In 2000, Barack Obama’s career was in jeopardy.
A State Senator in Illinois since 1997, Obama’s loss in the primary for First Congressional District of Illinois to incumbent Bobby Rush seemed to indicate that his political ceiling was a lot lower than he’d hoped. In fact, “loss” might be putting it mildly- Obama was defeated by a margin of two to one, and as he described it on David Axelrod’s “The Axe Files” podcast, “I think [the race] was literally called, like, two minutes after the polls closed.” Having spent all of his money campaigning for the congressional primary and with a wife and child at home (and another child on the way), Obama faced a difficult dilemma: Continue to pursue the higher rungs of elected office and potentially risk his family’s financial security, or call it quits and move to the private sector, thereby throwing in the towel on his political and public service ambitions? He chose to forge ahead with his political career; the rest, in more ways than one, was history.
In 2004, Obama delivered a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention, the contents of which are notable for their earnestness and belief in the innate goodness of Americans:
“Well, I say to [political operatives] tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”
With this speech, Obama’s profile skyrocketed; the gamble he took by continuing to chase his political dreams finally began to pay dividends. No longer was he simply an Illinois State Senator and a candidate for the U.S. Senate – he was our President-in-Waiting. Obama spoke like a man who had nothing to lose, because frankly, he didn’t. It was a “win or go home” moment, and Barack Obama rose to the occasion with the passion and grace that would become hallmarks of his tenure as president.
More importantly, he spoke like a man whose every comment hadn’t been focus-grouped and dissected by a team of staffers. He spoke like a man who truly believed in what he was saying. He spoke like a man whose passion hadn’t been eroded by years of political gut-checks, and he resisted the seasoned politician’s habit of couching his beliefs in so much pabulum and noncommittal language that it would be impossible to tell when he changed them. He spoke like a dewy-eyed newcomer to American politics, an idealist who truly believed that elected officials can help the average citizen.
In many ways, he spoke like Donald Trump.
Obama’s speech at the 2004 DNC stirred something in the American people. Therefore, it came as no surprise when he announced his candidacy for president in 2007. Of course, he had to contend with a formidable field in the Democratic primary. Obama’s main opponents were Hillary Clinton, whose credentials and political acumen are widely-documented, and John Edwards, John Kerry’s former running mate and a star in the Democratic Party in his own right.
All things held equal, John Edwards was probably the more significant obstacle to an Obama presidency: he was an immensely likeable candidate with populist views who would likely fare well in a general election in the important Southern swing states. Edwards had acquitted himself nicely in the 2004 campaign, avoiding any Quaylean gaffes or scandals and projecting an air of competence that assured voters he would be a fine, upstanding Presidential candidate someday. But Edwards could never drum up enough momentum in key states to establish himself as a viable contender in a general election, and he was forced to bow out of the race.
Hillary Clinton was considered by some to be the no-brainer choice for the Democratic nominee. Hillary had (at least on paper) a wealth of political experience: a two-term U.S. Senator and former First Lady, she could claim familiarity with the inner workings of both Congress and the presidency, something that could not be said for Obama or Edwards. Hillary was also a lifelong politician and skilled in the art of political maneuvering; Obama, with his rosy rhetoric and aspirational speeches, was seen by some in comparison as a political neophyte, not ready for prime time and too unseasoned for anyone (besides him) to confidently declare that he would be prepared to handle the presidency and its attendant challenges.
It didn’t matter. Obama had found his message in 2004, honed it in 2005 and 2006, and never wavered from it once he hit the campaign trail. His candidacy represented the one element that Clinton’s never could: the possibility of real change in American government. And by leveraging his populist appeal, Trump also effectively painted Hillary as the “Washington insider.” To many of Trump’s supporters, Hillary was so far removed from the hopes, dreams and fears of the average citizen that she could never be trusted to effectively advocate for them as President.
The general election went the same way. John McCain is, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent man and conscientious legislator with a storied military career and a long history of public service. But Barack Obama precipitated a paradigm shift in the way Americans evaluate their presidential candidates. No longer was a career in government a confidence-inspiring quality in a candidate; if anything, it was a negative attribute. After 2008, the candidate with the most experience was derided as the “establishment” candidate, the slickster politician who had opportunities to make a difference and who had chosen instead to prolong their career in government by doing as little, well, governing as possible. And as one of the longest-tenured U.S. Senators in government, John McCain was simply the wrong candidate for the shifting political climate. In 2008, the choice was simple for voters: cast your ballot for someone who wants to change things, even if they ultimately fail, or cast it for someone who won’t even try.
