Fist fights at campaign rallies. A major presidential candidate called a bigot and bully by members of his own party. Gridlock in Washington. And Americans downright pessimistic.
This is America’s politics today, seven years after Barack Obama was elected president with a promise to change it all.
The political change he predicted never appeared. Instead, partisanship and dysfunction have grown worse. His legacy on policies is more mixed. He did accomplish things, notably the Affordable Care Act. But his legacy on politics is another story.
Republicans and Democrats refuse to compromise, sometimes even talk. Congress has become more unproductive with lawmakers failing to pass budgets or even consider presidential appointments. And most Americans have little to no confidence in the federal government to tackle the problems facing the nation in 2016, according to a poll released in January.
Just Thursday, about 20 people were arrested after hundreds of protesters blocked an intersection and vandalized a police car outside a rally for Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump at the Orange County Fairgrounds in California. Several fights broke out.
“It’s fair to say that President Obama entered office as chief executive of a divided country, and he’s done nothing noticeable to heal those divisions in his seven years,” said William Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and now a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution.
Barring an unexpected change in the country, the political legacy of the 44th president will be that he left office with the atmosphere in the United States in worse shape than when he was elected.
That failure is all the more disappointing, Democrats and Republicans say, because he raised expectations so high.
“He clearly thought – and he was entirely wrong – that he could transform politics in America,” said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “It was naive to think he could bridge this divide.”
Now entering his final months in office, Obama acknowledges that he was not able to “fix our politics.”
“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said in his final State of the Union address in January. “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office."
There’s plenty of reasons for the dysfunction: millions of dollars of unaccountable money in politics; districts that ensure most lawmakers don’t face competition; parties that have become more extreme; highly partisan media outlets and an atmosphere that no longer stops campaigning for governing.
In February, Obama devoted an entire speech to partisan politics, pushing for Americans to reduce money in politics, change how congressional districts are drawn and make voting easier.
But Obama, too, shares in the blame.
I won’t take all the responsibility for it, but I'll take some. We all own some of it. I'll take my share
President Barack Obama
First, he could have worked to establish better relationships with lawmakers. Obama has at times tried to socialize with or lobby lawmakers, most notably when he played golf with then-House Speaker John Boehner in 2011 or looked for an elusive deal to reduce the federal deficit in 2013. But he didn’t try to compromise in his first two years, when Democrats controlled Congress, and usually relied on pressuring lawmakers by rallying the public at campaign-style events across the nation.
Second, he could have made different choices about priorities. For example, he could have tackled fiscal reform at the start of his tenure – an issue that would have likely garnered some Republican support – instead of health care, which didn’t pass with any Republican votes and remains a point of opposition to this day. Now, more Americans disapprove than approve of the health care law, according to a Pew Research Center poll released this week.
He used his executive powers to move his own agenda forward when Congress failed to act, including delaying the deportation of millions of illegal immigrants, a move that still angers Republicans. And he disappointed lawmakers from his own party when he opted not to embrace the recommendations of his deficit commission formed to devise a bold, bipartisan deficit deal.
To be sure, gridlock’s been building in the nation’s capital for decades. But Obama campaigned as a leader who could – and would – change that.
“I can bring this country together, I think, in a unique way, across divisions of race, religion, region,” Obama said in a 2008 primary debate against opponent Hillary Clinton.
“The Obama that campaigned was not the Obama that governed,” said Doug Heye, a veteran Republican strategist who worked on Capitol Hill.
After seven years of the cool, weak and endlessly nuanced ‘no drama Obama,’ voters are looking for a strong leader who speaks in short, declarative sentences. Middle-class incomes are stagnant, and radical Islam is on the march across the Middle East. No wonder voters are responding to someone who promises to make America great again
former Republican presidential candidate Bobby Jindal in the Wall Street Journal
Obama has taken some responsibility for the nation’s problems, but pushed back on accusations he has led to the Republican Party’s problems.
“What I’m not going to do is validate some notion that the Republican crackup that’s been taking place is a consequence of actions that I’ve taken,” he said recently.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama has a “strong record” on trying to change Washington: He implemented new ethics rules, including those designed to curb lobbyists’ influence. He supported legislation which would have disclosed dark money. He required the federal government to release more information regularly, including for the first time, a log of visitors to the White House.
But his administration also set a record last year for denying access to information under public records laws, investigated journalists for doing their jobs and launched a government-wide crackdown on security threats that requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers.
Some blame Republicans who have refused to meet him halfway time and time again – the House wouldn’t allow a major immigration bill to go to the floor for a vote, the Senate refuses to consider Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court and neither chamber will hold a hearing on renewal of the Voting Rights Act, which a decade ago passed with bipartisan support.
Miles Rapoport, president of Common Cause, a government watchdog group, said Obama turned to executive actions in his final years in office only after Republican lawmakers repeatedly rebuffed him.
“He tried, but he found opposition,” Rapoport said. “Elected leaders have a responsibility to try, despite the very deep disagreements.”
Tom Davis, a former longtime Republican congressman in Virginia who sits on the board of No Labels, which strives to find common ground in Washington, said Obama should have known he was not going to be able to solve Washington’s problems.
“He just didn’t have the experience for governance,” Davis said. “It’s hard for some rookie to come in here and change it. I think it’s easier said than done.”