It may seem too early to call, but we already have a winner in the 2016 election.
He’s someone the pundits wrote off long ago. An improbable outsider who rode an insurgent wave to snatch the nomination from the establishment. An unconventional politician whose raucous rallies underscored his appeal to voters far outside his party base.
His name is Barack Obama. And he can thank the freak show that is Donald Trump’s Republican party for restoring his stature as a unifying, national leader with a moderated and mature approach to a complex and unstable world.
Eight years ago, Obama represented an existential threat to the Republican party, and not just because he was going to lead the Democratic party to win the White House and Congress by large margins.
No, Obama’s biggest threat was that he could realign American politics, shifting it fundamentally towards progressives for a generation. He and his campaign aides talked privately of being the Reagan of the left: a transformative figure who would leave an indelible legislative mark at home and restore America’s position on the world stage.
With his appeal to independents and moderate Republicans, Obama could break the Republican party as a national force. With his appeal to minority voters – a rapidly emerging majority across the country – he could lock in the fastest growing demographics that could turn red states blue.
So the GOP leadership chose to make Obama unacceptable, unpalatable and un-American. On the night of his first inauguration, House Republican leaders met at a Washington steakhouse to plot their path back to power. They would not reform their policies or consider the root cause of their defeat. Instead, they would oppose Obama on everything, well before he tried to pass a giant stimulus bill or healthcare reform.
They needed to deny him a reputation for bipartisanship and mainstream politics, and they succeeded. He wasn’t reasonable; he was an ideologue. His vision of healthcare reform wasn’t a free-market system based on Republican plans; it was a socialist takeover that would destroy the American way of life. He was inviting terrorist attacks on the homeland, not hunting down Osama bin Laden. He was acting in unconstitutional ways because he wasn’t really American at all.
The party of Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Roger Ailes had turned him into their own kind of freak.
Before he finished his second year in office, Obama was such an object of Republican loathing that the Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell could say – with impunity – that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
If your political priorities are the total defeat of a single politician – not the advancement of your own policies through debate or legislation – then you are already in pretty desperate shape. You render it impossible to compromise with your opponents, and you fan the flames of extremism that will burn anyone in the center.
You also look weak and foolish when you lose, surrendering the stage to someone who can vilify his opponents better than you. So don’t look dazed and confused at Donald Trump when he runs your playbook more convincingly than your own team. It’s too late to fret about endorsing his kooky positions – like deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, treating all Muslims as enemies and blowing up the deficit – when they are only logical extensions of your own.
After eight years of conservative caricature, you may be forgiven for thinking that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim socialist with terrorist sympathies and job-destroying policies on healthcare and bank regulation.
Of course, if you live inside the echo chamber of Fox News and rightwing talk radio, you have to ignore the pesky fact that unemployment now stands at 4.9%. That’s lower than when Reagan left office in 1988, and it’s lower than when Bill Clinton won re-election in 1996.
The rate stood at 8.3% in Obama’s first full month in office, and not much below that when he won re-election. For a president with a job-killing economic plan, that’s not a shabby performance.
Sure enough, Obama’s approval ratings (52%) are almost identical to Reagan’s in August 1988 (53%) and a dramatic contrast to those of George W Bush (32%) in 2008. One of these Republican presidents was succeeded by his own vice-president; the other was succeeded by Barack Obama.
This should lead to some serious soul-searching inside the Republican party. Not a post-mortem about how to reach out to Latino voters, but a dismantling of the politics of personal destruction, and the creation of a new, hopeful agenda that can appeal to the mainstream.
Instead, the only point of unity inside the GOP is its gleeful hatred of Hillary Clinton, and its thinly veiled disdain for a nominee who has yet to find a politician he can’t insult.
The Republican party did not entirely fail to destroy Barack Obama. For a few years, aided by the great recession, they almost succeeded. But then they contrived to revive him by nominating a man who would destroy everything Obama stood for, along with much of the free world as we know it.
The rise of Trump has led, perversely, to the revival of Obama. Republican candidates are saying they will not vote for their presidential nominee, and the party’s national security officials are lining up to condemn Trump as a reckless danger to the Republic. How could the incumbent not look like a statesman compared to a man who apparently can’t be trusted with the elevator button, never mind a nuclear one?
Inside the White House, Obama’s aides talk about a president liberated from previous constraint. On the trail, and at the podium, he seems to love campaigning against his orange nemesis. His party’s candidates can’t get enough of him, and his potential successor – instead of putting distance between them – believes Obama doesn’t get enough credit for his economic achievements.
This one-term president is having an unusually successful end to his second term, and for that he can thank the Republicans who were so determined to destroy him.