A very convincing argument could be made that things are much better now than they were before Obama took office. Detailing the specifics would be a fruitless exercise; besides, that’s not the point of this piece. Suffice to say, however, by nearly any metric, the average citizen’s quality of life has likely either improved or, at the very least, stayed the same under the Obama administration. Normally, a performance like the one turned in by the Obama administration would make it nearly impossible for that party’s next nominee to lose in a general election. In a normal election campaign, all the candidate has to do is promise four or eight more years of the same and they’ll have a great chance of winning the general. Or, at least, that’s the way it went before Obama took office.
Now, however, the landscape has changed. The American public has had a taste of transformational, generation-defining elections, and they want more. It is no longer enough to elect “more of the same,” even if “the same” is a successful presidency. Not when the opportunity presents itself to put someone in office who will really shake things up.
Which brings us to Donald Trump. But first, a word about Hillary Clinton.
Though this piece is intended to explore the effects of Barack Obama’s paradigm-shifting campaign strategy and how it could have contributed to the rise of Donald Trump, politician, I would be remiss in not addressing the fact that Hillary Clinton was probably the worst possible candidate to run against Donald Trump.
This is a bit of Monday-morning quarterbacking, but if you’ll allow it: The moment that it became clear that Trump’s campaign strategy was to rail against the “Washington elites,” Clinton’s campaign should have made an effort to brand itself as a continuation of the Obama years instead of stubbornly continuing to tout her extensive experience as a politician. Obama laid the blueprint for defeating Hillary in 2008, and by failing to alter her message, the Clinton campaign left the door wide open for Trump to follow that same blueprint in 2016. In short, there was no way Hillary Clinton would have been able to spin her lifelong career as a politician as a positive in the current political climate. Therefore, she would have been better-served by hitching her wagon to the change brought by the Obama administration (and her role in it) as a means of conveying to the American public that electing her wouldn’t necessarily mean a return to “business as usual.” After all, a good consolation prize to not being thought of as the “change” candidate is to closely align yourself with someone who is.
As smart and seasoned a politician as Hillary is, she failed to recognize that what sank her campaign in 2008 was likely to do the same in 2016. And on the off chance she forgot, she was offered a refresher course in the primaries in the form of Bernie Sanders, who followed the same blueprint to defeating Hillary that Obama had in 2008 and that Trump would follow later in 2016: position yourself as her opposite. Hillary realized far too late that the reason she couldn’t win an election was not because she was out of her depth, but because in 2008 and 2016, she was painted as the embodiment of the stodgy, cynical Washington establishment against which her opponents railed.
Hillary supporters can point to her popular vote victory as evidence that she wasn’t as flawed a candidate as she was made out to be; viewed through a different lens, however, a strong case can be made that the number of votes Hillary received is less an endorsement of her as a candidate and more an indictment of Trump’s fitness to serve as President.
Of course, this is not to say that Donald Trump has the needs of the average American in mind any more than Hillary does; in a vacuum, they are both completely removed from the daily struggles of the middle and lower classes. But Trump had one quality that proved invulnerable to Hillary’s counter-attacks: outsider status. All things held equal, it is likely that most Americans don’t believe that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump have their best interests in mind. The difference between the two – and, ultimately, the difference in the election – is that while Trump has never had an opportunity from a legislative standpoint to help the average American, Hillary has had a career full of them. In this case, the devil you don’t know proved preferable to the devil you do.
Presidential campaigns are not about addressing the needs of the American people – not during the early stages, anyway. Rather, presidential campaigns are about making the American people believe that their needs will be addressed, provided they give that candidate the chance. In most cases, upon winning the election, a candidate will find out that a lot of their campaign promises are unfulfillable for one of two reasons. Either they were too unrealistic to begin with, or they meet such resistance while in office that the candidate settles into a rhythm of simply going along to get along. As a result, the candidate ends up doing just enough to keep their approval numbers up to ensure re-election or secure their legacy after leaving office, even if that means not effecting any real change.
There are two reasons why a lifelong politician like Hillary Clinton didn’t fare well against Donald Trump. The first is her aforementioned reputation as a member of the political elite. The second (and perhaps more important) reason is simple: Hillary Clinton is a pragmatist. Over the course of her political career, she has become more familiar than most with the partisan gridlock that is sadly a hallmark of American politics. As a result, she has come to learn that unfulfilled campaign promises can rear their ugly heads when it comes time to campaign for re-election. While this would not deter other candidates from forging ahead and making unfulfillable promises anyway, Hillary appears incapable of doing so. In any other election year, this would be a trait worthy of admiration, but in a campaign against a compulsive liar who will say just about anything to get applause and votes, it proved to be her downfall.
