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Obama’s second term will be more aggressive, but not just because it’s his last

obama, press conference
Getty Images / Alex Wong
“You know what? I don’t have to be nice to you guys any more.”
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The wide-ranging proposals on gun control that Barack Obama is expected to announce tomorrow (Jan. 16) symbolize the change in attitude accompanying his second presidential term.

Rapidly accelerating a process that began during his campaign, Obama since November has confidently picked fights with Republicans—and challenged the most conservative members of his own party—on a broad range of foreign-policy and domestic social issues. Besides gun control these include immigration, the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan and the nomination of Republican senator Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary, a red flag for the GOP’s neo-conservative wing.

Obama in effect is answering a question that liberal political thinkers have asked since the 1970s: how would the Democratic Party behave if it could diminish its dependence on conservative white voters? His forceful moves on all these controversial fronts represent a calculated gamble that the evolution of the US electorate has reached a critical tipping point. When Bill Clinton moved on some of these same issues, the conservative backlash (particularly over gun control and gays in the military) contributed to the Republican landslide in 1994 that gave the party control of both legislative chambers for the rest of the decade. Obama is betting that the Democratic coalition will prove more resilient than in Clinton’s day. That’s undeniably true in presidential elections, though it could prove a problem for congressional Democrats—but more on that later.

Not just second-term syndrome

Many see Obama’s newfound aggression as a sign that he feels liberated by knowing that he will never again face the voters. “He’s reelected and he doesn’t care,” said one Democratic strategist close to the White House. “I think there are a million little things over the last year that they couldn’t do, where there was a little part of Barack Obama that said ‘I hate that I have to make these compromises.’”

But it also reflects the changing demographics that got Obama re-elected.

Since the 1970s Democrats have often been paralyzed by the fear of losing culturally conservative white voters if they moved too far left, particularly on social and foreign-policy issues. And in fact, those voters did stampede away from Obama last November in even larger numbers than in 2008: Exit polls conducted on election day found that Republican Mitt Romney carried over three-fifths of both whites older than 45 and whites without a four-year college degree.

Yet Obama not only won without them, but won convincingly. Final vote tallies have pushed his share of the national vote past 51%, making him the only the third Democrat ever to cross that threshold twice (joining Franklin Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson.)

Obama triumphed despite his decline among conservative-leaning whites because of what I’ve called the “coalition of the ascendant”—minorities, the Millennial generation, and college-educated white women. Obama won 80% of the first, 60% of the second, and almost half of the third, and each of those groups set a new record as a share of the total vote, according to exit polls. Minorities, most importantly, cast 28% of the vote, more than double their share during Clinton’s first election in 1992.

The departure of older and blue-collar whites limited the scale of Obama’s victory, but it left behind a more ideologically cohesive Democratic party base. Exit polls found that nearly four out of five Obama voters supported giving illegal immigrants a way to become citizens and almost as many supported allowing same-sex marriage.

Ruy Teixeira, co-author of the seminal 2002 book “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” says the party’s coalition has evolved over time “in such a way that not only makes the [presidential] majority more solid but shifts the weight toward groups that are less interested in a temporizing, triangulating politics.” Compared to even the 1990s, he notes, Democrats “don’t have—and don’t need—as many of those voters at the conservative end of their coalition… as they once did. So it is more cohesive than it once was, and it is easier to keep mobilized than it once was.”

Picking his fights

Against that backdrop, Obama’s recent maneuvers make more sense. During his reelection campaign, he crossed a Rubicon by repeatedly instigating or accepting fights with the GOP on issues that energized this “coalition of the ascendant” even at the price of further antagonizing more conservative voters. That was evident through 2012 in his decisions to pursue an administrative path to legalization for young people brought to the US illegally by their parents; to provide access to free contraception in health insurance despite fierce opposition from the Catholic Church; and, above all, to reverse his previous opposition to gay marriage.

