The Obama “permanent majority” turned out to be a lot less than advertised – two wins for the president but little else for his party. Just days before Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Giving thanks for Thanksgiving itself Immigration provision in Democrats' reconciliation bill makes no sense MORE’s Inauguration, the Republicans now have their turn, but we’ll have to see how long his populist coalition can govern America.
There was reason to believe that Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMissed paperwork deadline delaying Biden nomination for FDA: report Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future No time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump MORE and the Democrats were on to something eight short years ago. Obama’s nearly 70 million popular votes in 2008 still is a record for any presidential candidate. His message of national unity, hope and a post ideological administration saw a sweep of reliably blue states, the Industrial Midwest and even North Carolina and Florida for good measure.
More ominously for the GOP, Obama’s appeal was especially strong to the rising part of the electorate.
Obama won huge majorities among African Americans (no surprise) but also millennials and a growing Hispanic population. That year, Democrats also won a big House majority and ultimately 60 Senate votes that allowed them to overcome Republican filibusters and enact a $1 trillion stimulus, Dodd-Frank, and ObamaCare.
The problem with Obama’s majority was that it was available – but only to him. His party lost the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. After 2014, Democrats controlled fewer than 20 governorships and the smallest number of state legislative seats since 1928.
Obama did manage to win re-election in 2012, but his vote total decreased by about five million. Though his designated successor, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPoll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future Popping the progressive bubble GOP primary in NH House race draws national spotlight MORE, almost matched Obama’s 2012 nationwide total, she failed to win key states that had gone Democratic for a quarter century. Had she matched Obama’s 2012 vote, she would have won Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin and possibly Ohio.
A lack of enthusiasm was the stock answer for why Clinton lost her party’s electoral lock.
But why the lack of enthusiasm? The Obama presidency was nothing if not successful in enacting progressive reforms.
Health care and the student loan industry were federalized for all intents and purposes. Major new federal controls were placed on the financial services industry. The federal government and the presidency grew substantially in power, authority and expenditures. Could it be that the Obama coalition was not built to last and the infatuation was driven by Obama’s unique personality and the high hopes he inspired?
During the Obama years, growth sputtered and the economic recovery was anemic. Progressive government always sounds better than the results it delivers.
Now comes the GOP and Donald Trump’s electoral-college majority. Trump actually won only about two million more votes than Mitt Romney. He did, however, manage to win them in the right places.
The Republican base now consists of the most culturally conservative parts of the country (The South and the Ozarks, Appalachia, and the Great Plains).
Trump’s great achievement was to use culture and voter alienation to narrowly add the industrial states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, states that had not voted Republican since the 1980s.
He won an overwhelming percentage of non-college educated white voters, evangelicals and a surprisingly large 29 percent of Hispanics in winning a solid 306 electoral votes.
Given the narrowness of his victory, especially in the industrial belt, the question arises as to how durable is this new majority. After all, 2016 did not repeal the demographic revolution in America and the theoretical Obama coalition will only grow.
Trump can take solace in the quirkiness of young voters, and his relatively respectable Hispanic vote, though 29 percent for the long term will still present major problems for Republicans.
On the economic front, Trump will need strong economic growth plus specific policies beyond GOP free market orthodoxies to enhance employment opportunities and preserve the community fabric of small town America that rightly feels threatened from global economic forces.
Tax reform with a bias toward indigenous manufacturing industries, something contained in the House Republican tax plan, represents one path, though Trump has been critical of the details.
Jawboning executives to keep jobs in the U.S. will continue. This is more for The Show, but political leadership consists of substance and The Show, something the president elect well understands.
A more difficult task will be satisfying Trump voters’ deep anxieties about where they believe America is headed. As noted, demographic changes will accelerate. The country will continue to become more diverse — ethnically, religiously, and attitudinally. Can Trump assure his coalition that there is still a place for them in a rapidly changing America?
It should be possible. Ronald Reagan celebrated diversity in the proper way, noting that “Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.”
His focus was on welcoming newcomers who embrace traditional American virtues of hard work, family and freedom. The process represents continuity, not radical change.
Such an inclusive approach with a focus on shared values could also provide a strong appeal to minorities and young people who as of now are far outside the emerging Republican coalition.
Maybe 2016 tells us once again that there are no permanent majorities in America. Voters wisely don’t trust one party in power for long. Trump and the Republicans should hope that at a minimum their emerging majority can last at least as long as Obama’s.
Frank J. Donatelli was political director in the Reagan White House and worked on all of Reagan’s presidential campaigns. He is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of McGuireWoods LLP and executive vice president of the law firm’s public affairs arm, McGuireWoods Consulting LLC.
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