President Obama Helped Moved the Overton Window to the Left

Here’s how Wikipedia defines the Overton Window:

In political theory, the Overton window is the range of ideas the public will accept. According to the theory, an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within that window, rather than on politicians’ individual preferences.

I was reminded of that when I read the article by Anne Gearan titled: Clinton is Banking on the Obama Coalition to Win.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is running as the most liberal Democratic presidential front-runner in decades, with positions on issues from gay marriage to immigration that would, in past elections, have put her at her party’s precarious left edge…

Clinton’s full embrace of same-sex marriage in the first days of her campaign was followed by clear statements in favor of scrapping get-tough immigration and incarceration policies — many of which took root during her husband’s administration. She has also weighed in with liberal takes on climate change, abortion rights and disparities in income and opportunity between rich and poor.

Essentially she is saying that the reason Hillary Clinton can run on these issues is because the Overton Window has moved to the left. How did that happen? The truth is that the answer to that question is very complex and the movement can be accredited to a lot of different people and factors. But I’ll give you two ways that President Obama contributed.

First, the President demonstrated in both 2008 and 2012 that what we now call the Obama coalition is capable of electing someone to the highest office in the land. Instead of chasing after the so-called Reagan Democrats (as conventional wisdom would have dictated at the time), he bet his cards on his own ability to expand the electorate with people of color and young voters. It worked! Now it’s possible for someone like Hillary Clinton to run for president on the issues that matter to this expanded electorate – which is significantly father to the left than it was when her husband ran in ’92 and ’96.

Secondly, I’d point to something Ron Brownstein wrote a few months ago:

One senior Obama adviser says the administration “To Do list” after 2012 included thinking “about how you lock in the Obama coalition for Democrats going forward. Because it’s not a 100 percent certainty that they come out for the next Democrat.” Part of the answer, the adviser said, was to pursue aggressive unilateral action on “a set of issues where we have an advantage … and believe are substantively the right thing to do” and dare Republicans to oppose him.

Brownstein got that quote in December 2014 when Republicans were reeling at President Obama’s lack of lame-duckness following the Democrats’ losses in the midterm elections. Instead of playing the contrite loser, the President came out swinging with things like executive actions on immigration, a climate deal with China and normalization of our relationship with Cuba, along with smaller executive actions on things like raising the minimum wage and providing family leave for federal contract workers and actions to address the problems with policing.

All of this is what President Obama referred to as his “pen and phone strategy.” The effect was two-fold. First of all, it gave relief to millions of Americans. Secondly, since these moves are favored by the majority of Americans and opposed by Republicans, it set the stage for the agenda in the 2016 campaign. Hillary Clinton is smart to capitalize on that.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.