Why Hillary Clinton May be Doomed to Repeat the Obama Presidency


AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the NAACP's 61st annual Fight for Freedom Fund dinner in Detroit, Sunday, May 1, 2016. 

Barack Obama's presidency, we can all agree, has been anything but easy. It's full of real, even monumental accomplishments, but for every victory there has been a defeat, for every moment of triumph a long stretch of frustration. And because Obama's remarkable 2008 campaign was so inspiring, accompanied by so much hope and belief in transformation, the long hard slog of governing has been particularly painful for liberals. That pain has been the engine driving the Bernie Sanders campaign forward, as many on the left have, somewhat ironically, come to believe that the promise of Obama's presidency could be fulfilled by a 74-year-old Jewish socialist possessing a fraction of Obama's charisma and political skill.

But if you think the Obama years were frustrating, just you wait for the Hillary Clinton presidency.

I say that not because of Clinton's natural inclination toward incrementalism, which is as much a strength as a weakness for her. I say it because of the opposition she will confront, and the cruelties of the political calendar. By the time it's over, Clinton's presidency could like like a repeat of Obama's, except perhaps without the enormous early wins.

Let's start by remembering what happened when Obama took office in January 2009. Literally on the day of his inauguration, key congressional Republicans gathered for dinner in a Washington restaurant and decided on their strategy for the coming years: total and complete opposition to anything and everything the new president wanted to do, to deny him any legislative victories and make it more likely that they would take back power.

As those Republicans (particularly Mitch McConnell) shrewdly understood, partisan fights are seen by an inattentive public as nothing more than "Washington" squabbling, and the only one likely to be punished for them is the president, whether he's to blame or not. So it was that Republicans gained sweeping victories in the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014, giving them the institutional tools to stop Obama's agenda from moving forward.

In the end, Obama had only those first two years to pass meaningful legislation, and only 14 months—between Al Franken finally getting seated in July 2009 after a disputed election, and Ted Kennedy's death in August 2010—with the filibuster-proof Senate majority that allowed passage of the Affordable Care Act. During those two years he passed other pieces of enormously consequential legislation—the stimulus, financial reform—and also filled two seats on the Supreme Court. But six years later, Democrats seem more likely to remember the misery of unending shutdown battles and ugly fights with Republicans.

Hillary Clinton would come into office without ambitions for the kind of big, transformative bills Obama passed. Nevertheless, her administration could follow exactly the same pattern: two years in which to pass legislation, followed by a Republican victory that robs her of any hope of making new laws with Congress's help. And that's if she's lucky.

This year, Democrats have an excellent chance of taking back the Senate, which Republicans currently hold by a 54-46 margin. Because the senators up for re-election are those who won in the 2010 Republican sweep, the GOP is defending many more seats, including a few in states like Illinois, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire that lean Democratic. If Clinton beats Donald Trump handily, she'll probably bring a Democratic Senate along with her.

And there's a chance that she could see a Democratic House as well. But that chance is small, and would require a true electoral meltdown on the Republicans' part to happen. Democrats need a net gain of 30 seats in order to take back control, which essentially means not only winning every single race that currently looks close, but picking off a few seats that everyone thought were safely in Republican hands. If anyone can make that happen for them, it's Donald Trump. But it's still a long shot.

But let's be generous to Clinton and assume she gets a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House. She certainly won't have a filibuster-proof Senate, but I'd guess that after being stymied by Republican filibusters of every bill of any consequence for so long, Democratic leaders would deliver McConnell an ultimatum: Either you scale back how often you use the filibuster, or we'll change the rules to get rid of it. In fact, you can look for an early version of this conflict in the struggle over Clinton's nominee to fill Antonin Scalia's Supreme Court seat; if Democrats take back the Senate and Republicans mount an extremely rare filibuster (Abe Fortas in 1968 was the only Supreme Court nominee ever successfully filibustered), you can be sure Democrats will respond by killing the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations.

In any case, the best-case scenario for Clinton is that she gets her Democratic Congress in those first two years—with extremely small margins, particularly in the House. And then what happens in 2018? Presidents almost always lose ground in Congress in off-year elections, and given the more Republican-friendly cast of the off-year electorate (older and more white, for starters), Republicans would be highly likely to take back the House.

And what about the Senate? The Senate election in 2018 will be nearly a mirror image of this year's, because the Democrats who won in 2012 will all be running again. Twenty-five of the seats up in 2018 are currently held by Democrats, while only eight are held by Republicans. Included in that number are Democratic seats in the Republican-leaning states of Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia, plus swing states like Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. Even if Democrats take the Senate this year, it will be very hard for them to hold on to it.

But maybe Clinton will enjoy a new era of cooperation with the Republican opposition, as they decide that it's better to work together to solve America's problems in a spirit of compromise and common cause than it is to just throw sand in government's gears and make life difficult for a Democratic president.

I'm kidding—of course they won't do that. And why should they? The calculation they'll face next January is the same one they did eight years before. And when they decided on total war with the White House, it worked out pretty well for them. They took back both houses of Congress and stopped Barack Obama from enacting much of his agenda. Sure, they ended up with Donald Trump as their presidential nominee, but they'll tell themselves that the two had nothing to do with each other.

And Republicans may despise Hillary Clinton even more than they do Obama. So whatever she can accomplish will be only over their most fevered and absolute opposition. Getting anything through Congress won't be easy—and she'll have precious little time to do it.

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