Trump or Obama: Whose legacy will reshape American politics for the years ahead?

With Barack Obama, American history was trending toward a liberal partisan realignment — until the backlash

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 15, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama, with George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt haunting in the back. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama, with George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt haunting in the back. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Strange patterns emerge from history. George Santayana famously wrote that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," while Mark Twain supposedly  said that history "rhymes." My favorite observation comes from George Lucas when he was describing not the past, but the plot structure of his "Star Wars" movies: "Every stanza kind of rhymes with the last one. Hopefully it'll work."

That observation — uttered in part about a hero's journey that ended with the death of liberty — speaks to the current state of American democracy. There are obvious lessons for the present to be found in the past, but we can't know for sure whether everything will work out. This is especially true now, with Donald Trump leading America's first successful national fascist movement.

Our political history is defined by the personalities, policies and philosophies of a handful of presidents, the ones who form lasting coalitions, keeping their followers and ideas in power for decades after they themselves leave office. A generation of Americans winds up measuring political reality based on whether someone is for or against that president and everything they represent.

I would argue that during the first 200 years of the American presidency, seven men wound up causing such major realignments: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt (with an asterisk), Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Once you understand the underlying pattern, I think it becomes clear that America is in the midst of another major realignment. The central question is who the central figure in that realignment will be: Barack Obama or Donald Trump.

Washington was the most influential president for a self-evident reason: He was the first. A flawed man in many ways, Washington was wise and noble enough to avoid overt partisanship and rise above petty political squabbles. He also made a point of giving up power after the American people elected John Adams to replace him in the 1796 election, establishing a precedent for accepting the verdict of the voters that remained unbroken until 2020. Washington's own tenure was itself quite successful, as indicated by the fact that Adams, his vice president, was widely viewed as the inheritor of Washington's mantle. Adams' election began a trend in which realigning presidents won unofficial "third terms" after their two terms were up. (Only one such president won an actual third term.)

While Adams' Federalist Party won the battle to replace Washington, it lost the war when it came to shaping the young nation's destiny. The 1800 election saw Thomas Jefferson beating Adams in a rematch of the 1796 showdown, and for more than a quarter-century every president hailed from what historians now call the Democratic-Republican Party: Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. Until the trifecta of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama from 1993 to 2017, the first three presidents on that list were the only three to consecutively serve for eight years. Jeffersonians so thoroughly dominated national politics that the Federalist Party collapsed entirely, leading the Democratic-Republicans to splinter into factions.

The defining figure during and after that breakup was Andrew Jackson, supposedly Trump's favorite president. After his controversial defeat by John Quincy Adams in the 1824 election, Jackson formed what would ultimately become the Democratic Party, which held the presidency for 24 of the 32 years after Jackson beat Adams in their 1828 rematch. Both the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian movements, although fundamentally racist, succeeded in large part because they expanded voting rights and democratic participation to new groups. Each man staked their appeal on the idea that governments should serve ordinary people, not elites, and created political and party structures to move non-patrician white men into power.

But the Democratic Party had no way to resolve or address America's original sin, chattel slavery. In the 1850s, the Republican Party emerged from the ashes of various anti-Jacksonian movements to oppose the expansion of slavery into the newly-acquired Western territories. When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, the South seceded from the Union, leading to the Civil War. The Confederacy's defeat took the Democrats of that era down as well. For the next 36 years, the Republican Party dominated national politics, pushing for a series of economic and social programs that would be considered liberal by modern standards: Infrastructure spending, assistance to the poor and even mixed or half-hearted attempts to provide citizenship rights to freed slaves. (That was canceled out when Republicans abandoned Reconstruction for victory in the 1876 presidential election.) The Republican coalition included businesses, Civil War veterans, northern regionalists and labor unions who supported protective tariffs. The only Democrat to serve as president during that entire period was Grover Cleveland, with his non-consecutive terms.

