At the heart of President Obama's pitch to voters in 2008 was the idea that he was uniquely suited -- because of his personal and professional background -- to solve the partisan gridlock in Washington.
"When Washington doesn't work, all its promises seem empty," Obama said in his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. "If your hopes have been dashed again and again, then it's best to stop hoping and settle for what you already know. I get it. I realize that I am not the likeliest candidate for this office. I don't fit the typical pedigree, and I haven't spent my career in the halls of Washington." In a February 2008 debate with Hillary Clinton, that uniqueness was at the center of Obama's appeal to Democratic voters; "I think I'm better as the nominee is that I can bring this country together I think in a unique way, across divisions of race, religion, region," he said.
Turns out that Obama's unlikely background was no better able to solve the big intractable partisan problems that have ground Washington to a halt than the more "traditional" politicians he had followed into office. With the exception of passing health care reform -- a process that dragged on (and on) and likely cost Democrats their House majority in 2010 -- Obama has struggled to wrack up major accomplishments on "big" issues like debt and spending issues and immigration. (Where the blame lies for those failures is usually in the eye of the beholder. But that Obama has failed to break partisan gridlock is not up for debate.)
Obama's failures to fundamentally change Washington are a bad thing for his legacy. But, they may well help Hillary Clinton win the race to succeed him in two years time.
That's the argument Noam Scheiber -- a Fix friend -- makes in an interesting piece for The New Republic that seeks to understand why Clinton is so popular among liberals despite not sharing their populist sentiments. Writes Scheiber:
While just about all of the liberals I spoke with admire [Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth] Warren, and still want to see the Washington establishment upended, Obama has soured most of them on the idea that a politician can pull it off. “I will tell you, as much of a dreamer as I had been, I’m now somewhat jaded about Obama,” Jay Brown told me. “Clinton has impressed me with her tenacity and capacity for compromise.”
Scheiber goes on to quote Larry Grisolano, a member of Obama's political inner circle, making a similar point; “It may be that coming out of this period, where Congress has been so obstinate, so difficult to move ... that people are looking for someone whose central skill is how to work the power structure," Grisolano told Scheiber.
That's an absolutely stunning reversal from how Democrats thought about the 2008 campaign. In that race, Obama repeatedly savaged Clinton as a politician of the status quo -- someone who had been in Washington so long that she had no idea how to really change it. "Senator Clinton, I think, equates experience with longevity in Washington," Obama said in that Ohio debate in 2008. "I don't think the American people do and I don't think that if you look at the judgments that we've made over the last several years, that that's the accurate measure."
Six years on, it appears that Democrats who voted for Obama's big changes are now pining for (or at least content with) the smaller bore changes Clinton seems to represent. (Scheiber quotes Mark Schmitt, who, in 2007, wrote a piece about how Obama's ability to bring change was greater than Clinton, saying: "The Clinton mode of grind something out, don’t promise transformative change you can’t possibly deliver—that strategy looks a lot sounder six years later.")
In 2008, Democratic voters wanted a candidate who wanted to end the political game-playing. In 2016, they may want one who has mastered the rules of the game. Political idealism replaced by political pragmatism -- in the wake of the failure of that idealism (though we could argue Obama is more a pragmatist than an idealist) to carry the day in Washington over the past six-plus years.
While Scheiber's piece attributes that change from idealism to pragmatism almost exclusively to Obama's struggles, it may also be influenced by Democratic worries that Republicans will control both the House and the Senate in 2016. If that scenario comes to pass -- and Republicans are at least a 50-50 shot to win the Senate this fall -- then Clinton's "grinding" strategy might be the only way Democrats get anything they want out of Washington.