Why Obama Will Be a Different Ex-President

Oliver Willis speculates that the Trump administration may face a formidable opposition in the form of a “shadow government” led by President Obama. As evidence, he cites comments Obama just made in Peru.

“I want to be respectful of the office and give the president-elect an opportunity to put forward his platform and his arguments without somebody popping off in every instance.”

But he added, “As an American citizen who cares deeply about our country, if there are issues that have less to do with the specifics of some legislative proposal or battle but go to core questions about our values and our ideals, and if I think that it’s necessary or helpful for me to defend those ideals, then I’ll examine it when it comes.”

Willis also mentions Obama’s high approval numbers which are currently being measured in the mid-to-high fifties.

I have a slightly different way of looking at this. The last time we had a switch in government as jarring as the one we’re about to experience was in 1932. But, in that case, FDR was elected with over 57% of the vote, the Republicans lost 101 seats in the House of Representatives and 12 seats in the Senate. The country was also in the midst of the Great Depression and the outgoing administration was thoroughly discredited. In our present situation, the outgoing president is not only popular and respected but his designated successor is currently ahead in the popular vote by approximately 1.7 million votes.

FDR’s New Deal coalition would go on to win four more presidential elections in a row before being knocked out of power by General Eisenhower. But there are two things to consider about Eisenhower. The first is that he was not an ideological Republican and he did not attempt to undo Roosevelt and Truman’s legacy root-and-branch. The second is that while he did bring in Republican majorities with him, they were so unpopular that the both the Senate and the House were lost to the Republicans after a single two-year Congress, and those majorities were not won back for twenty-six years (in the case of the Senate) and forty years (in the case of the House).

When Kennedy replaced Eisenhower they was certainly a powerful backlash, particularly from those who were unhappy with his Cuban policies, but there really wasn’t a dramatic shift in the direction of the country. In any case, the nation was more divided over civil rights than over the presidency.

By the time the Nixon administration came into power, the country was split in all kinds of ways and the New Deal coalition was coming apart. But Nixon still had to reckon with a Democratic Congress and he made accommodations to the preexisting postwar framework of government rather than attempting to fundamentally transform it. His lasting legacy was more in giving us a conservative Supreme Court which has persisted to this day.

The Carter administration looks like an anomaly in retrospect. It was a restoration, in a sense, but one that bucked the national trend toward more conservative governance. It seems to me that his unpopularity was more performance driven than natural backlash, though he was operating “out of time.”

Reagan’s election presented us with the biggest jolt since 1932, but even here Reagan had to deal with a Democratic House of Representatives that limited his ambitions. There was a backlash that showed up in the 1982 midterms, and it many have been greater if there hadn’t been a near-fatal assassination attempt that muted criticism and gained Reagan good will.

It was Bill Clinton’s election that created the biggest backlash, resulting in the Gingrich Revolution and marking the final end of New Deal dominance in Congress. Clinton was elected with only 43% of the vote, which seems more important in light of subsequent events than it seemed at the time.

George W. Bush’s election in 2000 was controversial both because he lost the popular vote and because the Supreme Court had to intervene to decide that he had won the Electoral College vote and the presidency. But, like Reagan, a calamitous event in his first year in office muted criticism and gained him a lot of good will.

When Barack Obama entered office, he was replacing a spent force and an administration nearly as discredited as Herbert Hoover had been seventy-six years prior. It may have been partly courtesy that Bush didn’t comment publicly on the performance of his successor, but it was largely because no one seemed to want to hear from him. Nonetheless, there was a very strong backlash against Obama’s first two years in office which had brought in more sweeping changes than any since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in the first two years after his 1964 election.

One lesson here is that it’s normal for there to be a strong reaction against any presidency that brings fundamental changes almost irrespective of how sweeping those changes are. Only FDR escaped this pattern.

Another lesson is that presidents can weather these storms and win reelection.

But the biggest thing I want you to take away is that it is highly unusual for there to be as big a swing in power between the two parties as what we’re about to experience. Other than the example of Hoover and FDR, we can see only partial parallels. LBJ’s 1964 landslide changed the political landscape not by switching which party had power but by giving the president’s party enough additional power to roll over both internal dissenters and the opposition. Reagan’s power was expressed more radically in the Executive Branch than legislatively, as he always faced divided government. And George W. Bush enjoyed intermittent control of Congress during his first six years in office, but faced a more robust filibuster.

Donald Trump lost the popular vote by quite a lot. He didn’t win the endorsement of single major circulation paper not owned by Sheldon Adelson. The intelligentsia of his own party opposed him with fury and looks at his presidency with much more trepidation than enthusiasm. Even the most favorable post-election honeymoon polls only give him a 46%-46% approval rating. And yet he promises to bring disruptive change and has the power to do it.

As we’ve seen, even presidents with clear popular vote victories experience strong pushback, especially when they have the power to disrupt the system. But Trump is likely to experience a much shorter honeymoon and a much more furious backlash. Unlike FDR and LBJ, he did not win in a landslide. Unlike Nixon and Reagan, Congress cannot constrain him. Unlike Obama and the Younger Bush, he is not replacing a discredited president.

In these circumstances, Barack Obama occupies a position without modern precedent. He is more popular than his successor and its his legacy that will be dismantled.

If he chooses to be a critic, he will be a powerful thorn in Trump’s side.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.