During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama noted that President Ronald Reagan had “changed the trajectory of America”—and said he intended for his own presidency to do the same.
Reagan’s tenure ushered in a quarter-century of Republican dominance in American politics, and helped nurture a generation of party activists and candidates—from Karl Rove to Grover Norquist to Paul Ryan—who spearheaded the conservative movement long after the Gipper himself was back in Bel-Air. As Obama goes into his second term, does he look likely to leave his party in equally strong shape?
The answer could matter not just for the fate of progressive priorities beyond 2016, but also for protecting Obama’s own accomplishments. If Republicans gain power in 2016, everything from Obamacare to financial reform to ending the Bush tax cuts for the richest could yet be in danger. As Howard Dean told msnbc.com: “The president's legacy is going to be partly determined by what happens after he leaves.”
By some measures, the Democratic Party appears better placed than it has been since LBJ. Polls consistently show the party with higher approval ratings than the GOP, and Hillary Clinton leads most presidential polling for 2016. The Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.
More important, political scientists say the 2012 election made clear that broad demographic and cultural trends—essentially, the electorate’s growing racial diversity and cultural liberalism—have fundamentally transformed electoral politics in Democrats’ favor. One marker of the change: when Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992, non-whites made up 13% of the electorate. Last year, they were more than twice that—28%—and Obama got 80% of their vote. That made it possible for him to win re-election comfortably despite receiving just 38% of the white vote.
Obama capitalized on those shifts by explicitly appealing to these key constituencies. But by and large, he was doing little more than “reaping the demographic dividend,” said Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress, who was among the first to spot the political implications of these demographic shifts in his 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority (co-written with John Judis).
And these changes are likely to advantage Democrats—especially at the presidential level—for years to come. “Barack Obama was the first Democratic president to clearly benefit from those trends, but he almost certainly will not be the last one,” Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University and an expert on political demographics, wrote in a paper delivered earlier this month at a conference of political scientists, which he provided to msnbc.com.
Indeed, Abramowitz said, demographic changes make the future look so bleak for Republicans—at least at the presidential level—that they’re looking for ways to subvert the process to their advantage. “They’re increasingly desperate,” he told msnbc.com. “In 2012, it was looking for ways to block minority voters. That didn’t work, so let’s try to rig the Electoral College. I think they understand that the situation facing them is very difficult, getting more difficult.”
But politics is more than demographics. For one thing, those demographic shifts have less impact, for now at least, in midterm elections, where the electorate tends to be older and whiter than in presidential years. For consistent success, a strong party organization that can elect Democrats and advance progressive goals into the future will be crucial. And here, the legacy Obama leaves appears more mixed.
By registering 1.8 million new voters in battleground states, Obama for America—the president’s sophisticated and much-praised campaign apparatus—expanded the Democratic electorate.
And the small-donor fundraising operation that was perfected by the Obama campaign will have lasting benefits for Democrats, said Paul Tewes, a veteran Democratic field organizer who served as the Obama campaign’s state director for the Iowa caucuses in 2007-08. “That small donor that gave $50 to Obama, now they sit on a list somewhere that the party can reactivate,” Tewes told msnbc.com. “So on the donor side, it’s light-years ahead” of where it was a decade ago. More broadly, Obama for America will likely end up changing Democratic organizing for good—in part through the power of example, according to Tewes. “That’s the biggest thing Obama’s done, is he’s taught his party how to organize, and how to empower,” Tewes said.
But some Democrats say the focus on Obama for America took resources away from the Democratic National Committee’s party-building mission.
“It’s all about Obama,” Dean told msnbcs Melissa Harris-Perry earlier this month. Dean said that’s par for the course for both the D.N.C. and R.N.C. when there’s an incumbent president of the same party. Still, he said, “we’ve got to see beyond 2012 … This is not about the president, this is about changing the country in a way that can make this country vibrant and whole again.”
Dean has some experience here. As D.N.C. chair from 2005 to 2009, his “50-State Strategy” was designed to build the state parties’ organizing capacities, especially in traditionally red areas of the country. The effort was seen by many as a factor in the Democrats’ success in 2006 and '08—not only in congressional and Senate but also in state-level races. But after Dean left the DNC and Obama took office, the strategy was shelved, and Republicans re-took a slew of statehouses in 2010.
“One of the reasons that we’ve gotten clobbered in legislatures is not just low turnout in the off-year elections, it’s because our parties have gotten weak again at the state level,” Dean told Harris-Perry. Talking to msnbc.com this week, he was blunter. "We had a program in 2006, the 50-State Strategy," he said. "And that didn't happen in 2010." (Dean acknowledged that plenty of other factors, notably the poor economy, also contributed to the defeat.)
Those 2010 losses were particularly costly for Democrats, because they allowed the GOP to control the once-a-decade congressional redistricting process in a number of states. The result: Republicans gerrymandered so successfully that they held onto the House last year even though their candidates received almost 1 million fewer votes across the country.
The Obama campaign relaunches Sunday as Organizing for Action, a non-profit aimed at mobilizing public support for the president's second-term legislative agenda—starting with the gun-violence prevention push. Obama was criticized at times during his first term for not doing more to rally his supporters, instead relying on a more inside Washington strategy to push his agenda. This second-term effort could help keep an army of activists mobilized and engaged—potentially to the ongoing benefit of the party and the progressive movement.
Whether that happens, though, may depend on just how the organization is used, said Marshall Ganz, a Harvard professor and veteran progressive activist who helped develop the hyper-grassroots theory of organizing behind Obama’s electoral campaigns. The legislative campaigns need to be "pursued in such a way that the organization that’s been built is stronger,” Ganz, who has been critical of what he sees as the White House’s neglect of the grassroots during the first term, told msnbc.com. “There are fights that you can get in and lose or win part of what you want, and you come out stronger,” Ganz said. “So I think it’s being strategic about seeing it as a movement-building opportunity, not only as a legislative opportunity."
There are other things Obama could do in his second term to help determine the party's future success. Even as demographics work in Democrats' favor, other structural factors in American politics threaten to cancel that out. The glut of corporate money in politics, exacerbated by the Citizens United decision, as well as Republican efforts to making voting harder for Democratic-leaning groups, together could tilt the electoral playing field toward the GOP. Meanwhile, the routine use of the filibuster has already made passing progressive legislation all but impossible except at the rare times when Democrats hold 60 seats in the Senate.
A coalition of powerful progressive groups recently launched an effort to fight these three structural obstacles by reforming the voting system, cracking down on money in politics, and reining in the filibuster. If Obama energetically backs that campaign, and leaves office having helped to put Democrats back on a level playing field, he'll have gone a long way toward strengthening his party and his movement for years into the future.
That, on top of his policy accomplishments, wouldn't be a bad legacy to leave.