When President Obama delivers his State of the Union address tonight, most analysts will be looking to see whether he can reassert himself after what was widely judged to have been “the worst year of his presidency.” The basis for this judgment is Obama’s failure to win legislation to curb gun violence, overhaul immigration laws, or institute universal pre-K (as he had proposed in last year’s address), and the fact that the rollout of his health care law was a mess. In fact, he didn’t accomplish anything of great significance last year and often looked and sounded as if he knew it.
Implicit in this criticism is that Obama might have secured these things, and, with the right combination of words, might still — that 2013 was an unfortunate aberration. But as Obama prepares his sixth State of the Union address, it’s worth noting that his biggest accomplishments (the stimulus, the health care law) came during the two-year period at the outset of his presidency when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and had a rare filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Those laws remain the source of many of the big fights over deficits and health care implementation that continue to dominate Washington. Nothing Obama has done since compares; nothing comparable seems possible for him to achieve in the time he has left. So the chief criticism of Obama really has it backward: It would be more accurate to view his first two years as the aberration and last year as the norm.
A recent paper from Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz sheds light on why this is so. The paper examines the factors that led to Obama’s decisive reelection victory. Abramowitz marshals plenty of evidence to illustrate that Democrats and Republicans are more divided by race, religious beliefs, geography, and policy preferences than at any time in recent history. He credits a series of demographic trends for dividing the electorate in a way that helped Obama and should continue helping Democrats in presidential elections for the foreseeable future. “The growing diversity and social liberalism of the American electorate represent a long-term threat to the viability of an overwhelmingly white and socially conservative Republican Party, especially in presidential elections,” he writes. In this way, his paper ratifies the thesis of the 2002 book “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira.
But Abramowitz also identifies why this emerging Democratic majority has had trouble extending to Congress. “The ability of Republicans to retain the large majority of their House seats despite a large Democratic swing in the national popular vote reflected an important structural advantage that Republicans enjoy in House elections: Democratic voters are heavily concentrated in a relatively small number of overwhelmingly Democratic urban districts.” This gets at the root causes of the intense polarization and partisanship that have made national politics such a headache: While the two parties have essentially become ideologically distinct from each other, structural impediments prevent either from gaining total control over the political system, except in fleeting instances like Obama’s first two years. The result is systemic and prolonged gridlock.
Imagine for a moment that Democrats had held just a slightly smaller majority in Congress during 2009 to 2010. The world would look much different today. The stimulus would have been significantly smaller. Obamacare might never have come into being. And as Obama began his sixth year, the current complaints about his lack of big achievements that we’re hearing now could probably be applied to the whole of his presidency.
While it’s unthinkable for a president to just throw up his hands, Obama seems quietly aware of the strictures this systemic gridlock imposes on his presidency. In keeping with the format for these things, he’s given this year’s address a vigorous slogan: “Year of Action.” But it’s no coincidence that early leaks about the contents of his speech touted things like heightened awareness of sexual violence against women that don’t entail congressional action.
For now, Obama is the frustrated target of critics upset that Washington isn’t working. But eventually, his problem will become President Hillary Clinton’s problem — or, if you prefer, President Ted Cruz or President Chris Christie. But the implications are the same. The idea that the president had a bad year because he couldn’t win legislation will no longer be particular to Obama, but will instead describe the new reality.Joshua Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.