Barack Obama’s debatable legacy is at the heart of the 2016 presidential campaign. The Republican primary has been, on a significant level, a contest over which candidate can come up with the most extreme hyperbolic language to describe the terrible damage, in their collective view, President Obama has done to the country. These views are the capstone on eight years of relentless attacks on the President for being, among other things, a socialist, incompetent and a dictator.
However, while the GOP might agree on this characterization, it is apparent that the roughly half of all Americans who approve of President Obama, see his eight years in office as positive. The general election, regardless of who is the nominee for each major party, will be framed by these differing views on President Obama.
President Obama’s unpopularity among the Republican presidential candidates is in stark contrast to his popularity within his own party. Most recent polls show that more than 75 percent of Democrats credit the President for doing a good job. This point has not been lost on Hillary Clinton, as she has tried to present herself as in step with Mr. Obama on most major policies.
President Obama’s legacy among Democrats is not, however, that simple. While most Democrats believe he has done a good job, there is still a view among many that he proved to a disappointment. Although President Obama has been vilified as a radical by his political opponents since the moment he came into office, many progressives see him as having governed largely from the center—passing a health care bill that originated as a conservative proposal, not really winding down U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, refusing to go after Wall Street and the like. Although this may sound like the complaints from supporters of Bernie Sanders, there is broad agreement on much of this among progressives 1regardless of who they prefer in the current Democratic presidential primary.
‘Hillary Clinton’s wisdom what that she finally figured out that she needed to embrace President Obama.’
The Clinton campaign characterizes President Obama’s failures as due to Republican obstructionism, while Mr. Sanders argues that Mr. Obama was either insufficiently progressive or captured by the same establishment interested that have controlled American politics since the country’s founding. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. Republicans have done everything in their power since the moment Mr. Obama became President to thwart every one of his proposals. However President Obama also had a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress during his first two years in office and could have more aggressively pushed progressive policies.
These differing views of the Obama presidency is the root of the Sanders criticism of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment. According to his view, electing Democrats will never be the answer for progressive America unless the Democrats themselves fundamentally change. For Ms. Clinton, the solution to the problems facing progressives is to elect more Democrats. Thus, it is no surprise that Ms. Clinton has raised money and support for other Democrats, while Mr. Sanders has done none of that, promising instead a “political revolution” that will occur outside of the Democratic Party.
Although Ms. Cinton would have to stumble very badly to lose the nomination, there is no question that Mr. Sanders’ vision captured the hearts of many Democrats and progressive voters, particularly younger ones. Mr. Sanders, however, will likely come up a little short in his efforts to wrest the nomination from the longtime frontrunner Ms. Clinton. There are many reasons for this including Ms. Clinton’s strong support among the Democratic establishment, the residual appeal of the Clinton brand and Mr. Sanders puzzling failure to reach out to nonwhite voters and communities until relatively late in the process. However, one of the biggest problems facing Mr. Sanders was that his message was uniquely poised to fail because of President Obama.
The argument that the Democrats need to nominate a true progressive with roots in progressive politics from an unconventional background capable of generating extraordinary hope and passion, and that only that kind of candidate can bring about real change, would make more sense if almost anybody else other than Barack Obama—who fits that precise description more than any President in American history—were in the White House. If the incumbent President were a Republican, or a centrist Democrat like Bill Clinton, Mr. Sanders’s message would resonate among more Democrats. This year, however, Mr. Sanders is implicitly asking Democratic voters to see Mr. Obama as part of the establishment problem. Most Democrats don’t want to do that, so Ms. Clinton’s more conventionally partisan appeal is more attractive to them.
Hillary Clinton’s wisdom what that she finally figured out that she needed to embrace President Obama, Mr. Sanders was never positioned to do that.
Lincoln Mitchell in national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.