What Obama’s loss of Congress means for 2016 candidates

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
What Obama’s loss of Congress means for 2016 candidates

Lost in all the headlines about a Republican takeover this morning is a single salient fact about where we are as a country politically: Barack Obama will now become the third consecutive president to come into office with governing majorities in both houses of Congress and leave office having fumbled away control of both of them. This kind of streak hasn’t happened before. Like, ever.

What that suggests is that for all the perennial talk about the system being rigged in favor of one party or the other by money or redistricting or demographic shifts, our recent politics is defined mainly by unprecedented swings in power. And if the potential 2016 candidates who will soon face decision time haven’t though much about this volatility and what it might mean for their potential presidencies (and, more immediately, for their campaigns), then they probably should.

It’s a tricky business comparing the circumstances of one administration to another, let alone three administrations spanning more than 20 years, and I wouldn’t want to be too facile in drawing out similarities. Bill Clinton, after all, lost control of Congress just two years into his presidency and never got it back, though he left office in much higher standing than his Republican adversaries in the House and Senate. George W. Bush’s presidency was transformed by the terrorist attacks of 2001; absent that and the subsequent war in Iraq, it’s hard to know if he would have fared better in a second term, though I’d argue that the indicators weren’t great in the months before Sept. 11.

Obama’s presidency, which began with a kind of optimism unseen in a generation, has been shadowed by the same economic catastrophe that helped propel him to the White House to begin with, and he has faced an unusually unbending opposition. Sympathetic political scientists might argue that, given the economic indicators, he was doomed to crater in popularity and lose his hold on Congress no matter what he did.

But while economic trends and unpredictable crises define every presidency in their own way, to a point, there is also a more general and unmistakable pattern that has repeated itself in each of these cases. And when historians look back on the period (yeah, I know, but grad students have to study something), they’ll probably conclude that all three were part of a tumultuous era you might call the Outsider Period.

Essentially, our last three presidents were all elected on the vague premise that they were alien beings in entrenched Washington and would reform the way things worked there, principally by transcending partisan and ideological divides. In each case, the new president, running headlong into strident opposition on one side and unreasonable expectations on the other, soon enough became a symbol of the same old partisan divide against which he had campaigned.

By the time each man ran for re-election, he had all but abandoned any grand notions of reform — whether by choice or not — in favor of a more traditional, less ennobling kind of political calculus. None of the three were able to achieve anything significant in their second terms and, in fact, could point only to big legislation passed in the first quarter of their presidencies.

Obama still has a few years left to defy this fate, of course, but you have to think he pretty much admitted that the getting-things-done part of his presidency was over last winter, when he started with all this nonsense about governing the country with nothing but his pen and phone, like Steve Martin in that hilarious scene from “The Jerk.” (“All I need is this pen, this phone ... and my dog Bo!”)

And somehow, as implausible as it might have seemed, all three of our most recent presidents will likely end up having left Washington — and, by extension, the rest of the country — even more divided than it was when they got there.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this, but at the core of it, I think, is the gulf between the way each man campaigned for the office and the way he came to occupy it.

For 20-plus years now, spanning these last three presidencies, we have lived with what has often been called the “permanent campaign.” What that means, essentially, is that our leaders are perpetually running for office and thinking about how to run for office, even in years when they aren’t actually running for anything, but they don’t spend a fraction of that time strategizing about how they will govern differently and effectively. They maintain armies of celebrity sloganeers and organizers, but if you can name a single policy director in any of our last presidential campaigns, you’re way ahead of most political pros.

Clinton ran as a modernizer who would reject the orthodoxies of both parties, but his first major legislative proposal was basically a sprawling, bureaucratic entitlement program. Bush claimed to be a new kind of “compassionate conservative” who would “change the tone,” whatever that really meant, but the main thing he wanted to do right off was to slash taxes on the wealthy, and by his first midterm election he was indicting the patriotism of Democrats.

Obama, of course, embodied all that hope and change, which sounds terrific on a greeting card, but which left him groping for an actual governing philosophy as president. He spent much of his early years trying to re-enact the New Deal while also making sporadic attempts to embrace Clinton’s “third way” — a dizzying routine that ended up disappointing just about everyone.

Supporters of each of these presidents — and I have written kindly about all three at times — will be quick to point out that each came up, almost immediately, against unusually fierce and personal opposition, supercharged by a news cycle that shrank first to 24 hours and eventually to 24 minutes (or maybe seconds). And each had to contend, at the same time, with an intransigent establishment in his own party.

This is all true, and it makes real reform incredibly difficult to achieve. I certainly don’t have some magic map for navigating all the modern crosscurrents, and I doubt anyone does.

But maybe if your name is Hillary Clinton or Chris Christie or Rand Paul — or if you’re any of the other would-be candidates who will, in the next few weeks, huddle with families and pollsters and look in the mirror and ask yourselves if you’re really up for this — then the lesson of the Outsider Period is that you should probably think as hard about how you want to govern as you do about all the media buys and the caucus math. You might want to put someone serious in charge of thinking that through.

And you might consider doing something else that’s radical: telling primary voters and everyone else exactly what incremental things you intend to do to change the system, even if they don’t already agree with all your ideas, and even if those ideas aren’t especially lofty or reassuring. That way, if you do happen to win, you won’t be saddled with a lot of confused expectations that are basically impossible to reconcile.

Because here’s what the country could stand to avoid: a fourth straight president who glides into office with solid majorities and big imagery, and who leaves town, eight years later, having merely managed to survive.