Obama’s Democratic majority coalition

Obama’s legacy will be largely dependent on the political movement he leaves behind.

Part of Franklin D Roosevelt's legacy was creating a political movement - the New Deal Coalition - that dominated American politics till at least the 1960s [AP]

A lot of ink is being spilt following America’s presidential election on what Republicans need to do to recover from their loss. Having narrowed their base to ageing, upper-income white men the conservative party is increasingly detached from American voters who are none of the above. Too bad. 

Less is heard about the Democrats’ political needs to consolidate their own base – women, young people, minorities – into a self-aware political movement that has a chance of becoming a majority coalition well into the future. Unfortunately it’s not clear how much of a priority the president is giving this. 

In his eloquent victory speech on election night, President Obama made a curious statement. He said, “I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties.” While a gesture of reconciliation, it neglects a rather significant fact: He is the leader of one of those parties. Instead the president distressingly positions himself as between, if not above, both political parties. 

In the same speech thanking the people and groups who helped win his reelection he did not mention the Democratic party. 

This is not mere quibbling over who deserves credit. It underlines how the president sees the election results and the tasks that lie ahead for him and his party.

A great president’s legacy does not lie merely in the programmes he passes, the legislation he enacts, the wars he fights. It also lies in the political movement he leads and leaves behind.”

The media buzz in Washington in the aftermath of the election has focused on bipartisan cooperation. Reaching for consensus across party lines continues as a key part of the president’s emotional makeup and the way he defines himself as a national leader. At this point, questioning the value of compromise seems downright unpatriotic. 

There is nothing wrong with negotiating with the other party to reach agreements. In a federal government that remains as divided after the election as it was before, concessions will undoubtedly be necessary – which will cost or benefit certain groups at the expense of others – to get major legislation passed. But to what ends? Whose policies, values and interests are being served? Government policies speaking to the country’s major issues – taxes? Immigration? Entitlement programmes? Financial regulation? Americans elected their leaders to make those choices.

These decisions have political consequences as well, and they should. The Democrats’ political objectives are not difficult to uncover – they need to strengthen and expand the coalition that elected the president. There is nothing wrong or narrowly partisan in this. It is why democracies have competitive elections – to choose between differing approaches to governing and the competing interests they represent.

Accomplishing these objectives are also central to the much discussed “legacy” of President Obama.

A great president’s legacy does not lie merely in the programmes he passes, the legislation he enacts, the wars he fights. It also lies in the political movement he leads and leaves behind. It rests in his ability to articulate the goals of these diverse groups, shape them into a self-aware political movement and give them enough rewards to retain their loyalty.

President Franklin D Roosevelt is justly honoured for the government programmes, called the New Deal that he created to pull the country out of the Great Depression of the 1930s. His administration’s actions played the role of midwife to a political movement, the New Deal Coalition, that in reduced form persists down to the present. Composed of labour, ethnic minorities, urban political machines, small farmers and southern conservatives, it dominated American politics through at least the 1960s. FDR, and his Democratic successors, used government to protect supporters, like workers unions, retirees, and farmers from powerful economic interests. In doing so, he cemented a coalition that President Obama has inherited. FDR is a historical figure today largely because of this political achievement. 

The 2012 election has important consequences for America’s government. It means that Obama’s first term achievements in health care, financial reform and funding for a host of government activities will not be repealed. And it allows him to continue reforms in areas of debt reduction, taxes, immigration and climate change.

But it also provides him the opportunity to strengthen the political coalition that kept him in power. These supporters -youth, working class, liberals, minorities, women, environmentalists – need more than just being mobilised through a high-tech cadre to vote in every election. They need to be incorporated and represented in an invigorated Democratic party, and its administration. That means the new Cabinet members, the legislative agenda, and the White House communications to the country need to reflect a Democratic party rising to become a national voice for average Americans. 

The potential for this political realignment is there. If seized by the Obama team this majority coalition would be a legacy worth preserving.

Gary Wasserman is professor of government at Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Qatar. He received his PhD with Distinction at Columbia University. He is the author of The Basics of American Politics (14th ed) and Politics in Action (2012). He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy and Political Science Quarterly.