After Obama

In this article, I examine the names in the frame for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. 

November’s midterm elections in the United States generated bad headlines for the Democrats because the loss of the Senate means Barack Obama will struggle to get any legislative governing done in his last two years in post, short of wielding his veto pen on various Republican attempts to roll back his agenda thus far.

But the midterms also represented an organisational and talent setback at the state level that could make the 2016 fight a whole deal tougher for the Democrats, losing governor races in Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts. Indeed Democrats now only control 17 of the 50 states and none of the significant battleground states such as Iowa, Florida or Ohio.

That means fewer Democrat hands on the organisational levers of power and fewer politicians able to build a profile to be Obama’s successor.

Contrast that with the Republicans who have a bench of over a dozen governors ready to run for the White House.

The Democrat bench is much more dominated by former or current senators from Hillary Clinton herself to John Kerry, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren or Al Gore.

With Washington politics having such a low standing with the public, the ultimate insiders of the Senate are always going to find it a tougher sell with the public.

As for sitting vice-presidents, prospects do not look good either. The bad news for Joe Biden is that when George HW Bush won in 1988 he was the first incumbent to win the White House in over 160 years.

And for Clinton – or any Democrat – history also shows that in seven of the last eight presidential elections the other party won after two terms of a president, with Bush the exception there too.

Historically Americans prefer governors, from Bill Clinton to Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan to Franklin D Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson to George W Bush. Indeed no governor has lost a race this century. That is where the Democrats look weak.

The governors in the frame are: retiring Maryland governor Martin O’Malley but he could not get a Democrat elected to replace him; Colorado governor John Hickenlooper who was barely re-elected and Democrats lost the US Senate seat there; 76-year-old California governor Jerry Brown who ran and lost against Clinton back in the 1990s; or New York governor Andrew Cuomo.

The precedent of Obama in 2008 and John F Kennedy in 1960 as senators making it to the White House are not bad names to follow, but both faced challenges from GOP candidates who were even more Washington insiders – long-term senator and sitting vice-president John McCain and Richard Nixon respectively.

Although all the commentators think Hillary Clinton will win if she runs, this is to ignore not just her own loss to Obama in 2008 but the history of presumptive nominees often failing. Obama, Carter, Kennedy, McCain, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Mitt Romney were all in one cycle or another the underdog for the nomination they went on to win.

Even among Democrats who want Hillary Clinton to win there is no desire for a coronation.

And although there are various online campaigns, from New York mayor Bill de Blasio through to Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, the only candidate who has formally shown their hand is Navy veteran and former Virginia senator Jim Webb who has take the first step of an ‘exploratory committee’ to decide if he is formally going to run. This follows the standard candidate stuff of a worthy book launch and tour earlier in the year to raise his profile.

There will be different motivations for those who take up the challenge. First, there will be those who will genuinely believe they can win. And they can take some encouragement from the history of presumptive nominees – not least Clinton herself in 2008.

Second, there will be those who run not to win but because they are after the vice-president spot or a senior cabinet spot themselves. Given his experience, a good run and then dropping out to endorse the winner could likely see Webb end up as the next defence secretary.

As ever with political predictions, you never know what is around the corner and the commentator consensus in 2008 was that Clinton had a lock on the nomination. It will be that thought as well as the desire to finally break that glass ceiling of American politics that will be on her mind as she decides if she is ready for another run.


This article originally appeared on Progress Online.