the national interest

Is Bernie Sanders the New Barack Obama?

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Photo: Ida Mae Astute/ABC/Getty Images

Eight years ago, Iowa was the place where the inevitable Hillary Clinton presidency became evitable. The woman who had, since the 1990s, defined the Democratic Party’s horizons was now a figure of its past, pitted — hopelessly, it turned out — against a figure of hope. The Clinton of today faces, from her perspective, a chilling parallel. She is again the candidate of transactional politics and hardened realism, facing an opponent in Bernie Sanders who inspired frenzied enthusiasm. Sanders has even adopted a slogan, “A future to believe in,” echoing Obama’s “Change we can believe in.”

Its superficial parallels aside, Clinton versus Obama presented a different kind of choice, for a different Democratic Party, than Clinton versus Sanders. One sign of the transformation can be found in the rhetoric of Clinton’s opponent. The young Barack Obama was already famous for his soaring rhetoric, but from today’s perspective, what is striking about his promises is less their idealism than their careful modulation. Obama, of course, proposed to bring both parties together, as though partisan warfare was simply a misunderstanding he could clear up. But even the transformational change he proposed would not usher in heaven on Earth.

Here is the future president speaking in the aftermath of his shockingly large victory in Iowa: “When we’ve made the changes we believe in, when more families can afford to see a doctor, when our children — when Malia and Sasha and your children inherit a planet that’s a little cleaner and safer, when the world sees America differently, and America sees itself as a nation less divided and more united, you’ll be able to look back with pride and say that this was the moment when it all began.” Even in this moment of giddiness, Obama was promising gradations of progress: More families can afford to see a doctor; a little cleaner and safer planet; a nation less divided.

And here is Obama after the New Hampshire primary, delivering his famous “Yes, we can” speech: “We can bring doctors and patients, workers and businesses, Democrats and Republicans together, and we can tell the drug and insurance industry that, while they get a seat at the table, they don’t get to buy every chair, not this time, not now.” Obama was literally promising to negotiate amicably with business interests, to give the insurance and drug industries a say in his health-care bill — in a speech his supporters found so inspiring put it to music. No candidate had ever made pragmatism and compromise so uplifting. Obamaism was a promise to reason together; it was lyrical technocracy.

Obama’s carefully negotiated, center-left reforms came largely to fruition; his lovely vision of transcending partisanship came to ruin. It turned out that business interests could be reasoned with, but Republicans could not. The policy transformation Obama has delivered relied in large part on substantial but temporary Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress passing a huge stimulus, health-care reform, regulations on Wall Street, and other major changes. Since Republicans took control of Congress during the 2010 elections, the advance of the welfare state has stopped. Obamaism failed as poetry but succeeded as prose. The contest between Clinton and Sanders is the Democratic Party trying to come to grips with those tensions. Was the Obama administration a success or a disappointment?

In Sanders’s telling, the Obama presidency meant well but has accomplished little. He credits what he calls “the modest gains of the Affordable Care Act” — i.e., 20 million fewer uninsured Americans — while proposing a single-payer plan. The Dodd-Frank reforms likewise play little role in Sanders’s description of the finance industry, whose rule over Washington he sees as unabated across Democratic and Republican administrations alike. The economy remains “rigged by Wall Street to benefit the wealthiest Americans in this country at the expense of everyone else.”

Clinton, by contrast, has cast herself fully as Obama’s heir. She proposes to build upon his legislative success and carry on his unfinished agenda, such as proposals to extend early-childhood education. As Sanders has risen in the polls, Clinton has placed less emphasis on the aspirational elements of her platform, which stand little chance of enactment. (If they did, Obama would probably have enacted them.) Instead she has stressed the importance of preventing the GOP from winning the presidency, which would give it full control of government and the ability to roll back many of Obama’s achievements. Her television ad in Iowa presents her as the candidate who will “stop the Republicans from ripping all our progress away.” Clinton’s appeal is a nod to the grim but inescapable reality that any legislation the president signs into law must pass through two chambers of Congress that are currently, and almost certain to remain, controlled by the opposing party. Images of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, glowering and brandishing firearms, flash in Clinton’s ad.

Sanders’s ad does not depict any Republicans at all. Indeed, they barely feature in his rhetoric. The salient question Sanders offers his audiences is not whether a Republican president will sign Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell’s bills or a Democratic one will veto them; it is whether the people prevail or corporate interests do.

Ever since the rise of the tea party, Democrats have enjoyed watching Republicans wrestle with the anguish of partial power. The anger faced by Republican leaders in Congress is mainly the base’s incomprehension that the GOP lacks the power to roll back the Obama agenda, or even to halt its advance. Ted Cruz, self-styled defender of the Constitution, shrewdly exploited right-wing voters’ failure to understand that the Constitution gives the president a veto. That veto — not the Republican fecklessness charged by Cruz — explains the failure of bills to repeal Obamacare and impose other elements of the Republican agenda. This constitutional barrier is intellectually simple enough that high-school civics students can grasp it, yet it has proven to be a surprisingly durable source of frustration.

Now, for the first time since 2008, the Democratic Party is choosing between leaders, which means it has finally encountered the same dilemma. Obama in 2008 benefited from the lowered ideological expectations that come with two terms out of power under a disastrous opposition president. His promise to restore reason to governing seemed inspiring. Clinton in 2016 is presenting a similar proposition to what she offered voters eight years earlier: a pragmatic center-left politician.

Sanders’s appeal, despite its tonal similarities, is very different from circa-2008 Obama’s, as Obama himself acknowledges. Obama proposed to restore a balance between the power of the business lobby and competing interests. Sanders proposes simply to steamroll over business interests. Obama had swollen Democratic majorities in both chambers to enact his agenda. Sanders (and, for that matter, Clinton) would not. In place of any practical road map to enacting his ideas, Sanders substitutes the “political revolution,” an event he invokes constantly that will sweep aside all impediments. His appeal borrows more from the tea party than from Obama — Sanders draws upon the left’s frustration with the limits of shared power in much the same way as Cruz has done.

Obama in 2008 believed Republicans could be reasoned out of their irrationality. Sanders today believes they can be swept aside when the people rise up and depose their corporate paymasters. Clinton, then as now, promises to grind away at them in a trench war that has gone on for decades and for which there is no end in sight. The thing Clinton has not managed to do — and what, quite possibly, no Democrat could do after eight years of shared power — is make technocracy lyrical.