So, how did the Obama Years beget the Age of Trump?
Like Obama, Donald Trump campaigned almost exclusively on the idea that what the country needs is a President who will completely shake things up; one who won’t allow their policy proposals to wither on the vine because they are not politically expedient. Obama’s message of change was aspirational, rooted in a fundamental faith in the inherent goodness of people. By contrast, Trump’s message was built on a foundation of fear: the country and the world are changing, and America is on the brink of collapse. Obama campaigned on the idea that the state of things in America was cause for concern, but that they could be corrected because that’s the power of the American spirit. Trump campaigned on the belief held by a large percentage of the population that things are worse than ever, and that his candidacy represented their last chance to take action. The central premise of both campaigns was the same, even if the presentations of their respective theses were wildly disparate. But in both cases, voters positively responded to the messages, albeit for different reasons.
Much has been made about the Trump campaign courting the white supremacist “alt-right” vote, and to be sure, he tapped into a segment of the population that has long been (astutely) ignored by politicians in election years. But to dismiss Trump’s victory solely as the result of his courting the racist vote or as the backlash of our having elected a black President in 2008 and 2012 is to misunderstand exactly how it came to be that Donald Trump was elected President in 2016.
Donald Trump was elected because he understood the transformative nature of Barack Obama’s campaign. To be clear, Trump is not the only one to recognize the power of the “change” message, as many politicians have used some form of it over the years (and particularly since Obama took office) with varying degrees of success. But where career politicians have failed to inspire the same level of enthusiasm that Obama did in his first run, Donald Trump succeeded. This is due in part to Obama and Trump’s shared qualities during their campaigns as political newcomers, but a large amount of credit should be given to Trump’s natural talent as a showman.
Furthermore, the importance of a coherent and easily-conveyed platform and message cannot be overstated. Obama understood this, as did Trump, and their messages were straightforward and clear: “Things aren’t working, and it’s time for a change.” By contrast, Hillary’s message was “Some things are working, other things can be improved upon,” followed by a smart, well-reasoned list of things she would change and how. Unfortunately, this wonkish approach failed to resonate with many voters.
That Hillary Clinton was on the opposite end of both candidates presents an opportunity to compare her campaign (far more traditional in terms of the candidate’s résumé and messaging strategy) to those of Obama and Trump (which appealed to the aspirational nature of Americans and positioned the respective candidates’ lack of experience as positives). And in doing so, one inescapable conclusion can be reached: By fundamentally altering the manner in which presidential candidates court votes, Barack Obama opened the door in 2008 that Donald Trump walked through in 2016.
The question is: What happens now?
Barack Obama’s 2008 triumph laid the foundation for a political evolution that affected both public opinion and campaign messaging. No longer is it sufficient for a candidate to outline their legislative agenda should they be elected, nor is it enough for candidates to point to their own legislative history as a means of measuring their bona fides. In fact, such information is no longer necessary to the average American voter.
Once upon a time, political races were won or lost solely on the basis of whether or not a candidate’s proposed legislative agenda resonated with voters. It was that simple: if Candidate X’s policy plans aligned with the needs of the majority of the American people, that candidate stood a good chance of winning the election. This is no longer the case. American politics – as well as Americans – have changed.
The advent of increasingly diverse forms of entertainment meant the average American was no longer forced to read the daily newspaper. As a consequence, the average American no longer had the opportunity to absorb vital pieces of political information either through their own reading or through political discussions with family, friends, and colleagues. Instead of a political candidate’s proposed plans being one of the only potential topics of discussion, Americans could turn their attention to new movies or music- alternative forms of entertainment that slowly began to dominate the national conversation.
And as entertainment value continued to grow as the metric by which Americans considered topics worthy of debate or discussion, so too did the need for American politics to become more entertaining. Essentially, American politics no longer captured the public interest the way it once had, and it was necessary for politics to become more entertaining in order to remain relevant. This increase in the entertainment value of politics first took the form of televised presidential debates, allowing Americans to see the candidates for whom they would potentially be voting. Televised debates added another consideration into the minds of American voters: does this candidate “look” like a President? It is a tired and completely meaningless standard; after all, most of the people elected President don’t “look” like Presidents (Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush), and the ones who “look” like Presidents (John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio) rarely have successful campaigns . And yet, this completely subjective litmus test inexplicably still exists.
