Barack Obama can’t run for president again. But so far, it seems as though the 2020 Democratic primary could be defined by efforts to recapture the magic he briefly seemed to sprinkle over the party.
But while Obama’s personal style, his approach to policy and even his coalition are replicable, key elements of Obama’s appeal were tied to his specific political moment. His presidency and the response to it changed the American political landscape in dramatic ways. Democrats can’t go back to the past: They can only find a new way forward.
Obama’s political style was multifaceted. He blended a feel-good, sometimes messianic, “hope and change” message with a socially adept wonkery; a liberal technocratic platform with the potent emotional promise that the first black presidential nominee from a major party could bring about a new era in American race relations; and a political strategy that took advantage of an increasingly diverse and educated electorate. Republicans and Democrats might disagree on how well Obama balanced those competing imperatives and whether his persona was authentic, but the electoral strategy worked. Obama won in 2008 and 2012, and some polls have suggested he would have won a third term if he had been constitutionally able to run for one.
The appeal of this persona isn’t merely aesthetic: It’s that Obama was able to use it to bring together a specific electoral coalition. Obama’s historic candidacy helped him dial up turnout and margins with black voters. He lost some Southern whites (especially in Appalachia), which is expected for a liberal icon from a major Midwestern city. But those traits, and the fact that he was running against someone as economically conservative as Mitt Romney in 2012, might have helped Obama gain Northern whites that John Kerry lost and hold key Midwestern states.
Some of the candidates who have already gotten into the race might be able to peel off specific parts of Obama’s persona. Beto O’Rourke, who just launched his campaign last week, is a favorite in parts of Obama-world and projects a liberal optimism. Cory Booker’s path from Oxford and Yale, to local Newark politics and then to the U.S. Senate might remind some of Obama’s arc from community organizing to Harvard and beyond. Pete Buttigieg, the youthful mayor of South Bend, Ind., is stylistically similar to Obama, and both Obama and Obama’s allies have called Buttigieg a rising star within the party. Elizabeth Warren was, like Obama, a former academic who is beloved by activists. And despite their stylistic differences, Amy Klobuchar channels Obama’s Midwestern pragmatism.
But while Obama’s style might be replicable, the Obama Moment is not.
In 2007, George W. Bush had been president for almost seven years. The situation in Iraq was deteriorating, and a recession began in December of that year. Before that, Democrats had elected Bill Clinton (famous for his ideological triangulation and moral failings) and the party had been in the wilderness during the Reagan-Bush era.
Obama managed to position himself as a near-messianic answer to those problems and a break with “politics as usual.”The historic nature of his candidacy, his rhetorical talent and life story, and his political timing all played a part.
Many Democrats weren’t happy about the Iraq War, and Obama (who had opposed the invasion from the start) made that criticism his signature issue. Some Democratic thinkers had been looking for a new liberal majority built on a combination of the old Democratic coalition and the growing nonwhite and increasingly educated population. And Obama seemed like the embodiment of that dream.
But most of these conditions no longer hold.
No 2020 candidate can claim unique purity on a key issue the way Obama did with Iraq. Trump has a low overall approval rating, but his unpopularity is different than Bush’s. Bush’s problems — the Iraq War, the recession, his handling of Hurricane Katrina — were more policy-driven than Trump’s problems, which mostly include him acting like himself and focusing on the base when he could be taking credit for a solid economy. And Democrats have not united around a single proposed solution to Trumpism.
In addition, Democrats got the Obama majority in 2008 and 2012 — only to watch the coalition fall apart in 2010, 2014 and 2016.
And the next nominee will have to operate in an environment shaped in part by the paranoid and racist responses to Obama’s presidency. President Trump vaulted himself into the national political conversation in part by spreading racist birther conspiracies. As president, he said there were “very fine people” on both sides of the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville and has been praised by the far-right fringe, and managed to do so while holding on to his base.
The eventual Democratic nominee will have to fend off the inevitable conspiracy theories spread in an attempt to derail his or her candidacy; push back on Trump’s racist provocations; and avoid a rhetorical misstep such as Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” or unpopular policy commitments around issues such as reparations. The story of exactly how our politics got uglier and more racialized is long and complicated, but the bottom line is that Obama’s post-racial approach is unlikely to be available to the next Democratic candidate.
And in the Democratic primary specifically, it would be hard for any 2020 Democrat to take Obama’s path.
Part of Obama’s strength came from black voters. They might unite behind someone again this time — or they might split in multiple directions, now that we have a race with multiple black candidates. Booker, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden — who will definitely make some (probably ham-handed) claims to Obama’s legacy, especially if he announces that he will run on a ticket with Georgia’s Stacey Abrams — might end up splitting the vote along age lines or some other division.
Young voters might be pulled between Bernie Sanders and O’Rourke, and left-leaning voters might be split between Warren, Harris, Sanders and others. The next nominee might manage to re-create Obama’s primary coalition from 2008, but it’s more likely that they’ll have to forge a different path
And when the Democratic nominee gets to the general election, that person will be helming a party that’s more liberal (especially on social issues), more racially diverse, where white voters are more racially liberal and where a contingent of young voters are not so high on capitalism. It’s a post-Obama coalition — and that’s going to produce some unpredictable ripples in the platform, strategy, branding and marketing of the 2020 Democratic nominee. Some young Democrats who remember the financial crash but not the Cold War might be open to socialism and skeptical of a more technocratic approach. A more woke contingent might want a candidate who talks about race very directly — whereas Obama talked about race less than his predecessors. The 2020 Democratic base will have a lot in common with past iterations of the party, but the differences will be noticeable.
This dynamic is wildly unpredictable, and the result could be anything from the nomination of a legitimate Democratic socialist such as Sanders; to a progressive/liberal fusion in the form of Kamala D. Harris; to someone like Biden, whose instinct might be to make race less central, go left but not socialist on economics and talk a lot about the Republicans he has befriended over the years.
Democrats might remember Obama fondly — especially when they’re reading the latest Trump tweet or watching a Sarah Sanders press conference. But like AIM and the iPod Shuffle, Obama is gone and not coming back.