As Obama ful­filled pol­icy goals, party floun­dered

An un­ex­pected twist of the Obama years

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

In boast­ing about his ten­ure in the White House, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama of­ten cites num­bers like these: 15 mil­lion new jobs, a 4.9 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment rate and 74 months of con­sec­u­tive job growth. There’s one num­ber you will al­most never hear: More than 1,030 seats. That’s the num­ber of spots in state leg­is­la­tures, gov­er­nor’s man­sions and Congress lost by Democrats dur­ing Obama’s pres­i­dency.

It’s a statis­tic that re­veals an un­ex­pected twist of the Obama years: The lead­er­ship of the one­time com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer and cham­pion of ground-up pol­i­tics was rough on the grass­roots of his own party. When Obama ex­its the White House, he’ll leave be­hind a Demo­cratic Party that lan­guished in his shadow for years and is search­ing for it­self.

“What’s hap­pened on the ground is that vot­ers have been pun­ish­ing Democrats for eight solid years - it’s been ex­haust­ing,” said South Carolina state Sen. Vin­cent She­heen. “If I was talk­ing about a lo­cal or state is­sue, vot­ers would al­ways lapse back into a na­tional topic: Barack Obama.” When Obama won the pres­i­dency, his elec­tion was her­alded as a mo­ment of Demo­cratic dom­i­nance - the crash­ing of a con­ser­va­tive wave that had swept the coun­try since the dawn of the Rea­gan era.

Democrats be­lieved that the coali­tion of young, mi­nor­ity and fe­male vot­ers who swept Obama into the White House would usher in some­thing new: an as­cen­dant Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity that would en­sure party gains for decades to come. The coali­tion, it turns out, was Obama’s alone. Af­ter this year’s elec­tions, Democrats hold the gov­er­nor’s of­fice and both leg­isla­tive cham­bers in just five coastal states: Ore­gon, Cal­i­for­nia, Con­necti­cut, Rhode Is­land and Delaware. Repub­li­cans have the tri­fecta in 25, giv­ing them con­trol of a broad swath of the middle of the coun­try.

Im­por­tant ac­tion

The de­feats have all but wiped out a gen­er­a­tion of young Democrats, leav­ing the party with lim­ited power in state­houses and a thin bench to chal­lenge an as­cen­dant GOP ma­jor­ity ea­ger to undo many of the pres­i­dent’s poli­cies. To be sure, the pres­i­dent’s party al­most al­ways loses seats in midterm elec­tions. But, say ex­perts, Obama’s ten­ure has marked the great­est num­ber of losses un­der any pres­i­dent in decades.

“Obama just fig­ured his im­por­tant ac­tions on poli­cies like im­mi­gra­tion and health care would so­lid­ify sup­port, but that hasn’t re­ally ma­te­ri­al­ized,” said Daniel Galvin, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at North­west­ern Univer­sity and the au­thor of a book on pres­i­den­tial party build­ing. “He’s done ba­si­cally the min­i­mal amount of party build­ing, and it’s been in­suf­fi­cient to help the party.”

It’s a po­lit­i­cal reality that Obama has only been will­ing to ac­knowl­edge pub­licly af­ter his party’s dev­as­tat­ing Novem­ber losses. He’s ad­mit­ted he failed to cre­ate “a sus­tain­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion” around the po­lit­i­cal force that twice elected him to of­fice. “That’s some­thing I would have liked to have done more of, but it’s kind of hard to do when you’re also deal­ing with a whole bunch of is­sues here in the White House,” he said at his year-end press con­fer­ence.

It is per­haps not sur­pris­ing that Obama - a politi­cian who promised a post-party era turned out not to be a party stal­wart. Obama and his aides came into of­fice nei­ther be­holden to his party’s estab­lish­ment, nor par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in re­in­forc­ing his party’s weak spots. He elec­tri­fied the 2004 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion with a speech seek­ing com­mon cause over party dif­fer­ences. Four years later, he de­feated Hil­lary Clin­ton, the pick of the party in­sid­ers, to win the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion.

In the White House, Obama’s fail­ure to do the typ­i­cal Wash­ing­ton schmooz­ing was a con­stant source of com­plaint among con­gres­sional Democrats, as was his re­luc­tance to en­dorse down-bal­lot can­di­dates and in­abil­ity to par­lay Or­ga­niz­ing for Ac­tion, his grass­roots or­ga­ni­za­tion, into a sig­nif­i­cant force. State par­ties lan­guished and the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee strug­gled with dys­func­tion and debt.

“We built this beau­ti­ful house, but the foun­da­tion is rot­ten,” said South Carolina Demo­cratic Chair­man Jaime Har­ri­son, a can­di­date to lead the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee. “In hind­sight we should have looked at this and said, ‘Maybe the state par­ties should be strong.’” To­ward the end of his pres­i­dency, Obama be­gan do­ing more, step­ping in to as­sist more than 150 state leg­isla­tive can­di­dates in Oc­to­ber and cam­paign­ing across the coun­try for Clin­ton.

Strate­gic mis­take

He’s in­di­cated he in­tends to make par­ti­san pol­i­tics a big­ger piece of his post-pres­i­den­tial life. Aides say Obama will be closely in­volved in an ef­fort to fo­cus on drawing dis­trict lines more in the fa­vor of Democrats. The pres­i­dent’s ad­vis­ers blame the losses on such struc­tural trends. They point to a flood of Repub­li­can su­per PAC dol­lars and a resur­gence of Repub­li­can po­lit­i­cal power in state­houses. That state-level dom­i­nance has given Repub­li­cans the abil­ity to re­draw dis­trict lines and cre­ated vot­ing rules that could ben­e­fit their party for years to come.

The re­fusal by many Democrats to ac­cept help from Obama in the 2010 and 2014 midterms was also a strate­gic mis­take, they ar­gue. “Frankly, when peo­ple have asked, the pres­i­dent has been more than will­ing to en­gage,” said David Si­mas, Obama’s po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tor. Some Democrats blame Obama for an ex­ec­u­tive agenda that high­lighted so­cial is­sues such as trans­gen­der rights and ac­cess to birth con­trol - over the eco­nomic anx­i­ety still felt by many vot­ers.

“The backlash to the Obama pres­i­dency was per­haps big­ger than any of us re­ally re­al­ized,” said Si­mon Rosenberg, pres­i­dent of the New Demo­cratic Net­work, a Demo­cratic think tank. “A lot of the story of this elec­tion was peo­ple feel­ing like the cul­ture was evolv­ing in a way that made it feel like they were no longer liv­ing in the coun­try they grew up in.”

Oth­ers are fo­cus­ing on the one clear truth of the Novem­ber de­feats: What worked for Obama just did not work for this party. Per­haps the most re­mark­able twist of a shock­ing po­lit­i­cal sea­son? Even as vot­ers chose to elect a suc­ces­sor who vows to undo most of Obama’s legacy, his ap­proval rat­ing re­mains the high­est it’s been since the spring of 2009. — AP

BOSTON: In this July 27, 2004, file photo, Barack Obama, then-can­di­date for the Se­nate from Illi­nois, speaks to del­e­gates dur­ing the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion at the FleetCen­ter. — AP

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