Televised debates also introduced a new criteria by which candidates could be measured by the voters: personality. Similar to the idea that a politician’s looks should be a determining factor in whether or not someone votes for them, a candidate’s personality – particularly their perceived trustworthiness and relatability – is now an important consideration in earning votes. Today’s American voters are, by and large, low-information voters, choosing to trust their gut in elections more than the facts laid out over the course of a campaign. It’s why Donald Trump found such success, despite never having held elected office and clearly lacking a complete understanding of the responsibilities of the office of President of the United states: voters found him relatable. The long and short of it is, today’s voters have the capacity to overlook nearly any character or policy shortcoming in a candidate, as long as they are still able to view that candidate as someone to whom they can relate.
A perfect test case can be found in the form of Senator Marco Rubio. Following his strong showing in the 2012 Republican primary, Rubio was considered a rising star on the right and next in line for the Republican nomination. He had it all: politically, he possessed messaging that (on the surface, at least) appeared to be more moderate than some of his contemporaries and a record of bipartisanship during his time in the U.S. Senate. From a relatability standpoint, Rubio possessed the potential to appeal to Latino voters who had overwhelmingly skewed Democratic in recent elections, and a sort of invigorated conservatism that could provide the Republican party with its own right-wing version of Obama. And yet, his 2016 campaign performance did little to bolster his Q-rating and future prospects for election; if anything, both took a dramatic step backward.
Marco Rubio’s campaign in the 2016 Republican primary was sunk for a variety of reasons, but the death knell came in the eighth Republican primary debate, when Chris Christie eviscerated Rubio for his android-like recitation of his talking points (and then again, moments later, when Rubio tried to repeat the exact same talking points). If his antediluvian social and political views hadn’t already made it clear, that exchange confirmed that Marco Rubio was constitutionally unable to relate to the average American voter. Following his embarrassing Super Tuesday loss in his home state a little more than a month later, he ended his campaign.
Televised debates have largely been a force for good since their inception. Voters get the opportunity to hear the candidates’ policy proposals directly from the source, and the sometimes combative nature of debates gives voters a chance to see how their candidate will fare under pressure. But there has been another, more insidious element to political campaigns with its strongest roots in television: the political attack ad.
Historically, campaigns have been, at their core, about positivity and optimism (“Here is how I, Candidate X, can help you!”). And even though they can sometimes become contentious, debates also represent a valuable contribution to the political discourse. Attack ads, on the other hand, traffic almost exclusively in negatives. Negative advertising typically adds nothing to the conversation, seeking instead to make voters feel a little dirtier, a little less comfortable, and a little more disenchanted about their support of a particular candidate.
Political attacks do little more than appeal to the inner demons of the American public, the side of human nature that loves a good car wreck and can’t help but gawk at arguments on the street. And there is perhaps no greater testament to their continued use than the fact that, more often than not, they work. Lyndon Johnson learned about the benefits of the political attack well before he arrived on the national stage; in a local election early in his career; Johnson suggested to his campaign manager that they spread a rumor that his opponent had carnal knowledge of farm animals. When his campaign manager protested, saying “[w]e can’t call him a pigfucker- you know he doesn’t do that!”, Johnson replied, “I know, but let’s make the sonofabitch deny it.”
In the beginning, political attack ads were subtle. Johnson proved his mastery of this particular dark art in 1964 with his “Daisy” spot, an attack on Barry Goldwater that resonates in the minds of Americans to this day. Viewing it today, the ad seems almost quaint- even though the subtext of the spot is “This is what you’ll get if you vote for Barry Goldwater,” there are no personal attacks on Goldwater himself, only on his policies and their potential ramifications. Over time, though, the bar for salaciousness (and, by extension, entertainment) was raised –one need only look at the difference between the “Daisy” ad and George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” attack as evidence of the supposed evolution of the craft. However, throughout their history, political attacks were seen if not as radioactive, then at least as slightly irradiated: use them too often, and you risk being known as the “negative” candidate, the representative of the ugly side of politics, which could cost you votes. A good President remains above the fray.
