Tag Obama for the rise of Trump, and now, socialism

In his book, “The World as It Is,” former Obama White House staff member Ben Rhodes details a pensive President Obama trying to come to grips with the election of Donald Trump. He quotes Obama saying, “Maybe we pushed too far,” lamenting that he may have come to power 10 to 20 years too early and misjudging his influence on American history.  

Future historians will judge Obama’s presidency and answer these questions. What we do know is that Obama was a president who enjoyed high personal favorability and, at the same time, only tepid support for his policies. Gallup reported Obama’s approval rating at 59 percent in January 2017, but only 32 percent of Americans believed the country was on the “right track,” according to Rasmussen Reports.

One axiom of politics is that the next election is shaped by the last election. The eight years of Obama’s White House arguably did not rise to the level of optimism for change that was engendered in his campaign. Writing in the New Yorker in April 2009, George Packer lamented, “Given the early and ample track record, there’s surprisingly little agreement over the nature of Obamaism.”    


By the midway point in his presidency, a lot remained on the table. Obama’s pledge, “If we do not change our politics … then the problems we’ve been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come,” was used by Conor Friedersdorf in his liberal critique of Obama in The Atlantic.

Continued economic uncertainty for the middle class and the unrealized promise of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America,” coupled with a vague philosophical foundation for Obama’s policies and no direct heirs to his legacy, provided openings for both Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersTrump's trade war — firing all cannons or closing the portholes? The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump rips 'ridiculous' spending bill | FBI dragged into new fight | Latest on Maryland shooting Poll: Most Massachusetts voters don't think Warren should run for president in 2020 MORE to reframe the fight in 2016.

Trump would appeal to Americans who felt left behind in an Obama economy, in which the rich became richer and globalism did little to ease fears about the future. Pew Research found that “Americans generally said that, when today’s kids grow up, they would be worse off financially than their parents.” Trump focused on markets.  

Sanders focused on the failure of capitalism to provide social justice. In his push to change the system, Sanders certainly stepped outside the established mainstream of American politics. Sociology professor Lane Kenworthy, at the University of California San Diego, defined Sanders for the New York Times as a “Democratic socialist capitalist.”   

Sanders brought his brand of socialism mainstream: Free college, free health care for all, higher minimum wage, income redistribution and refining capitalism. Though he lost the Democratic Party nomination, he would win 23 primaries, with 13.2 million votes, and 1,865 delegates. Perhaps his lasting contribution is that he demonstrated it was safe to espouse policies that go far beyond traditional liberalism by openly challenging capitalism and the social underpinnings of a free society.  

Elections spawn disciples. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE now enjoys 88 percent support from Republicans and has become the undisputed leader of the party. GOP candidates are espousing “Trumpism” in the midterms. Trump’s endorsement matters; his support of Rep. Martha RobyMartha Dubina RobyInsurgency shakes up Democratic establishment Dem House candidate claims Russians tried to hack campaign website Tag Obama for the rise of Trump, and now, socialism MORE in Alabama and Brian Kemp in Georgia appeared to be a major factor in their recent victories.

On the Democratic side, the energy and passion today is not behind candidates who espouse “Obamaism” or “Clintonism.” Rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, inspired by her mentor Sanders, is an unapologetic Democratic Socialist empowered by her defeat of 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyFor Capuano in Massachusetts, demography was destiny Carper fends off progressive challenger in Delaware primary Election Countdown: Fallout from Massachusetts stunner | In Delaware, Carper looks to avoid next progressive upset | Dem 2020 primary already in full swing | How a Dem ex-governor hopes to take red-state Tennessee | GOP challengers hit Dems over tax votes MORE (D-N.Y.). Ocasio-Cortez presents herself as a softer, more approachable face of socialist policies who is, according to Ad Week’s review of her television ad, “telling everyone’s story in the district.”

As the likely heir to the Sanders coalition, Ocasio-Cortez could find herself becoming the fulcrum of a much larger, more inclusive and sustainable movement that is organizing around racism, sexism, open borders and rethinking capitalism — issues that are rooted in social justice.

Ocasio-Cortez is one of 42 Democratic Socialists running for Congress in 2018 — a fringe group positioned to go mainstream. She has shown others how to win and how to frame issues to build support. The abolition of ICE, an issue that Ocasio-Cortez supports, has become a new Democratic litmus test. Presidential hopefuls such as Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandTeen girls pen open letter supporting Kavanaugh accuser: We imagine you at that party and 'see ourselves' Poll: Most Massachusetts voters don't think Warren should run for president in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — GOP again has momentum on Kavanaugh rollercoaster MORE (D-N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSenate Democrats increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh Poll: Most Massachusetts voters don't think Warren should run for president in 2020 Trump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle MORE (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenMore Massachusetts Voters Prefer Deval Patrick for President than Elizabeth Warren Trump's trade war — firing all cannons or closing the portholes? Poll: Most Massachusetts voters don't think Warren should run for president in 2020 MORE (D-Mass.) are all falling in line on the issue.

But established party leaders, including Sen. Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump slams Sessions in exclusive Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh accuser wants FBI investigation MORE (D-N.Y.), are urging caution. Schumer reads polls and knows that 56 percent of Americans consider these candidates to be “out of step” with most Americans. But Democrats have few options, having spent the past two years resisting Trump, rather than framing issues.

President Obama once proclaimed that “elections have consequences.” Well, so do presidencies.  Obama’s failure to provide hope for the middle class and to fundamentally change our political system has taken us to the brink of a political realignment.

The question now is whether the American people have faith that the economy can provide for all Americans, or whether they support radical change from capitalism. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are minority voices, but the success of candidates touting the issues they espouse could position them to be major players in shaping the Democratic Party in 2020. That’s partly a reaction to the Trump presidency, but it is Obama’s legacy.

Dennis M. Powell is founder and president of Massey Powell, a national public affairs consultancy headquartered in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. He has been involved in more than 300 political campaigns doing strategy, messaging, polling, and fundraising, including coordinating fundraising and outreach in Pennsylvania for President George H.W. Bush’s campaign. He was retained for six years by Trump Entertainment Resorts to build coalitions.