Despite their efforts to cement President Obama’s legacy, it was his legacy that defeated Democrats in November. Republicans therefore have every right to confidently challenge it. This approach offers the party their best chance to align with America’s center-right majority and deny Democrats the legacy they need even more than Mr. Obama does.
Considering Republicans’ narrow November victories, their claim to a mandate could be premature. Although Donald Trump won the electoral vote handily, he did so only by winning many states narrowly while losing the popular vote. Senate Republicans hold a narrow 52-48 majority, and the House Republicans’ margin is 241 to 194.
Democrats have repeatedly won bigger majorities than Republicans just did. Eight years ago, Mr. Obama won crushing electoral and popular vote victories. Senate Democrats controlled 59 seats and House Democrats held 257 seats. From these overwhelming majorities Mr. Obama’s legacy began to take form.
So how can Republicans with such narrow majorities now feel confident taking apart the Obama legacy as their first order of business?
The answer lies in the conundrum of Mr. Obama’s presidency. Mr. Obama has combined personal popularity with policy unpopularity. The Real Clear Politics average of national polling data on Dec. 23 showed Mr. Obama’s approval rating at 53.6 percent versus 41.8 percent disapproval. However, only 32.1 percent thought America was on the right track, versus 56.4 percent who viewed it on the wrong track.
Although Mr. Obama has not been so favorably viewed in some time, Americans by almost 2-1 see the country headed in reverse with him at the helm.
The most striking of the president’s policy misfortunes has been Obamacare. Politically unpopular from the beginning, its short life has been a testament to its shortcomings. Republicans eagerly aim to make this their first target as the new Congress convenes.
Obamacare is hardly Mr. Obama’s only unpopular policy. A host of domestic policies have fallen short of Obamacare’s notoriety as they failed to satisfy Americans’ expectations. Economically, growth has underperformed throughout the president’s tenure. Fiscally, spending and tax rates are higher, and federal debt has more than doubled. And Mr. Obama has fared no better abroad.
Across the policy board, the president has pursued policies that have resonated deeply with America’s left-of-center minority — his base — but have almost immediately alienated large segments of America’s center-right majority. The result has been a consistent eroding of his political capital. In 2010, he lost the House to Republicans in a landslide. In 2012, his own popular vote percentage fell — a rarity for president winning a second term. And in 2014, he lost the Senate to Republicans.
Mr. Obama has survived his policy disconnect — and its political consequences — through his personal connection with voters. His policies have alienated much of America’s center-right majority, but he has personally retained enough to combine with his left-of-center base.
Mr. Trump’s triumph was his ability to link the discontent of America’s center-right majority to Mr. Obama’s policies. This was something the Republican establishment proved unable to do in two presidential elections. However, Mr. Trump also had an advantage: Mr. Obama himself was not on the ballot.
Instead, Mr. Trump faced Hillary Clinton in a contest where their negatives effectively offset. With the political scale balanced, Mr. Obama’s polices became the tipping point.
Desperately in need of the president’s base, Mrs. Clinton had little choice but to embrace his administration’s policies. Mr. Obama’s policies proved to be the ones that broke the camel’s back. A referendum the past eight years meant focusing America’s electorate on the weakest link of the Obama legacy.
Unquestionably Mr. Obama wanted his legacy memorialized with a Clinton victory. He worked hard — along with as many surrogates as he could muster — to make it so. However, as much as he wanted and Mrs. Clinton needed it, Democrats needed it more.
Yes, their party again won the popular vote — they have done so in four of the last five elections, However, they have only won two of those five. In his two wins, Mr. Obama received a majority of the popular votes. That is something Democrats had not achieved since FDR in 1940.
If that is what it takes for Democrats to win the White House, it is a pretty tall order. An order made even taller by Mrs. Clinton’s inability to replicate the feat, despite directly following Mr. Obama with his tireless work at the recent top of his popularity. They not only needed the Obama legacy to stand in November, they need it to endure in the future.
Republicans’ ready aim at Mr. Obama’s policy legacy in January is not simply hubris or an ideological reaction. It is a correct electoral reading of what November decided. It is also an astute political move to seek to grow their mandate by consolidating their position with an American center-right majority alienated by Mr. Obama’s policies.
Having been plagued by the Obama policy-personality conundrum, Republicans can now take advantage of it. A strong argument could be made that the president could have won a third term. The problem for Mrs. Clinton and Democrats was that Mr. Obama could not be on the ballot, but his policies were.
• J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.