Issue Briefs

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been unable to turn Democratic majorities into winning governing strategies

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been unable to turn Democratic majorities into winning governing strategies 

Martin Sieff

January 27, 2017 

The Democratic Party in the United States is the oldest and most long-lasting political party on earth, whether one chooses to date its actual founding at the beginning of the 19th century by such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and the Tammany Hall political organization in New York City, or its successful ascent to national power with the triumph of Democratic voting rights for white males in Andrew Jackson’s victorious election campaign in 1828.

Strong party

Judged at the most obvious level of the votes and support it can command in national presidential campaigns, the Democratic Party has never been stronger or more popular. In the 2016 election, its nominee Hillary Clinton won more than 2.8 million votes more than her opponent, Republican Donald Trump.

The 2016 outcome marked the sixth time in the past seven presidential elections that the Democratic candidate won the most votes. In 2004 George W. Bush was the only Republican candidate in the past 28 years to win more votes than his Democratic opponent, John Kerry.

Not doing so well

And yet, despite this apparent dominance in national popularity, the Democrats have managed to lose control of the executive branch for three out of the past five terms.

Far worse, they have now lost control of the House of Representatives, the lower and more powerful of the two chambers of Congress exercising the fiscal power since 2010. They have controlled the House only for four years (from 2006 to 2010) out of the past 22 years.

Outgoing US President Barack Obama won both his national victories with commanding margins of eight million votes in 2008 and then five million votes in 2012. Yet in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, his stewardship of the nation was twice humiliatingly repudiated. Republicans won control of both chambers of Congress by wide margins both times.

Widespread losses

Under Obama’s two terms as President of the United States the Democratic Party has lost more than 900 state legislative seats and 69 seats in the House of Representatives.

Across the 50 US states the party now only controls 13, or 26 percent of state senates, 18 or 36 percent of state lower legislative, or house chambers and 18, or 36 percent of governorships.

In 2014, the Democrats’ numbers in both the Senate and the House were reduced to their lowest levels since 1928.


The results in particular of the 2016 electoral contests demonstrated an extraordinary paradox. Hillary Clinton received over 65.7 million votes, one of the three greatest showings of any political candidate of either party in US history. Only Obama himself in 2008 (69.5 million) and 2012 (65.9 million) has ever won more votes.

Yet Clinton still contrived to lose the election by decisive margins in the Electoral College with only 232 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 306, when 270 were needed for victory.

Nor was this a distortion of democracy. When the votes were tallied up on a state by state basis, Clinton lost clearly across many states.

In 2016 voters rejected Hillary Clinton and the Democrats

Indeed, if the vote tallies in California, (where Clinton won a lopsided victory by more than three million votes), were removed, an overall majority of voters in all other 49 states combined decisively rejected her.

The results of the 2016 vote, despite Clinton’s overall 2.8 million more votes than Trump proved dire for the Democrats. The Republicans retained control of the House and the Senate. Even modest Democratic hopes of regaining control of the Senate and winning back at least 20 seats in the House were dashed. They only regained six seats to slightly dent the comfortable Republican majority in the House and fell short of just breaking even in the Senate. And this happened in an election year in which the Democrats had a clear advantage, since most contested seats had weak Republican incumbents elected in traditionally Democratic states.

Worse yet, the Republicans in 2016 achieved what Obama won for the Democrats in 2008 – the coveted “trifecta” – control of the presidency, the Senate and the House at the same time.

Obama failed to build momentum after his victory  

However, Obama on the disastrous advice of his first chief of staff Rahm Emanuel in 2009 threw away the potential momentum of his first Hundred Days and first two years in office and proceeded highly cautiously only to see the Republicans come storming back to regain control of both chambers of Congress in 2010. He was never able to achieve any real legislative momentum ever again.

By contrast, Trump, supposedly a neophyte to the entire political process, is already at work at the time of writing as a new President cooperating closely with the Republican leaderships in both the House and the Senate with the goal of crafting a tidal wave of legislation for his first Hundred Days.

