Opinion

The Populist Surge Is Obama’s Biggest Legacy

J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official

Populism is writing the first chapter of Obama’s legacy. Following a two-term president, the next election is a verdict on his performance. However, this election’s dominant political headline is not Obama, but populism. Although this seems a dramatic departure, both parties’ simultaneous populist surges originate with Obama and the nation’s negative appraisal of his administration.

No recent president has been as absorbed as Obama with creating a legacy. It has led to this White House’s accomplishments-at-all-costs culture and a series of hastily and ill-conceived initiatives abroad and at home.

Of course as with any two-term presidency, a major legacy milestone will be whether Obama can pass the White House on to another president of his party.

As with all aspects of his legacy, Obama has intensely focused on this for some time. His intention in all his actions, if not his public words, has been to return the baton to the person from whom he wrested it in 2008: Hillary Clinton.

Clinton has repaid Obama’s favor by wrapping herself ever tighter in Obama’s legacy as her nomination fight drags on. As her negatives have risen, she has clung tighter to the mantle of her more popular would-be presidential predecessor.

So with a president who has focused on his legacy since his inauguration and become only more so, who over seven years has driven Washington’s partisan divide wider than ever, and whose anointed heir has run to diminish any differences with him, Obama should be the only issue in this race. Yet he is not 2016’s constant headline; Populism is.

From the parties’ fringes – the Tea Party movement and Occupy Wall Street – populism has simultaneously surged to centrality in both races. In the Democratic race, Senator Sanders is consistently polling at the 40 percent level nationally among Democrats. On the Republican side, Trump has won 19 of the 29 U.S. contests thus far, and is polling nationally just below 50 percent among Republicans. By any definition, populism is a major and still growing force.

However just because populism is the headline, does not mean that Obama is not in the story. The Obama narrative is here, even if it lies between the lines.

For almost every constituency, the Obama presidency has delivered varying degrees of disappointment.

Under Obama, the economy has been at its best mediocre, while taken overall it has been poor. In Washington, the federal debt has more than doubled.

At home, America has not felt this divided since the Vietnam war — and abroad, it has also not appeared weaker since that period.

His signature accomplishment, Obamacare, falls ever further below expectations. In Congress, his major legislative victories have been few and rarely due to his leadership in recent years.  His Washington wins have most lately come from going around Congress — and many would say circumventing the Constitution itself.

Together, Obama’s tenure has enraged and increased his opponents, alienated Independents, and sapped the enthusiasm of many Democrats.

Republicans have raced ahead of their party establishment — as evidenced by the popularity of Trump and Cruz — to reject Obama. Independents voted against him four years ago — going 50 to 45 percent for Romney. And while Democrats cannot bring themselves to reject him personally, nationally two in five reject Clinton — Obama’s anointed successor.

America’s electorate is frustrated and fragmented. From this, populism has erupted.

From Sanders on the left, to Cruz on the right, the American electorate has never spread so broadly. And never has it been so far from unity in the center — Clinton and Trump only occupying it relatively.

Even if populism does not prove lasting, Obama has spawned its most virulent outbreak in decades. When it comes to Obama’s legacy, for now populism has taken the pen out of the president’s hand.  Even if it does not have the last word on Obama’s presidency, at the very least, populism is ghostwriting the first chapter of his legacy.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000