most successful domestic president of the past half century. Obama also began to form a new coalition that someday may become dominant. (In like fashion, Nixon chipped away at the New Deal coalition, preparing the way for Reagan’s victory in 1980.) Even so, Obama failed to fundamentally change the condition and direction of American politics. We saw the proof in the 2016 election.
To be sure, if Hillary Clinton had succeeded Obama, his prospects as a reconstructive leader would look far brighter. It is hard for a party to win the presidency three times running; achieving this usually signifies a political party’s dominance. Conversely, there are no cases of reconstructive presidencies (Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, Reagan) in which the other party regained the White House after two terms.
Donald Trump may turn out to be a “disjunctive” president, the last gasp of a dying regime
Clinton lost several key states by the closest of margins, and if only a few things had been different, the result could easily have gone the other way. But in constructing a president’s legacy, close doesn’t count. Because the Republicans eked out a victory, Obama won’t get the benefit of a Democratic successor to protect his accomplishments. Instead, Republicans will control the White House and both houses of Congress; they will have four years to push their programs, issue new regulations, and appoint scores of life-tenured federal judges. For better or worse, Donald Trump’s excruciatingly narrow win means that we still live in a Republican-dominated political world.
All is not lost for Democrats, however. Obama may not have dismantled the Republican fortress, but he put serious cracks in it. History suggests that Donald Trump, for all his bluster, heads a seriously weakened coalition and a deeply fractious party. All the signs point to Trump being a disjunctive leader like Hoover or Carter — arriving at the tail end of the Reagan regime. When such presidents fail, the opposition party is poised to begin a new era of politics. Obama took the Democrats to the edge of the Promised Land; the next Democratic president may be able to bring them across the river Jordan.
Jack M. Balkin is Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School. He blogs at Balkinization.
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