Obama unable to work with the Democrats in Congress

Obama in 2009 never showed any remotely comparable interest in working closely with, leading or exerting his influence over the Democratic congressional leaderships.

On the contrary, on the major issues of the day, starting with the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout program and the Dodd-Frank legislation, he passively allowed congressional staffs to draw up the basic outlines of legislation.

In taking this action, Obama ignored the lessons and precedents about the importance of presidents driving and shaping congressional agendas with proposals and measures drawn up their own staff.

That has been the driving force for new administrations and their programs for the past 84 years since Franklin D. Roosevelt created the modern presidency with his dynamic leadership in the spring of 1933.

Reshaping the Supreme Court

Two liberal Supreme Court Justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer) and one swing voting Justice (Anthony Kennedy) are over 78 years old and a fourth seat remains vacant since the death of conservative Antonin Scalia in February 2016.

That means Trump has a golden opportunity to nominate young conservatives to the Court, this way locking in a powerful conservative majority that will dominate the Court for many years to come.

Primary responsibility for this extraordinary disaster for liberals, progressives and Democrats in general must be placed firmly on the heads of two people – Obama and Clinton.

Obama squandered his great 2008 victory

In 2008, Obama won the greatest victory for any Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide triumph over Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. He was the first Democratic presidential candidate in 44 years to win more than 50 percent of the national vote – in itself a telling indictment of the failure of the Democratic Party at national level to competently build on its enormous potential support base over the previous two generations.

Repudiation of the catastrophic failed presidency of George W. Bush on social, economic and international policies was clear across the American people and their media.

As I wrote in my 2015 book Cycles of Change, a history of the patterns of US politics from Thomas Jefferson to Obama, Obama was in fact given a historic mandate to strike out and boldly establish a new and radically different direction in U.S. politics.

Following bad advice

However, Obama listened to the disastrous ultra-cautious advice of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel – today mayor of Chicago – and to 2009 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They focused on the traditional Democratic politics of gender, identity and social obsession at the expense of all economic policy issues.

Consequently, Obama made no effort to reject or seriously revise the big business, free trade liberalism at home and ideological advance of democracy and human rights as defined by U.S. policy-makers and various opinion leaders around the world that have been launched by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Indeed, Obama even passively allowed an entire generation of Clinton loyalists led by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, John Podesta and Donna Brazile to retain control of the Democratic National Committee and the party’s bureaucracy.

Old ideas were rejected by voters in 2016

The result was clear: it was Business as Usual. The corrupt, flaccid free trade, liberalism and globalist nation-building policies that had dominated both Republican and Democratic parties since the collapse of communism for a full quarter century were endorsed and continued. It should therefore come as no surprise that in 2016, these policies were harshly and energetically repudiated by the grassroots of the Democrats as well as by the Republicans.

The greatest warning the Democrats received in 2016 was an enormous mass uprising among their own rank and file against both Clintons and their generation of lieutenants. This rebellion found its unlikely spokesman and leader in 74-year-old Brooklyn-born self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders, a senator from tiny, progressive Vermont.

Democratic leaders fought against Sanders

Ironically, Sanders would probably have beaten Trump had the Democratic national establishment not gone all-out to ensure the nomination for Hilary Clinton.

Before the roll call at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, 311 and a half “super-delegates” – not a single one of them elected by any popular or representative voting processes whatsoever – were committed in advance to support Clinton with only 86 and a half lined up for Sanders.

One of the greatest untold and unreported stories of the campaign was the repeated complaints of senior Sanders’ campaign officials that hundreds of thousands of votes for their candidate were being suppressed or made to vanish in primary races across the nation.

Deep flaws

However, the woes of the Democratic Party go far deeper than the admittedly enormous shortcomings of the outgoing president and the unsuccessful most recent Democratic presidential candidate.

The leadership of the party both nationally and in the Senate and the House has proven woeful, yet it has very deliberately reestablished itself in charge for at least the next two years. The implications of this are already clear and will be dealt with in a successive paper.

Martin Sieff is a Global Policy Institute Fellow. He is author most recently of Gathering Storm: The Seventh Era of American History and the Coming Crises That Will Lead to It.


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.