Likely due to his time spent as an entertainer, Donald Trump recognized better than any other candidate the efficacy of the attack ad and the American public’s insatiable lust for a good fight. Rather than using political attacks as a quick recess from the general respect and high-mindedness of a political campaign, Trump’s campaign was essentially a 16-month-long political attack ad, recalibrating only when it needed to focus on a new target. If you look back at Trump’s campaign speeches, you’ll find very little optimism in them; instead, you’ll be confronted by massive amounts of political mudslinging. Beneath it all is a simple message: “These people are all the same. I am not like them; therefore, I am the only person worthy of your vote.” And by campaigning on a platform of change, Barack Obama implicitly conveyed the same message.
In his appearance on David Axelrod’s podcast, Barack Obama claimed that he could have won a third term over Donald Trump: “[I]f I had run again and articulated [the message of hope and change], I think I could’ve mobilized a majority of the American people to rally behind it.” As much as many Americans like to believe this, it isn’t necessarily as cut-and-dried as Obama seems to think. After eight years in the White House, Obama is as much a member of the “Washington elite” as Hillary is, and though he could have sidestepped a lot of the criticism that Trump lobbed at Hillary Clinton, Trump’s underlying message would not have required much tailoring in order for it to effectively apply to President Obama.
Donald Trump didn’t win the 2016 election because of Hillary’s emails, her handling of the Benghazi attack, or the goings-on at The Clinton Foundation. He did not win because Bill Clinton is a serial womanizer and that Hillary and Clinton campaign spokesman John Podesta are involved in a child sex-trafficking ring with headquarters in the basement of a D.C.-area pizza parlor. He won because he understood that the American public is thirsty for radical change in government. And no matter what Obama might have said to parry that, to many Americans, Obama’s version of change simply wasn’t enough.
Whether or not Obama realized it at the time, his election set in motion a series of pendulum swings that are likely to produce as much backward movement as they are forward progress. With one simple message, Obama authorized the American people to disregard some accepted norms of politics; namely, that experience and a lifetime of preparation for the presidency are the keys to a successful term in office. And, perversely, it is because his presidency was so successful that America finds itself less than a month away from the swearing-in of President-elect Donald Trump.* In 2008, voters took a chance on electing a candidate who, by all traditional measures, should have been a failure. By succeeding, however, Barack Obama emboldened American voters to continue to cast their ballot for the candidate who is most likely to shake things up.
As the reality of a Donald Trump presidency has taken shape, it is necessary to look beyond the next four to eight years. Namely, what happens after President Trump? It is unlikely that his term will yield as many positive legislative results as Obama’s tenure, but unless it is an unmitigated disaster, Trump’s reign will further serve as validation of our collective desire to look for the candidate who least resembles our past presidents to lead the country in the future. Moreover, the polarization of American politics means that future elections are likely to hinge on whichever candidate represents the greatest amount of change from the existing norm. Therefore, it is possible that we will simply careen from one “change” candidate to the next, electing whoever can convincingly promise Americans the most radical departure from life under the current administration.
This pinball effect will undoubtedly lead voters to elect presidents in the vein of Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders; in short, candidates who will have a net positive effect on the lives of the American people. Of course, the flip side of that coin is that Americans will also elect presidents in the vein of Donald Trump. The inherent nature of a pendulum is that it swings both ways.
Barring a ruinous Trump presidency, that pendulum will continue to swing, unless a politician in the mold of FDR arrives who can somehow manage to unite both sides of the political discourse. Of course, given the polarized nature of our current political climate, it is just as probable that such a mythical creature would be roundly accused of pandering, and their bipartisan record painted as nothing more than spinelessness in the face of one’s enemies. More likely, one of two things will occur: Donald Trump’s presidency will serve as a disquieting footnote in American political history, the moment when Americans lost their collective minds before quickly righting the ship. Or, voters will continue to elect more and more “revolutionary” presidents until they finally happen upon one who somehow stumbles into the hallmarks of a successful presidency. Should the latter occur, Americans can then revert to the tradition of electing “more of the same,” just in a different package. That is, at least until the next “change” candidate comes along.
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign changed the political landscape in America. In the eight years that followed Obama’s election, massive progress was made in the service of social justice, addressing the previously-unacknowledged elephant in the room of climate change, and in political and economic reform. Of course, in the next four to eight years, a number of changes will be made under President-elect Trump*, most of them in service of negating the work done by President Obama. The pendulum has been set in motion, and one thing is certain: Obama ushered in a new era of American politics, and above all else, his enduring legacy will be his empowerment of the American people to allow perfect to become the enemy of good. For better or worse.
*Note: I wrote this in January before Trump’s inauguration and didn’t feel like changing Trump’s title.