Obama's legacy for the Democratic Party


Ever since the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presidents have been judged on the successes they notch during their first 100 days. Now, as Barack Obama prepares to end his historic turn on the political stage, Yahoo News is running The Last 100 Days, a look at what Obama achieved during his consequential presidency, how he navigates the struggles of his last months in office and what lies ahead for him after eight years filled with firsts. We will also look at how the country bids farewell to its first African-American president.

It’s not a literal 100 days — Obama leaves office in late January 2017.

And it won’t all be about policy. As Obama himself is fond of noting, he also spent his two terms as father to daughters Malia and Sasha and husband to first lady Michelle Obama. And even without much input from the White House, the cultural landscape shifted dramatically over his two terms on issues such as gay rights.

And then there’s the way the president sees the presidency — not just his tumultuous years at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but also the institution and its relationships (for better or worse) with other branches of government and with the news media.

In this tenth installment, we look at Obama’s legacy for the Democratic Party, which has suffered a pair of brutal midterm elections under his watch.

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On Nov. 2, 2015, long before Donald Trump captured the Republican presidential nomination, and an eternity before the former reality-show star faced politically punishing accusations from women of sexual assault, GOP strategist (and “Never Trump” stalwart) Rory Cooper took stock of Democratic losses during President Obama’s two terms.

“Under President Obama, Democrats have lost 900+ state legislature seats, 12 governors, 69 House seats, 13 Senate seats. That’s some legacy,” he tweeted.

Nearly a year later, weeks shy of the election, and watching Trump’s battleground-state poll numbers droop, Obama’s job approval ratings rise, and Democrats increasingly bullish about their prospects, Cooper reassessed the situation.

Obama “should pay for the open bar on election night for Republicans,” Cooper told Yahoo News. “We gave him a nice approval rating to go out on, and we’ll give him back a lot of the down-ballot losses he earned, all because of Trump.”

Obama’s legacy is bound up in the uncertain future of a series of consequential achievements, including Obamacare, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the Wall Street reforms known as Dodd-Frank. But his impact on the Democratic Party — and the prospects for at least partly reversing the party’s slide — will matter as well.

After all, Republicans in Congress and in governors’ mansions could mount fresh attacks on his signature health care law and his other domestic achievements. GOP-held legislatures will get another shot at drawing up congressional districts to their advantage after the 2020 census. And future presidents could decide whether or not to continue his outreach to Iran and to Cuba. Democrats shored up by Obama this year — not just his designated heir, Hillary Clinton, but in Congress and elsewhere — could defend his legacy and provide some measure of political redemption for a president sometimes accused of not caring enough about his party.

Cooper’s math is basically accurate (and especially stark at the state level, according to a PolitiFact analysis). At least one expert assessment has judged Obama’s record as historically bad by comparison with that of other two-term presidents after World War II. In 2010, Republicans won 6 Senate seats, giving them a total of 47, and recaptured the House majority, with a 63-seat gain. Voters thinned the GOP’s ranks in 2012, but in 2014, Republicans retook the majority in the Senate with a 9-seat gain and broadened their House majority by seizing 13 seats.

Whether Cooper’s tally of Democratic losses is entirely fair to the president is a matter for debate. That’s because it starts with the results of the 2008 election. Obama’s historic victory, the financial crisis and the unpopular Iraq War helped some Democrats win who might have been doomed in other years. The party that year gained a net 8 seats in the Senate, and 21 in the House of Representatives. In addition, in 2006, Democrats had made historically significant gains, retaking the House, winning a net 6 Senate seats and a majority of governorships. If American politics are on a pendulum, this argument goes, you might have expected that the situation would swing back, no matter who was sitting in the Oval Office. Still, the fact remains that Obama’s party has been in retreat on his watch.

Democrats say that they have high hopes for retaking some of the ground lost under Obama, a view shared inside the West Wing. “For the president, after bad runs in 2010 and 2014, this would be redemption,” one Democratic strategist told Yahoo News this week, on condition of anonymity.

While the White House doesn’t like that word “redemption,” the president would love to help retake the Senate and potentially the House (a much more difficult proposition), as well as to increase the ranks of Democratic governors. “No doubt about it,” a senior administration official told Yahoo News this week.

“We don’t really view this as redemption, as much as it’s an opportunity to use his deep reservoir of political support and influence to benefit Democrats up and down the ballot,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Obama, whose job approval ratings have climbed to second-term highs, has hit the trail with relish, visiting battleground states like North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio just this week. Candidates have welcomed his endorsement — 25 so far, but Democratic officials say to expect more. On Wednesday, Obama taped interviews with two radio stations in Florida and another in Ohio. He has a heavy schedule ahead, with rallies and fundraisers, but those are hardly his only weapons.

“He’s going to record a bunch of robocalls and radio ads and TV ads, [and be on] social media,” the official said. “He’ll be visible in a variety of ways for Democrats, even if he does not travel to their state.”

First lady Michelle Obama has also hit the trail, as has Vice President Joe Biden. Both have publicly denounced Trump’s recently revealed comments boasting of grabbing and kissing women without their consent.

And the White House thinks Democrats have learned to embrace the president.

“In 2014, he wasn’t exactly invited to participate. And that’s a strategy that didn’t really benefit Democrats,” the senior official said. “This time, he is invited to participate, and there are Democrats across the country that benefit.”

Until the latest wave of bombshell allegations against Trump, which include sexual assault, threatened to swamp their nominee, Republicans had expressed confidence that they could hold the Senate, noting that their candidates in some battleground states are likely to outperform the self-described billionaire.

“I don’t think we’re going to lose a single Senate seat because of Donald Trump,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told NBC News in July. “We have a lot of incumbents up, so we’re very much on defense this cycle. But that was true no matter who the nominee was going to be. Each of them are very capable, very well-funded and, in my view, are going to win.”

McConnell, who was referring to the fact that the GOP is defending 24 of the 34 seats up for grabs in less than a month, has refused to comment on the race since. And Republicans privately concede that Trump — given their congressional candidates’ struggles over whether to endorse him, un-endorse him or re-endorse him — could tip enough races to hand the Senate to the president’s party.

Still, veteran Democratic strategists caution their party’s supporters against irrational exuberance.

“It’s going to be very, very tough, virtually impossible, for Democrats to retake the House,” said Mitch Stewart, who ran the battleground states operation for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. On the other hand, he said, after “really, really bad years” in 2010 and 2014, Democrats can take “a big step forward” in terms of winning House seats, and are “certainly more optimistic, with reason” about the Senate.

Republicans have several advantages when it comes to the House. They ran the table in the redrawing of congressional districts after the 2010 census, doing so to their advantage. Incumbents — even in this supposed change election — are running strong. Democrats could in theory retake the House, but they’d need to flip 30 GOP seats. This isn’t impossible, especially in a year in which Trump has rewritten some of the old rules of U.S. politics.

So the bulk of the work of restoring the Democratic Party is likely to occur after Obama leaves office. And that work won’t be about Congress — it’ll be about governors. The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) last year announced plans to target governors’ races in 18 battleground states over the next two years, hoping to expand the party’s influence over the redrawing of congressional districts that is scheduled for after the 2020 census. Nine of those states went to Obama in 2008 and 2012. According to the DGA, the result could be as many as 44 House seats tipping back into the Democratic column.

In other words, when it comes to the health of the Democratic Party, Obama’s record may largely be written after he’s gone.

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