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), along with the fact that the roll-out of his health-care law was a mess. 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 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 (PDF) 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.
Abramowitz’s paper 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 has made national politics such a headache. While the two parties have essentially become ideologically distinct from each other (see chart), 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 from 2009 to 2010. The world would look much different today. The stimulus would have been significantly smaller. Obamacare might never have come into being. Obama might not have been reelected. Even if he had, complaints about his lack of big achievements probably could have been 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 that systemic gridlock imposes on his presidency. He’s given this year’s address a vigorous slogan: “Year of Action.” Still, it’s no coincidence that early leaks about his speech boast of such things as protecting the long-term unemployed from hiring discrimination and combating sexual violence against women, which don’t entail congressional action.
For now, Obama is the frustrated target of critics who are upset that Washington isn’t working. Eventually, his problem will become President Hillary Clinton’s problem—or, if you prefer, that of President Ted Cruz or President Chris Christie. 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.