The End of the Obama Era

2014 wasn't just a pendulum swing—it was the closing of a chapter in American politics.

Larry Downing/Reuters

As you may have heard, 2014 was a good year for Republicans. They won a lot of elections! They won big elections and small elections, elections in red states and elections in blue states, elections everyone knew they would win and elections virtually no one expected them to win. They won the Senate, giving them a majority in both houses of Congress for the first time in a decade. They netted 13 new seats in the House, giving them the largest House majority since FDR was president. Perhaps most crucially, Republicans now control 33 governorships and 68 of 98 statehouses, giving them the ability to implement their policy agenda across the country—something they still can't really do on the federal level, where President Obama remains a check on their influence.

On some level, this was expected to happen. It is normal, after all, for the president's party to lose ground in a midterm election, particularly in the sixth year of a two-term president's time in office, when the fickle American electorate tends to get particularly fed up with the chief executive whose leadership it has just ratified by reelecting him. (American voters: jerks, basically.) A year ago today, anyone who'd read the first chapter of the American Pundit's Manual could have told you, based on history, what result to expect.

But fortunately for those of us who didn't sleep through 2014, we know a lot of things today that we didn't know a year ago. And the midterm elections, while narrowly predictable, may have reshaped the political landscape in subtler and more interesting ways than a simple binary transfer of power from one party to another. In other words, what we witnessed in 2014 wasn't just a swing of the ol' pendulum; it was the end of the Obama era in American politics.

One major hallmark of the Obama era was the rise of the Tea Party, a far-right faction driven to conspiratorial derangement by literally anything Obama proposed. But in 2014, its power began to wane. In 2010 and 2012, it had hamstrung Republicans by toppling incumbents and establishment-backed candidates in primaries and by preventing the party from articulating a positive agenda beyond obstruction and Obama-bashing. In 2014, however, the GOP got its act together. No Senate incumbent lost a primary (though Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, was toppled in a stunning and unexpected upset), and virtually all the party's nominees were either handpicked by, or palatable to, the party establishment. Party operatives put their candidates through intensive trainings to prevent another gaffe-prone contender like Todd Akin from dominating the airwaves and making the whole party seem crazy; fresh faces like Joni Ernst, in Iowa, and Cory Gardner, in Colorado, helped resuscitate the party's image in blue states—aided by unimpressive Democratic campaigns.

Democrats had proved extremely skilled in recent years at exploiting Republican divisions and tying GOP candidates to the worst tendencies of the party fringe. But these tactics ran aground when confronted with these upbeat, sanitized Republican opponents. In this way, 2014 may have marked the year when the Obama-campaign playbook—both in message and tactical terms—stopped working. Democratic campaigns banked on their ability to reshape the midterm electorate using the technological advances and mastery of data that Obama's team introduced to politics. But in too many cases, Democrats now acknowledge, their candidates failed to articulate a message that might have actually motivated their core voters. In addition, many formerly reliable Obama constituencies—like single women and Latinos—seemed to tire of the party's insistence that Republicans were out to get them, and either stayed home or crossed the aisle.

Most of all, of course, the midterms were a backlash against Obama's leadership and policies. Some of this was deserved—the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, for example, seemed to trigger an irrevocable loss of trust in the White House's competence. The fact that health-care reform went on to be implemented pretty smoothly after that did little to rescue the policy's, or the president's, reputation for effectiveness. Critics also argued that crises on the border and in the Middle East could be traced back to Obama's policies. Some of the president's political burden was more the function of horrendous timing, like the Ebola outbreak that flared in late summer and died down just after Election Day, or the good economic news that waited until right after the election to announce itself. And some was Republicans' fault, as their systematic obstruction first contributed to the president's reputation for not being able to get anything done—and then, when he began taking unilateral action to go around the reluctant Congress, helped paint him as a power-mad executive tyrant.

Put this all together, and you got a backlash against Obama that exceeded even Republicans' own expectations. The party's own strategists and pollsters did not foresee the scope of the victory that unfolded on November 4, including an unexpected Republican victory in the Maryland governor's race and a close call in the Virginia Senate race. Many Republican candidates had run relentlessly one-note campaigns tying their opponents to Obama and mining voters' dissatisfaction with Washington. But they correctly gauged voters' hunger for accountability—their desire to deliver a protest vote to a hapless and out-of-touch administration.

Obama now officially enters his lame-duck years, and much has been made of his rebound in the last month. Seemingly liberated by having nothing more to lose, he has struck an international climate deal, taken bold executive action on immigration, and unveiled a landmark shift in Cuba policy. The president also exerted some sway on the fiscal deal struck by the year-end Congress, convincing enough Democrats to vote for it to overcome liberal objections from Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren. It's clearly too soon to pronounce the president irrelevant or his political reputation beyond rescue. But as the 2016 election gets under way, as it already has, American politics will increasingly be focused on the post-Obama world. As 2014 ends, so does the Obama era.