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Obama’s Agenda Is Helping Hillary by Cornering Republicans

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Three months ago, as the prospect of an international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions came into focus, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pledged that as a first-term president in 2017 he would unilaterally void any deal, even over the anticipated objections of our European allies.

Walker’s tack was predictable and stunning at the same time. Predictable because pledging to erase President Barack Obama’s accomplishments is a ticket to political success in the Republican Party; stunning because—whatever you think of the coming accord itself—unilaterally abrogating it would be a devastating setback for any president. The international community would, by consensus, hold the U.S. to account for its failure, and, without a crushing sanctions regime to deter it, Iran would reanimate its weapons program.

Walker is particularly reactionary when confronted with questions about the political and social changes that define the Obama era. But across the board, Republican candidates are committed to adjusting the status quo backward. They oppose the Iran negotiations, the normalization of relations with Cuba, and the very notion of an international agreement to curb global warming; they oppose administrative policies, like deferred action and overtime pay rules, that improve the lives of minorities and workers; and they oppose social legislation like the Affordable Care Act. Of the leading GOP presidential candidates, Walker holds the most extreme view that the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage should be reversed and returned to the states. But all of these candidates oppose same-sex marriage, and when conflicts arise between supporters and opponents of marriage equality, they will side with the opponents.

Taken as a whole, these issue positions will make it difficult for Republicans to cast themselves as forward-looking candidates. But the substantive developments themselves share a thematic quality that will do more than simply complicate the GOP’s branding strategy. They are all designed to force Republican candidates to make unreasonable promises that will be hard to defend in a general election, and harder to execute should a Republican become president. Obama is using his first-mover advantage not just to shore up his own legacy, but to set the terms of the coming presidential campaign favorably for the Democratic nominee.

On Thursday, at a White House background briefing organized by senior administration officials, I asked about the dangers Obama’s biggest achievements will face if a Republican wins the presidency in 2016, and they explained the president’s larger strategic thinking.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the president wants to see his presidency followed by a Democratic president, because obviously when you’ve worked for eight years through hell and high water at times, very challenging issues like affordable health care, like climate change issues, like obviously, hopefully getting a deal with Iran, you don’t want it to be flipped back or dialed back or made null and void,” one official said. “A lot of these issues that the president is driving and talking about out there, even if it’s in the bully pulpit, are making their way on to the campaign trail, and they are making the contrast more stark between what’s being presented.”

Another official offered more specificity.

We would like to think that the logic of what we are doing is such that the next president would want to pursue those policies. However, ultimately it will be their determination. So for instance on Iran, if there is a deal, by that point they will have completed their key nuclear steps in terms of taking out two-thirds of their centrifuges and reconfiguring their reactor and getting rid of their stockpile. A new president deciding essentially to pull out of that, therefore giving them the incentive to reactivate those efforts would not be logical, but they could do it. The notion of shutting down an embassy in Cuba and reimposing restrictions on Americans I don’t think is logical but the next president could do that.

I think just as importantly, maybe even more importantly than those two, is if we get an international climate agreement in Paris. We saw what happened when the United States pulled out of Kyoto in 2001: The whole international effort collapsed. Because the world is not going to go along with a deal that the United States pulls out of. A good climate agreement in Paris is entirely dependent on U.S. leadership. Both in terms of our own targets, but you’ve seen the president work very methodically with each of the major economies to try to bring them forward and in terms of their commitments. So we had the China target put out last fall. Most recently we had Brazil put out ambitious deforestation targets. If we are able to reach a global understanding and agreement on climate change in December, you can expect that there will be opponents to that on the other side of the aisle. If we pulled out of that in January of 2017, the global effort would fall apart, because no country would want to stick by their own commitments.

The “logic” the official cited would look very different if Obama’s actions were unpopular or in limbo. But they are being crafted in a way that keeps Obama in step with the Democratic Party and on the right side of public opinion, and roots them deeply enough to resist easy extraction. As a result, the campaign won't be about whether Obama's goals are good or bad, but whether policies in which influential constituencies have vested interests are scooped out of the ground. 

“In all these areas, we think the logic of these policies is that they should continue,” the second official added. “The stakes of pulling out of these things are very high, precipitating a crisis with Iran, collapsing an international climate framework … taking away [overtime pay], alienating the United States completely in Latin America, which is what the Cuba thing would do. But that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t do it.”

Buoyed by a growing economy and higher approval ratings, Obama and his advisers have been forthright about the importance to his legacy of electing a Democratic president in 2016. They argue that his presidency has been consequential enough to leave him covered in a Reagan-like afterglow, but only if the next president is a Democrat. Last week, Politico reported on a strategy meeting Obama convened in part to make sure that his loyalists don’t become distracted from that greater goal by focusing myopically on the near-term interests of the Obama White House.

“Much in the same way that the Reagan Revolution required Bush senior, we’ve got to make sure that we’re laying the foundation,” Obama said. “It’s important for us to set the record properly and tell a story about what happened over the last six and a half years, less for our benefit and more to create the political climate going into the next election so the agenda that we’ve set continues.”

From there, Obama traveled to Wisconsin, where he used Walker as a synecdoche for the Republican primary field. “[W]e’ve seen what happens when top-down economics meets the real world,” he said. “We’ve got proof right here in Wisconsin.”

Obama’s putative purpose was to introduce the aforementioned overtime rule—a forthcoming policy that will ensure earners aren’t thrown into low- and middle-salaried positions in order to reduce their effective wages. But selling a policy wasn’t his only intention. Teeing up overtime regulations as a question for Republicans was an equally important objective, with the expectation that Walker and the rest of the Republican field will oppose his plan, or even promise to undo it.