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 SandersBernie SandersIraq War looms over Trump battle with Iran 2020 Dems break political taboos by endorsing litmus tests Iowa Democrats brace for caucus turnout surge 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 rips Dems' demands, impeachment talk: 'Witch Hunt continues!' Nevada Senate passes bill that would give Electoral College votes to winner of national popular vote The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push 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 RobyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Restrictive state abortion laws ignite fiery 2020 debate Thirty-four GOP members buck Trump on disaster bill Ocasio-Cortez: 'I was stopped because it was assumed I was an intern' 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) CrowleyPelosi, Clinton among attendees at memorial reception for Ellen Tauscher Dems walk Trump trade tightrope The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - After GOP infighting, Trump Jr. agrees to testify again 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 GillibrandGOP faces new challenge in 2020 abortion fight 2020 Dems break political taboos by endorsing litmus tests Biden says Congress must move to protect abortion rights MORE (D-N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Biden says Congress must move to protect abortion rights Harris seeks Iowa edge with army of volunteers MORE (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann Warren2020 Dems break political taboos by endorsing litmus tests Biden says Congress must move to protect abortion rights Harris seeks Iowa edge with army of volunteers MORE (D-Mass.) are all falling in line on the issue.

But established party leaders, including Sen. Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSchumer wants investigation into Chinese-designed New York subway cars Getting serious about infrastructure Schumer calls on McConnell to hold vote on Equality Act 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.