Obama, Trump, And The New Normal Of Presidential Elections

In 2000, Barack Obama’s career was in jeopardy.

A State Senator in Illinois since 1997, Obama’s loss in the primary for First Congressional District of Illinois to incumbent Bobby Rush seemed to indicate that his political ceiling was a lot lower than he’d hoped. In fact, “loss” might be putting it mildly- Obama was defeated by a margin of two to one, and as he described it on David Axelrod’s “The Axe Files” podcast, “I think [the race] was literally called, like, two minutes after the polls closed.” Having spent all of his money campaigning for the congressional primary and with a wife and child at home (and another child on the way), Obama faced a difficult dilemma: Continue to pursue the higher rungs of elected office and potentially risk his family’s financial security, or call it quits and move to the private sector, thereby throwing in the towel on his political and public service ambitions. He chose to forge ahead with his political career; the rest, in more ways than one, was history.

In 2004, Obama delivered a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention, the contents of which were notable for their earnestness and belief in the innate goodness of Americans:

“Well, I say to [political operatives] tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

With this speech, Obama’s profile skyrocketed; the gamble he took by continuing to chase his political dreams finally began to pay dividends. No longer was he simply an Illinois State Senator and a candidate for the U.S. Senate – he was our President-in-Waiting. Obama spoke like a man who had nothing to lose, because frankly, he didn’t. It was a “win or go home” moment, and Barack Obama rose to the occasion with the passion and grace that would become hallmarks of his tenure as president.

More importantly, he spoke like a man whose every comment hadn’t been focus-grouped and dissected by a team of staffers. He spoke like a man who truly believed in what he was saying. He spoke like a man whose passion hadn’t been eroded by years of political gut-checks, and he resisted the seasoned politician’s habit of couching his beliefs in so much pabulum and noncommittal language that it would be impossible to tell when he changed them. He spoke like a dewy-eyed newcomer to American politics, an idealist who truly believed that elected officials can help the average citizen.

In many ways, he spoke like Donald Trump.

Obama’s speech at the 2004 DNC stirred something in the American people. Therefore, it came as no surprise when he announced his candidacy for president in 2007. Of course, he had to contend with a formidable field in the Democratic primary. Obama’s main opponents were Hillary Clinton, whose credentials and political acumen are widely-documented, and John Edwards, John Kerry’s former running mate and a star in the Democratic Party in his own right.

All things held equal, John Edwards was probably the more significant obstacle to an Obama presidency: he was an immensely likable candidate with populist views who would likely fare well in a general election in the important Southern swing states. Edwards had acquitted himself nicely in the 2004 campaign, avoiding any Quaylean gaffes or scandals and projecting an air of competence that assured voters he would be a fine, upstanding Presidential candidate someday. But Edwards could never drum up enough momentum in key states to establish himself as a viable contender in a general election, and he was forced to bow out of the race.

Hillary Clinton was considered by some to be the no-brainer choice for the Democratic nominee. Hillary had (at least on paper) a wealth of political experience: a two-term U.S. Senator and former First Lady, she could claim familiarity with the inner workings of both Congress and the presidency, something that could not be said for Obama or Edwards. Hillary was also a lifelong politician and skilled in the art of political maneuvering; Obama, with his rosy rhetoric and aspirational speeches, was seen by some in comparison as a political neophyte, not ready for prime time and too unseasoned for anyone (besides him) to confidently declare that he would be prepared to handle the presidency and its attendant challenges.

It didn’t matter. Obama had found his message in 2004, honed it in 2005 and 2006, and never wavered from it once he hit the campaign trail. His candidacy represented the one element that Clinton’s never could: the possibility of real change in American government. And by leveraging his populist appeal, Trump also effectively painted Hillary as the “Washington insider.” To many of Trump’s supporters, Hillary was so far removed from the hopes, dreams, and fears of the average citizen that she could never be trusted to effectively advocate for them as President.

The general election went the same way. John McCain is, by all accounts, a decent man and mostly conscientious legislator with a storied military career and a long history of public service. But Barack Obama precipitated a paradigm shift in the way Americans evaluate their presidential candidates. No longer was a career in government a confidence-inspiring quality in a candidate; if anything, it was a negative attribute. After 2008, the candidate with the most experience was derided as the “establishment” candidate, the slickster politician who had opportunities to make a difference and who had chosen instead to prolong their career in government by doing as little, well, governing as possible. And as one of the longest-tenured U.S. Senators in government, John McCain was simply the wrong candidate for the shifting political climate. In 2008, the choice was simple for voters: cast your ballot for someone who wants to change things, even if they ultimately fail, or cast it for someone who won’t even try.

A very convincing argument could be made that things are much better now than they were before Obama took office. Detailing the specifics would be a fruitless exercise; besides, that’s not the point of this piece. Suffice to say, however, by nearly any metric, the average citizen’s quality of life has likely either improved or, at the very least, stayed the same under the Obama administration. Normally, a performance like the one turned in by the Obama administration would make it nearly impossible for that party’s next nominee to lose in a general election. In a normal election campaign, all the candidate has to do is promise four or eight more years of the same and they’ll have a great chance of winning the general. Or, at least, that’s the way it went before Obama took office.

Now, however, the landscape has changed. The American public has had a taste of transformational, generation-defining elections, and they want more. It is no longer enough to elect “more of the same,” even if “the same” is a successful presidency. Not when the opportunity presents itself to put someone in office who will really shake things up.