Since the election the president has moved further, and faster, along that same track. Obama has signaled that he intends to forcefully promote a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants here illegally—a priority for Hispanic voters, still fiercely resisted by many culturally conservative whites.

Even more strikingly, after last month’s mass school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Obama has abandoned his long-time timidity on gun control issues and is unveiling this week a sweeping package of constraints. Politically, gun control divides the US almost exactly in half, facing impassioned opposition from the groups who are increasingly Republican core voters, but maintaining solid support from those at the core of Obama’s new coalition, including about two-thirds of both minorities and college-educated white women.

Obama is showing the same instinct by accepting pitched battles with neo-conservative foreign-policy thinkers over his determination to move rapidly toward the exits in Afghanistan, and even more so, his nomination of Hagel, whose questioning of the use of force to reshape the Middle East baits conservatives with the added sting of heresy.

On all of these issues, the president is simply “following his coalition,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, now perhaps the leading liberal group in Washington. “The point I make, in my role [of talking to] the whole coalition, is there’s the possibility of a progressive [electoral] majority that sustains a lot of good things for everybody in it, but we have to deliver [for our voters].”

Obama’s confident advance on these cultural and foreign-policy issues contrasts with a more ambivalent approach on economic ones. After pledging to raise taxes on all families earning at least $250,000, he struck a surprisingly favorable deal for Republicans that set the threshold at $450,000—the top 0.7% of earners—and overall confirmed 82% of the tax cuts passed under his predecessor, George W. Bush. And while the president insists he won’t accept Republican demands for further big cuts in government spending as the price of raising America’s debt ceiling, neither is he proposing significant new spending to accelerate the economic recovery, as liberals yearn for.

All of this reflects Obama’s caution after his own mid-term electoral debacle in 2010, fueled not by social issues (as Clinton’s was) but mostly by a backlash against the way his health-care and stimulus plans expanded government. But it also reflects the reality that populism is often sharper in word than deed for a modern Democratic coalition that relies so much on white upper middle class voters, especially in affluent coastal states. Many of those voters are drawn to cultural and foreign-policy liberalism—but tend to be less enthused about tax policies that reach into their wallet.

Obama’s willingness, however reluctantly, to limit tax increase to such high earners mostly responded to pressure from Republicans. But it also reflected unease from some Democrats in affluent coastal states about nicking families earning $250,000—a group few in the party would have worried about offending 25 years ago. Those cracks inside democratic ranks were as much a sign of the shifting Democratic coalition as his embrace of gay marriage.

A House divided

In Congress, the politics of this transition aren’t as straightforward as they are for the president. There, Democrats must win a larger share of conservative white voters to hold a majority. That’s both because the two-senator-per-state system exaggerates the influence of small rural states, and also because the coalition of the ascendant tends to cluster around big cities, giving Republicans the edge in more exurban and rural House districts. Also, minorities and young people are a lot less likely to vote in mid-term elections. That will make the Democrats more vulnerable in 2014 if Obama’s second-term social agenda prompts a conservative backlash, raising the specter of a repeat of the Republican landslide of 1994.

On the other hand, things can’t get that much worse for the Democrats. They have already lost almost all of the House seats where those conservative voters predominate. Democrats now hold just 31 of the 143 House seats where whites represent at least 80 percent of the voting-age population, and to regain a majority in the lower chamber they almost certainly have to focus on more diverse urban and suburban seats where culturally liberal positions have more support. In the Senate, Democrats must hold several seats in Republican-leaning states in 2014 to maintain control; but overall the Democratic majority now revolves around the party’s overwhelming advantage in what I’ve called “the blue wall”—the left-leaning 18 states that have voted Democratic in at least the past six consecutive presidential elections.

Democrats will always be more of a coalition party than the more ideologically and racially homogenous Republicans. But Obama’s emerging second-term course both reflects and accelerates the forces that are moving Democrats too toward greater cohesion—and intensifying the searing polarization of American politics.

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