The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama built a policy legacy. But he didn’t do enough to build the Democratic Party

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

President Obama has devoted most of his energies over the past eight years to building a policy legacy. He will leave office with many durable successes, from the economic recovery to the revived auto industry, the killing of bin Laden to new administrative rules and rulings that will be difficult to reverse.

But President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican Congress have vowed to undo many of Obama’s other major accomplishments. Reports suggest they will move quickly to dismantle key legislation (Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank), reverse executive orders (gun control, immigration), renegotiate treaties (climate change, TPP, Iran) and block regulations (deportation enforcement, environmental regulation). Democrats will have few ways to stop them. (All hopes hang on the survival of the filibuster.)

Clearly, policy accomplishments are only as durable as their political supports are strong. And President Obama, like most modern Democratic presidents, did not do enough to build up those political supports.

Democratic presidents often shortchange their party

As I discuss in my book on presidents and party-building, presidents can decide whether to invest their time and resources in building a policy legacy, a party legacy or both. Republicans have historically pursued both assiduously, while Democrats have almost exclusively gone the policy route.

For example, Republicans raised money for their party and helped to fund down-ballot races. They helped to strengthen state parties. They helped to recruit quality candidates. They directed resources to voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. They worked to cultivate and train a new generation of activists and campaign operatives.

Democratic presidents in earlier eras had different priorities. With deep and durable majorities in Congress, state and local politics, and national party identification, they focused on policy accomplishments and left the party-building project to others, especially out-party chairmen during Republican administrations. John F. Kennedy exploited his party while making precious few investments in its capacities; Lyndon Johnson undercut his party and drained it of its resources; Jimmy Carter neglected and exploited it.

Bill Clinton followed the same pattern until his second term, when in response to his party’s flagging electoral fortunes, he launched a number of party-building programs. But the start-up costs were high and the downstream gains were gradual, with the biggest steps forward taking place during Howard Dean’s tenure as Democratic National Committee chairman a few years later (2005-2009).

Obama’s limited party-building

Obama, like Clinton before him, also responded to his party’s weakened competitive electoral position by making a handful of party-building moves in his second term. Not enough, though, to prevent the decimation of his party’s electoral standing or equip it to resist the rapid rollback of his policy legacy.

Obama does have two months left in office. But there is enough of a public record to begin taking stock:

  • Obama campaigned hard for Clinton and several congressional candidates in 2016 and helped raise money for them as well as state parties in earlier years, as Brendan Doherty has shown. But campaign chairman John Podesta evidently found Obama to be “prissy” when it came to fundraising for super PACs, which have become increasingly important to campaigns.
  • His team launched the nonprofit group Organizing for Action (OFA) in 2013, which as Sidney Milkis and John York have shown, may very well may endure as a force for promoting progressive policies in the future. But Obama appears to have done little to help build a progressive organizational network at the state level, which Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Theda Skocpol have demonstrated is woefully lacking on the left. Nor has he done much to help revitalize dying labor unions.
  • And after years of delay, Obama finally handed the technological infrastructure and analytic tools of his presidential campaign over to the DNC (“Project Ivy”) in 2014, which is one crucial party-building move no Democratic president had ever done in the modern era. At the same time, OFA did “hoard” the campaign’s key data on small donors, volunteers and activists, leading to an awkward division of informational assets between the party and OFA. And of course by failing to address deeper problems at the DNC earlier, the national committee has become a laughing stock.

Clearly, the Democratic Party’s diverse coalition was not so fractious to deter Clinton or Obama from doing at least some party-building. And some of Obama’s efforts could still pay off in the long term, as Clinton’s did. The problem was that neither Obama nor Clinton did enough of it to make much of a difference in the near-term.

Moreover, they both treated policy successes as tantamount to political successes. Both Obama and Clinton argued that successful health-care reform would create supportive constituencies that would reward the party at the voting booth in the long run. But policies don’t always generate their own political supports, which is the main difficulty Obama is confronting now.

As he leaves office, the Democratic “bench” is weak and its “farm team” is virtually nonexistent. Democrats are already scrambling to rebuild, as the out-party always does. They’ll do well to rebuild from the bottom up.

One thing, however, is clear: With Donald Trump in the White House, Democrats will no longer be able to benefit from White House largesse, presidential fundraising prowess or the power of presidential persuasion. Yes, eventually Democrats will win a greater share of elective offices. But it will be an uphill battle.

This, too, will be one of Obama’s legacies.

Daniel Galvin is associate professor of political science and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.