WASHINGTON – As a presidential candidate in 2007, Barack Obama told historian Doris Kearns Goodwin: “I have no desire to be one of those presidents who are just on the list – you see their pictures lined up on the wall. I really want to be a president who makes a difference.”
In moments of decision, and in rare flashes of passion, we have seen what that means to him: passing the Affordable Care Act, even against uniform Republican opposition; ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even on less-than-favorable terms. He is genuinely animated when talking about gun control or closing the income gap. His second inaugural address – the first draft of Obama’s legacy project – was the most ambitiously progressive in American history.
But even as a second-term president contemplates his portrait on a wall that includes both Franklin Roosevelt and Franklin Pierce, he faces a final, usually difficult midterm election. Obama is reported to have said, “I don’t really care to be president without the Senate.” And there is a tension here between legacy and politics.
Exhibit A is the Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement of sweeping new restrictions on carbon emissions from power plants. This is the bold, politically risky expression of a consistent presidential priority. No one who voted to re-elect Obama, or voted to replace him, could have doubted (if they paid attention) that this was in the works. But, as a pleased Republican staffer on Capitol Hill told me, “Obama didn’t do this before his own re-election. Now others get to take the risk.”
Those others include Alison Grimes, the Democratic Senate challenger to minority leader Mitch McConnell. “When I’m in the U.S. Senate,” she responded, “I will fiercely oppose the president’s attack on Kentucky’s coal industry.”
Obama has clearly complicated her first task: getting to the Senate in the first place. In announcing the carbon dioxide rule, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy mocked “special interest skeptics who will cry the sky is falling.” Which also seems to include West Virginia’s Democratic Senate candidate Natalie Tennant, who declared: “I will stand up to President Obama, Gina McCarthy, and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs.”
It is not my purpose to criticize presidential boldness on matters of principle; only to note that in the contest between presidential legacy and Democratic Senate control, Obama has chosen legacy. And since the battle for the Senate is being fought in red states (some of which are coal states), the political consequences of Obama’s progressivism are magnified.
If you are a capable, electable Democratic Senate candidate – in Kentucky, say, or Georgia – you can’t be very pleased with Obama. The EPA regulations require explanation, or desperate distancing. The Taliban prisoner swap – which the administration somehow assumed would be noncontroversial – reveals layers of legal, ethical and geopolitical controversy. The VA hospital scandal continues to unfold, with 79 percent of Americans putting at least part of the blame on the president. And beneath it all, Obamacare – which generates Republican resentment without producing a counterbalancing Democratic enthusiasm.
Some of these factors are within Obama’s control and some aren’t. But five months before the Senate majority will be determined, Obama is complicating the messaging of some Democratic Senate candidates and exposing them to political risks he refused to take himself.
Over the years, progressives have argued that Obama has engaged in too much accommodation with Republicans and too much self-censorship when it comes to his deepest beliefs. More recently, Obama seems to have internalized that criticism, embarking on a pen-and-phone strategy of executive actions. And this has been accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s systemic appeal to the Democratic base – alleging a war on women while conducting a war on the Koch brothers.
But all this is strangely disconnected from one of the main challenges facing the Democratic Party in the coming election. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 29 percent of independents approve of Obama’s job performance. Just 24 percent of independents say they prefer Democratic congressional candidates.
National Democratic leaders are actively making this problem worse. And both progressives and Republicans are now hoping for the same thing: Let Obama be Obama.
The president has always had a tendency to fly alone. From the start, his mission was singular and personal – a movement inseparable from the man and only incidentally connected to his party. But the epic failure of that party in two midterms, and a sendoff loss of Senate control, would also help determine the Obama legacy.
Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.