Envisioning candidates for 2016

Well, President Obama made the future much clearer on Monday. His second term is going to be combative. He has declared the wars “over there” to be over, but he’s declaring a new war on conservatism here at home. He exudes a quiet and calm resolve on the exterior, but you sense an interior that hides a coiled, pugnacious boxer’s uppercut, ready to be unleashed whenever his opponents drop their hands. It’s going to be a tense and bloody four years of political theater. I don’t know how he could have made that much plainer in his inauguration-address preview without pictures and a Playbill program.

So it’s time to start thinking about what this begets the nation for the four years that follow the conclusion of Obama’s tenure. Seeing the endless stream of courtiers on display at the inauguration festivities, from Joe Biden to Marco Rubio, one has to wonder whether there’s a stick of presidential timber in there or whether they’ll all get burned up in Obama’s new war effort. Maybe they’ll have to go out into “the sticks” of flyover country to find a new president. Whatever, it’s really far too early to begin speculating about individual names. For the present, the conjecture should be about the type of president Americans will seek in 2016.

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There is a theory that when a two-term president or governor finishes, the choice of his or her successor is dominated by thoughts of finding a replacement that compensates for the outgoing chief executive’s faults. Even if the public likes various qualities of a lame duck, the focus of voters is going to be on rectifying annoyances. So what sort of president will we see in 2016? One might be tempted to say a healer, a compromiser, a unifier or less of an ideologue. If the next four are as conflict-ridden as I believe they are certain to be, we might collectively be seeking some relief in the form of a peacemaker. That might be true if there were no primaries to nominate standard-bearers from each party, but there are still going to be conventions, and that’s where things might get tricky.

To set things right, I think the Democrats will recover from Obama’s corporatist liberalism by choosing a populist who doesn’t narrowly only want to raise taxes on wealthy individuals, but also wants to assault the tax obligations and structures of big business in a way that Obama would never have considered. Think of someone like former Ohio congressman and presidential aspirant Dennis Kucinich, who may have been before his time, a candidate out of season. I don’t know enough about future Democrats to pluck a name from their bench roster, but be on the lookout for populists whose J.C. Penney suits don’t fit so well and whose spouses don’t wear designer couture.

The Republicans are likely to focus on finding someone with genuine accomplishments and a proven record of successfully dealing with strong or even majoritarian Democratic opposition. The second Obama administration is going to have a difficult time actually getting much done, other than fleshing out details of the healthcare makeover and perhaps some limited immigration reform. The rest of his agenda will get ensnarled in a self-defeating partisan firefight of Obama’s own making. His “my way or nothing” attitude toward his proposals won’t engender success, and as long as the Republicans control the House, the president will continue to fall short of victory in pursuit of most of his goals. Republicans will correctly sense that voters seek accomplishment and find a nominee who has some.

The real dark horse in 2016, though, might be an independent candidacy that leverages voter disgust with the partisan ugliness that Obama’s inauguration speech seems to promise.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.