The Revolutionary President: We'll All Be Studying Obama Politics For Generations to Come


The president was coolly eyeing American history in order to carve his own grand place in it, the guests said in interviews later. “It was almost as if he was writing his own history book about himself,” said David M. Kennedy, a professor at Stanford University.  -- New York Times

With his decisive victory in the 2012 election, Barack Obama became the first president to win more than 50% of the popular vote twice since Ronald Reagan. It certainly wasn’t an overwhelming majority, and many Republicans are already wondering how they blew the chance to defeat a relatively weak incumbent. However, if you take a step back and look at 2012 within the context of the last century of American politics, you can see the opportunity Obama has in front of him in his second term.

The theory of a “realigning election” is one of the oldest in political science. The root of the idea is that the American political system “re-aligns” over the course of a 30-year span, roughly equivalent to one generation of voters. Over enough time, the most pressing issues in politics change, while the solutions that worked in one era become less effective, if not counter-productive, to the problems of a new one.

Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s chief strategist, was said to be fascinated with the idea, often comparing himself to Mark Hanna, William McKinley’s strategist in the 1896 election. McKinley’s victory in 1896 over William Jennings Bryan represented the triumph of industry over agriculture, ushering in a new industrial era that dominated American politics over the next generation. Then from 1896 you go to 1932, with FDR and the New Deal, and on to 1980, with Reagan’s “Morning in America” and the rise of the modern conservative movement.

Of course, this is a broad sketch of history, smoothing over and omitting huge political fluctuations that occurred within these 30+ year periods. Several other presidential elections, like 1972 (Nixon) and 1964 (LBJ), featured massive landslides but didn’t permanently alter the terrain of electoral politics. Both Nixon and LBJ were ultimately undone by Watergate and Vietnam, respectively, unable to translate their success to their party and the broader coalition they represented.

Reagan, in contrast, took office after the failure of Jimmy Carter, the last Democrat to win with FDR’s “New Deal” coalition. After receiving only 50.75% of the vote in 1980, Reagan presided over an economic recovery, sky-rocketing his total to 59% and winning 49 of the 50 states in 1984. In the process, he remade the electoral map, helping unite a new coalition of religious, military and economic conservatives that pre-dominated the South, West, and Midwest of the country. 

Republicans won the White House in five of the seven elections between 1980-2004. Bill Clinton, the one Democrat to reach 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in that span, was a political operator of the highest order, yet he didn’t receive 50% of the vote in either 1992 or 1996. Most of his biggest policy achievements, from welfare reform to NAFTA, occurred in primarily Republican terrain. In a sense, he was the Dwight Eisenhower to Reagan’s FDR.

Obama received a higher percentage of the popular vote than Clinton not because he’s a more skilled politician or because he’s presided over a better economy, but because his electorate is more liberal-leaning than Clinton’s. The reason many commentators thought that Obama was unlikely to win in 2012 wasn’t just the slow economic recovery, it was that they hadn’t seen an electorate like 2008 before. Obama’s coalition of young voters, liberals and minorities was the same one used by George McGovern in his 49-1 defeat in 1972.

And just as Republicans have benefitted from “Reagan Democrats,” blue-collar white voters in the Midwest whose parents had been New Deal supporters, Democrats could benefit from a new generation of youth and minority voters for a long time. That was one of the big storylines of 2012: Obama won under-29 voters by 17% and Hispanic voters by an eye-popping 44%. Losing the fastest growing ethnic group in the country by such a wide margin can hardly be considered good news for the Republicans.

That’s the main reason why many political observers think Republicans should moderate their views on immigration reform. However, neither that nor a future presidential run by a Marco Rubio or a Ted Cruz is likely to be a panacea for conservatives. As Matt Yglesias from the left and Heather MacDonald from the right have pointed out, Hispanic voters, even without Republican opposition to immigration, are already predisposed to liking liberal policies. A “grand bargain” on the issue may ultimately prove to be a self-defeating measure: creating millions of new Democratic votes throughout the South and the Midwest and further narrowing Republicans’ electoral map.

As it stands, the map Obama used in 2008 and 2012 is extremely favorable to Democrats. Obama won the popular vote by only 2%, but if you look at the state-by-state results, he could still have won the Electoral College even if he lost the national vote by 2%. He turned once-solid red states like Virginia, Ohio, and Florida blue and traditional swing states like Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Iowa into his base. That didn’t leave too many pathways to 270 electoral votes for either John McCain or Mitt Romney.

Both McCain and Romney ran campaigns implicitly promoting themselves as heirs to Reagan’s legacy and casting Obama as a new edition of Carter, yet those comparisons didn’t hold much power to a generation who know them only through history books. Republicans have campaigned on a strong military, traditional family values and marginal tax cuts to the rich for over 30 years. However, society is now much more socially liberal, Iran isn’t nearly as effective a boogeyman as Soviet Russia and the most pressing economic concerns are debt and income inequality, not stagflation.

The biggest question of Obama’s second term is whether his policies can usher in widespread prosperity, or, at the very least, not stand in the way of it. Presidents only have so much control of the economic conditions, but they tend to receive an outsized share of the credit or the blame for them. Correlation, as the saying goes, does not prove causation, but any policies associated with an economic boom tend to be remembered more positively by voters. 

There will certainly be challenges ahead, starting with the looming “fiscal cliff,” which could conceivably bring the slowly recovering U.S. economy back into a recession. But regardless of who won last Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office estimated last April that 9.6 million jobs will be added to the U.S. economy over the next four years, which wouldn’t constitute a complete recovery but would be a huge improvement from the 1 million jobs added during the last 12.

Statistically modeling politics made Nate Silver a celebrity in 2012, but he first made his name as a baseball analyst, where he helped pioneer ideas like the “marginal value of a win.” Essentially, when building a baseball team, some wins are more important than others. The greatest MLB teams win 100+ regular season games while the worst win around 60. Somewhere in the middle, at around 85, teams can start to sneak into the playoffs. So while going from 65 to 66 wins or 95 to 96 wins isn’t a huge deal, going from 87 to 88 wins, and increasing your chance at reaching the playoff jackpot, is.

For Obama and the Democrats, with a (slowly) recovering economy and an emergent new demographic coalition, the marginal value of every million jobs added in the next four years is extremely high. If he can reward his base economically and turn them into lifelong Democrats, they’ll provide his party with an electoral edge that could last decades.

When Obama first appeared on the national stage in 2004, his greatest appeal came from his perceived ability to transcend politics. However, outside of George Washington, no president, from Reagan to FDR and McKinley to even Lincoln, Jackson and Jefferson, has ever done that. What a select few have been able to do is transcend their political era, leading a coalition that emerged to become the dominant force in electoral politics for the next generation. Due to the color of his skin, Obama has already gone down in history as a revolutionary president; what remains to be seen is whether he will go down as a re-aligning one too.