In his bittersweet farewell address this week, President Obama made a passionate case for both his policy agenda and his civic vision of a nation strengthened by diversity. But his words won’t settle the Democrats’ difficult debate about his political legacy.
Through two terms, Obama deepened the Democrats’ connection with a constellation of growing groups, namely minorities, the millennial generation, and college-educated whites, especially women. That coalition allowed him to join the ranks of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt, the only Democrats to win a presidential popular-vote majority at least twice.
But Obama also narrowed the Democrats’ appeal, both demographically and geographically, in ways that helped Republicans seize unified control of the White House and Congress and establish their biggest advantage in state governments since the 1920s.
Both these positive and negative trends for the Democratic Party predate Obama’s first campaign, and the latter trends were accentuated by Hillary Clinton’s unique weaknesses in 2016. But Obama intensified these dynamics with a distinctive strategy that bound Democrats to the political priorities of their heavily urbanized new coalition, especially on cultural issues from gay rights to immigration reform. That came at the price of further alienating the GOP’s competing coalition of older, blue-collar, and religiously devout whites, who live largely outside of urban areas. And it was those voters who mobilized to narrowly elect Trump and preserve Republican control of Congress.