Russell Muirhead, a professor of democracy and politics at Dartmouth College, is the author of “The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age.”
Every great president since George Washington has also been a great partisan.
President Obama, however, has been reluctant to present himself as a partisan, much less as the leader of a party. This leaves him vulnerable in the wake of his executive action that could protect about 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, allowing his opponents to cast him not as a party leader but a monarch imposing his will on the country.
Obama too often seems to see himself standing apart from both parties. He framed his historic 2008 victory, for instance, in deeply personal terms, suggesting that, by the force of his example, he could bridge the partisan division of red and blue America. He aspired to an elevated, post-partisan plateau from which partisan conflict looked like a petty and self-defeating distraction from the interests of the nation.
Yet in substance, if not in style, Obama has been partisan, in a good way. The underlying idea of Obama’s immigration reform — giving the protection of law to those who contribute to the nation’s prosperity through honest work — is not merely his own but is also carried by his party.
Beyond this, Obama’s goals in office — extending health care to all, using the fiscal power of the government to support full employment, regulating financial institutions to protect ordinary citizens, leveraging the government’s power to buttress civil rights — have defined his party for decades. These goals unite him with the presidencies of Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman and the founder of the modern Democratic Party, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In the most noble image of politics, parties would not be necessary; if only people had all the facts, they would all agree. But politics is not a science — it is a contest. The program advanced by Obama (and his party) is controversial. Facts are necessary to persuade people. But a fight, and a party leader who attends to that fight, is also required.
This does not simply mean scheming for electoral advantage, though such strategizing cannot be completely avoided by any party leader. It means rallying those who are already disposed to agree by invoking the great goals and purposes that define the party.
Some would like to think that those goals are nonpartisan; that they are shared by all Americans. But even with the benefit of all available information, all Americans will not agree. There are reasons — real, philosophical reasons — for those often-petty disagreements between the parties.
Clearly, in Obama’s view — and that of his party, going back to FDR — government is what enables citizens to stand together to share risks that the most vulnerable cannot successfully shoulder individually. It is what allows the people to act together to solve problems. This is not a policy, though it leads to particular policies, such as immigration reform. It is a public philosophy.
Presidents need to convey the public philosophy that defines their presidencies and their party. When presidents succeed, they leave behind not only discrete policies but also energetic parties that carry on the work. The success of the Affordable Care Act, for instance, will ultimately depend not on Obama but on his party.
The last president to succeed in this way was Ronald Reagan. Republicans still invoke Reagan’s authority and hew to many of his policies, such as lower taxes and trimming the scope of government. By contrast, Clinton’s distinctive policies (such as welfare reform) and signature slogans (“The era of big government is over”) do not give direction to Democrats today — and didn’t really speak for Democrats even at the time. Rather, they reflect the strategy he adopted after Democrats lost the House in 1994 of “triangulating” against his party and neutralizing the Republican opposition by giving it proposals it could not resist.
In his Nov. 20 speech on immigration, Obama described his plan as aligned with the sentiments of bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate. Although such rhetoric may have been irresistible, a bipartisan strategy betrays the party on which the ultimate success of Obama’s policies will depend. For his policies to endure, Obama will have to succeed in the role that to this point he has disdained: leader of his party.
Today, leaders of both parties are no doubt already strategizing about how to blame the other side for the likely legislative dysfunction of the next two years.
This is the sort of low partisanship that Obama has always considered beneath him and his office. He’s right — it is. What his party needs from him are not petty partisan machinations but a potent articulation of its ideals and goals. If he can describe the Democratic Party to itself and invigorate Democrats’ sense of their mission, he will succeed at investing his policies with the enduring support they will need after his second term is over. What we need from our presidents is not less partisanship but better partisanship.