Like Obama, Donald Trump campaigned almost exclusively on the idea that what the country needs is a President who will completely shake things up; one who won’t allow their policy proposals to wither on the vine because they are not politically expedient. Obama’s message of change was aspirational, rooted in a fundamental faith in the inherent goodness of people. By contrast, Trump’s message was built on a foundation of fear: the country and the world are changing, and America is on the brink of collapse.

Obama campaigned on the idea that the state of things in America was cause for concern, but that they could be corrected because that’s the power of the American spirit. Trump campaigned on the belief held by a large percentage of the population that things are worse than ever, and that his candidacy represented their last chance to take action. The central premise of both campaigns was the same, even if the presentations of their respective theses were wildly disparate. But in both cases, voters positively responded to the messages, albeit for different reasons.

Donald Trump was elected because either he or those running his campaign understood the transformative nature of Barack Obama’s campaign. To be clear, Trump is not the only one to recognize the power of the “change” message — many politicians have used some form of it over the years with varying degrees of success. But where career politicians have failed to inspire the same level of enthusiasm that Obama did in his first run, Donald Trump succeeded. This is due in part to Obama and Trump’s shared qualities during their campaigns as political newcomers, but a large amount of credit should be given to Trump’s natural talent as a showman.

Furthermore, the importance of a coherent and easily-conveyed platform and message cannot be overstated. Obama understood this, as did Trump, and their messages were straightforward and clear: “Things aren’t working, and it’s time for a change.” By fundamentally altering the manner in which presidential candidates court votes, Barack Obama opened the door in 2008 that Donald Trump walked through in 2016.

On Axelrod’s podcast, Barack Obama claimed that he could have won a third term over Donald Trump: “[I]f I had run again and articulated [the message of hope and change], I think I could’ve mobilized a majority of the American people to rally behind it.” As much as many Americans like to believe this, it isn’t necessarily as cut-and-dried as Obama seems to think. After eight years in the White House, Obama had become as much a member of the “Washington elite” as Hillary, and though he could have sidestepped a lot of the criticism that Trump lobbed at Clinton, Trump’s underlying message would not have required much tailoring in order for it to effectively apply to President Obama.

Donald Trump didn’t win the 2016 election because of Hillary’s emails, her handling of the Benghazi attack, or the goings-on at The Clinton Foundation. He did not win because Bill Clinton is a serial womanizer or because Hillary and Clinton campaign spokesman John Podesta are involved in a child sex-trafficking ring with headquarters in the basement of a D.C.-area pizza parlor. He won because he understood that the American public was thirsty for radical change in government. And no matter what Obama might have said to parry that, to many Americans, Obama’s version of change simply wasn’t enough.

Whether or not Obama realized it at the time, his election set in motion a series of pendulum swings that are likely to produce as much backward movement as they are forward progress. With one simple message, Obama authorized the American people to disregard some accepted norms of politics; namely, that experience and a lifetime of preparation for the presidency are the keys to a successful term in office. And, perversely, it is because his presidency was so successful that America finds itself under the rule of President Donald Trump. In 2008, voters took a chance on electing a candidate who, by all traditional measures, should have been a failure. By succeeding, however, Barack Obama emboldened American voters to continue to cast their ballot for the candidate who is most likely to shake things up.

As the reality of a Donald Trump presidency has taken shape, it is necessary to look beyond Trump; namely, what happens after him? It is unlikely that Trump’s term will yield as many positive legislative results as Obama’s tenure (unless you happen to be a multimillionaire), but unless it is viewed as an unmitigated disaster by all sides, Trump’s reign will further serve as validation of our collective desire to look for the candidate who least resembles our past presidents to lead the country in the future. Moreover, the polarization of American politics means that future elections are likely to hinge on whichever candidate represents the greatest amount of change from the existing norm. Therefore, it is possible that we will simply careen from one “change” candidate to the next, electing whoever can convincingly promise Americans the most radical departure from life under the current administration.

This pinball effect will undoubtedly lead voters to elect presidents in the vein of Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders; in short, candidates who will have a net positive effect on the lives of the American people. Of course, the flip side of that coin is that Americans will also elect presidents in the vein of Donald Trump. The inherent nature of a pendulum is that it swings both ways.

Considering the underwhelming results (to put it kindly) of the Trump administration, that pendulum seems likely to continue to swing, unless a politician in the mold of FDR arrives who can somehow manage to unite both sides of the political discourse. Of course, given the polarized nature of our current political climate, it is just as probable that such a mythical creature would be roundly accused of pandering, and their bipartisan record painted as nothing more than spinelessness in the face of one’s enemies.

More likely, one of two things will occur: Donald Trump’s presidency will serve as a disquieting footnote in American political history, the moment when Americans lost their collective minds before quickly righting the ship. Or, voters will continue to elect more and more “revolutionary” presidents until they finally happen upon one who somehow stumbles into the hallmarks of a successful presidency. Should the latter occur, Americans can then revert to the tradition of electing “more of the same,” just in a different package. That is, at least until the next “change” candidate comes along.

Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign changed the political landscape in America. In the eight years that followed Obama’s election, massive progress was made in the service of social justice, addressing the previously-unacknowledged elephant in the room of climate change, and in political and economic reform. Of course, in the next three ­— or, God forbid, seven — years, a number of changes will be made under President Trump, most of them in service of negating the work done by President Obama. The pendulum has been set in motion, and one thing is certain: Obama ushered in a new era of American politics, and above all else, his enduring legacy will be his empowerment of the American people to allow perfect to become the enemy of good. For better or worse.

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