The end of the Age of Obama. It began with high hopes on a winter’s night in Iowa in 2008 and ended in disappointment on a crisp fall day nearly seven years later.
Sure, the president has another two years in office, but he is now the lamest of lame ducks. He is soon to face a House majority that is one of the most Republican since the 1920s, and a Senate, we hope, about to be taken over by a Republican majority. But more than this, he seems to have no friends, and few allies, on Capitol Hill.
One fact of politics that the president never fully grasped is that Congress, not the White House, is the center of our political system. Sure, the president lives in a fancy house, enjoys a full-time chef, and has “Hail to the Chief” played when he enters a room. But Congress is—as Stanford’s Morris Fiorina once put it—“the keystone of the Washington establishment.” The Framers gave pride of place to Congress, making it Article I of the Constitution, and were so worried about its potential power they divided it into two. Ideally, the modern president can use his prestige and acumen to lead Congress, but Obama has fallen far from that ideal. He has treated Congress in a supercilious manner, burned his bridges with Republican leaders, and alienated even Democrats.
With nobody to call on Capitol Hill, the president will have lots of free time over the next two years. He might use some of it to ponder this truth: There are no permanent majorities in American politics. For over a decade, Democrats have been salivating at the prospect of demographic changes propelling them to permanent majority status. Obama in particular has been active on this front, and has ruthlessly divided the country along race, gender, and class lines in the hope of speeding this process along. But he has overlooked two historical realities.
First, demographic change has been part and parcel of the American political landscape since the Founding, and yet the parties adapt. We can go back to the Federalist/Jeffersonian divide of earliest days. The latter enjoyed a demographic edge for a time because of the fast expansion of the West, but the old Federalist ideology eventually became the backbone of the Whigs, who were competitive against the Jacksonians. Federalism and antislavery then inspired the Republicans. So demography “doomed” the ideas of the Federalists, until of course a homespun Illinoisan named Abraham Lincoln united the whole North around a reworked version of their economic program. More recently, consider: In 1928 it was the Catholic vote that flipped Massachusetts from Republican to Democrat. In 2004 a majority of white Massachusetts Catholics gave their vote to George W. Bush, a Methodist from Texas, over John Kerry, a Catholic from Massachusetts.
Second, despite our political class’s pretensions to power, they remain mere pawns in a broader game designed by James Madison. Madison wanted a large republic precisely so demagogues could never build a fractious majority, as has been President Obama’s clear ambition. A society that covers a large space with many people actually makes it harder to do what this president has so long wanted. Per Madison: “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.”
We are seeing this play out right now. Obama’s coalition in 2008 was relatively large—at 53 percent of the vote—but unstable. In a country as vast and diverse as ours, all such coalitions are bound to be unstable. And what we have seen is Republicans poach a critical mass of the Obama vote away, in 2010 and likely in 2014, to foil his agenda. Just as Madison might have expected.
It is well known that this president likes to golf and watch hipster favorites like Game of Thrones, so he probably is too busy to read dusty old books about men who lived long ago. But those who aspire to succeed this sterling mediocrity in the White House would do well to spend their free time a little differently.
We would suggest a careful study of the words and deeds of the Founding generation. There is much to learn from Madison’s complex philosophy, Alexander Hamilton’s innovative economic program, George Washington’s careful and steady management, and Thomas Jefferson’s pragmatic policy of conciliation. Let’s hope our next president grasps that you have to respect our past to lead us effectively into the future.