What Does Obama’s Good Fortune Mean for the Future of the Democratic Party?

This week brings positive news about recent economic growth. Paired with falling gas prices, this looks like good news for Obama (a bit late). Brendan Nyhan explains why the administration can be cautiously optimistic about the impact on the president’s popularity. Andrew Sullivan questions whether Obama is a “good closer” and cites last week’s move toward normalizing relations with Cuba along with economic gains, healthcare, and foreign policy (including, but not limited to, last week’s move toward normalizing relations with Cuba). Columnists across the ideological spectrum, from Ed Kilgore to Reihan Salam, have asked how this will shape the Republicans’ strategy and status as the 2016 presidential race (sort of) nears.

But the administration’s final two years will have implications for the direction of the Democratic Party, too. The questions facing the party – real and perceived, new and old – have been prominent here at Mischiefs of Faction this week. They’ve also been swirling around in the news cycle for awhile, as we consider whether Elizabeth Warren will run and what it would mean if she did. As unlikely as a Warren bid may be, the possibility of her candidacy represents one kind of potential future for the party: more liberal, more economically populist. In other words, a break from the party of the Clintons and Obama, who have been criticized from the left for their connections with and lenience toward major financial institutions.

Meanwhile, the New York Times’ Jacob Heilbrunn has declared that the “real threat” to Hillary Clinton is not Elizabeth Warren, but rather former Virginia Senator Jim Webb. I’m not sure I’m ready to sign on to the central argument there, but, once again, the ideas represented by a potential Webb candidacy (he has formed an exploratory committee) are important even if the presidential bid never takes off. Webb’s critiques of the both parties include both involvement in the Middle East and the federal deficit. Webb’s economic ideas are somewhat difficult to pin down; there’s a definite populist undertone, but he’s clearly a different kind of Democrat than Warren. Back in 2008 (when they were still a thing), the moderate Democratic Leadership Council named Webb their “New Dem of the Week.” A few months ago, Daily Kos offered a typically impassioned but well-sourced argument that Webb is “more Reagan Democrat than Progressive Populist.”

How do recent events figure into all of this? Most obviously, if economic numbers and approval ratings continue to climb – this would need to continue into 2016 (the actual year and not just the election cycle, which has been under way for awhile) – the Democratic candidate has a much better shot at winning. These are what political scientists call the fundamentals, and they matter.

Each stage of the election and transition will require the candidates to position themselves with respect to the actions of the Obama administration. Questions (for Democrats) will include whether to turn to the left on economic issues, and whether to pursue the lines of inquiry that Obama has begun to open with regard to whether work actually does pay enough to live and whether inequality constitutes a crisis of justice. Questions persist outside economic issues, too. Will the next stage of the Democratic Party maintain the mixed status quo with regard to the drug war, crime and punishment, and immigration, allowing incremental change to occur through enforcement and subnational policy change? Or will the national party’s policy stance “evolve” as it has toward marriage equality?

These questions are typically depicted as a dilemmas about the different parts of the Democratic coalition. But coalitions and their interests are not static. Depending on policies, proposals, and other context, the way that group interests translate into politics can change. Improved economic conditions could weaken the impetus for a move to the left on economic issues, and strengthen the case for a Democratic Party that continues, rather than pulls away from, Obama’s legacy.

For social issues, the future picture is less clear. The “post-materialism” thesis suggests that a sound economy will open the way for discussion of social issues. But evidence from the late 1990s doesn’t necessarily support that in the case of the Democrats. Another line of thinking suggests that with more resources to go around, the parties may not be so fiercely competitive. This would be good for negotiation and policy-making, but not so good for those who think the Democratic Party should move to the left on economic and social issues. Without such a strong pull to differentiate from and compete with the Republicans, the Democrats might not have much incentive to stake out new ground.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.