From now until November 6th, Barack Obama will be fighting for his political life. Mitt Romney still isn’t inspiring any Shepard Fairey “HOPE” posters, so Obama’s challenge will be to rally and inspire a base that is skeptical about his achievements and unsure of his intentions. Most of all, Obama will have to overcome a pervasive sense of disappointment bordering on betrayal that, after Hope and Change, we’re stuck with politics as usual. However, if we look at Obama’s presidency from a historical perspective, we begin to see that in some important ways the game was “rigged” against him from the start. The problem goes beyond an obstructionist Congress and a hostile and activist Supreme Court to the very heart of what we mean by “American politics.” We must situate Obama’s administration in its proper historical and ideological context.
The days and weeks surrounding Barack Obama’s election in 2008 were so exciting, the political environment so kinetic, that an honest-to-goodness political science topic received considered deliberation in the media. Even weeks before Obama’s election, pundits declared presidential blowouts extinct. Once Obama ran up the score on McCain, however, the same pundits debated whether 2008 was a realigning election. Several landmark works in American politics from the 1950s through the 1970s proposed that a special few elections were political realignments. (For a masterful lit review and critique, see David Mayhew, Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre.) Although authors have different definitions, some key claims about realignment remain constant: these elections are rare (1860, 1896, and 1932 are usually held as the examples); they create a sharp and durable shift in voter allegiance; voter engagement and turnout are unusually high; and major policy changes come about as a result of the election.
While 2008 was a triumph for Obama the candidate and a stinging rebuke of the Bush administration, it failed to meet most of these criteria for realignment. Turnout was up, but it was not accompanied by a higher level of serious political engagement. (Witness the failed transition of Obama for America from a campaign to an administration organization.) Furthermore, Obama’s victory was more about a mood or a feeling than any particular policy vision or set of proposals. This is a perfectly fine way to win an election, especially with a candidate as skilled and inspiring as Obama, but it does signify “politics as usual,” not any durable shift in government.