Obama and Clintons Must Move Aside and Make Room for New Leaders

At Trump's inauguration, President Obama reaches across to shake hands with the woman who will not succeed him
At Trump’s inauguration, President Obama reaches across to shake hands with the woman who will not succeed him

Their presence is a double-edged sword for Democrats who desperately need to build their bench.

by Joshua Spivak

As the Democrats gird for at least two to four years in the political wilderness, three political figures stand out for their willingness to stay in the spotlight. Barack Obama is laying plans to preserve his legislative legacy and organize opposition to the Republicans. And Bill and Hillary Clinton are expected to jump back into the policy, politics and fundraising fray in the next few months.

Yet this may be a double-edged sword for the party long-term. Democrats have a remarkably thin bench on the state and local levels, having lost over a thousand offices since Obama’s victory in 2008. To move forward, the Democrats require new faces and new names to take the lead. And arguably just as important, like Bill Clinton before him, Obama has a poor track record of helping other officials.

The fact that a president — or a losing presidential candidate — is not a great party builder should not be a surprise. Modern presidents have not always risen through the ranks, Donald Trump being the most extreme example. Recent presidents don’t have a personal history of pulling up others to success or even making much of an effort to establish coattails for lower level officials except in driving up turnout in their own election year. In off-year elections, presidents are almost invariably a drag on the party. In the last three off-year races, in fact, the president’s party has lost control of at least one house of Congress.

This was especially true for both Clinton and Obama, when the Democrats not only lost significant levels of support, in 1994 they lost control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Part of the reason was a long-time erosion of support from Democrats in the South, but neither of these leaders was able to halt the trend. Obama has announced a push for nationwide redistricting reform, though it’s unclear how much it will help his party.

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Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He blogs at The Recall Elections Blog. Follow him on Twitter @RecallElections