As the Civil War faded from memory, new issues emerged. Americans were concerned with big business eroding economic and political freedoms, political institutions controlled by elites, inadequate welfare policies and the sudden arrival of the U.S. as a major world power. The president who seized that moment would ultimately be Theodore Roosevelt, who wasn't even on the ballot during the decisive presidential election. (Hence the asterisk above.)

That was the 1896 victory of Republican William McKinley over Democrat William Jennings Bryan. McKinley served just over one full term in office, but might be the most influential American president whose name isn't a household word. After fulfilling his campaign promises on currency issues, he transformed America into an imperial power by waging the Spanish-American War and rebranded the Republican coalition with vital new ideas so it could be relevant in the new century. Beginning with his presidency, the GOP controlled the White House for 28 out of 36 years. Roosevelt became president after McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901, and brought a larger-than-life persona to the role, along with more progressive policies. Roosevelt's charismatic style — and his ability to play to the media and use his office as a bully pulpit — was just as influential as McKinley's ideology. 

Democrats finally returned to the top-dog position in American politics with the next realignment, in 1932. Before that happened, we can observe was an interesting shift in the trends that had previously dictated American political life. Prior to 1932, any party that managed to hold the presidency for more than eight years through a "third term" triggered a realignment: The Democratic-Republicans after 1808, the Democrats after 1836, the Republicans after 1868 and the Republicans again after 1904. It appeared likely that after Woodrow Wilson's failed presidency helped Republicans win a huge victory in the 1920 election, another realignment was due. They won three presidential elections in a row, hitting the unofficial "third term" rule with a victory in 1928 — and then the Great Depression hit.

Herbert Hoover, the Republican president at the time of that huge economic crash was widely (and perhaps unfairly) regarded as a failure. Franklin D. Roosevelt caused a major realignment after kicking Hoover to the curb in the 1932 election. FDR's New Deal policies caused a political switchback, with the Democrats becoming America's liberal party and Republicans gradually (and then rapidly) becoming more conservative. Democrats became associated with using government to help the poor, guaranteeing labor rights, consumer protection and regulation of business and industry. Roosevelt alone among realigning presidents won a literal third term — and then, in 1944, a fourth one. By the 1960s, the Democrats also became increasingly aligned with expanding civil rights, protecting the environment and a less bellicose foreign policy. FDR's coalition — which included city-dwellers and unionized workers, intellectuals and people of color — proved so durable that it held the presidency for 32 of the following 48 years, culminating in the underrated presidency of Jimmy Carter.

Carter, however, was nearly as politically toxic for Democrats as Hoover had been for Republicans. His failure to boost the ailing economy and solve the Iran hostage crisis helped Republican candidate Ronald Reagan win by a massive landslide in 1980. Reagan merged the self-interested conservatism of America's elites with the rising power of evangelical Christians and various reactionary streams of racism, anti-feminism, anti-LGBTQ prejudice and so on. His coalition of right-wingers and other reactionaries — predominantly white, male and affluent — controlled the presidency for 20 of the next 28 years, leading America through the final years of the Cold War and beyond. The Reagan coalition's main legacy during this period was failing to address both climate change and worsening income inequality, not to mention laying the foundations for the overtly racist backlash movement that would soon arise against multiculturalism and multiracial democracy.

This brings us to the present era. Just as the elections in 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932 and 1980 changed history, the one in 2008 also caused a major realignment. George W. Bush, was historically unpopular and had just led America into the Great Recession. The Democrats nominated a surprise candidate, Barack Obama, who captivated millions with his charisma, eloquence and idealism. As the first Black person to be a serious presidential candidate, Obama appeared to represent a new governing coalition that would be led by people from diverse cultural, racial, social, economic and sexual backgrounds. After he won re-election in 2012, many Republicans were convinced they needed to become inclusive to compete in a post-Obama era.

But Obama did not win an unofficial third term, as nearly every political observer expected, and a brand new realignment seemed to occur before the last one had even been consolidated. Donald Trump was an anomalous president for several reasons, openly soliciting foreign help to win an election and revealing that his party had become so corrupt that it was willing to do anything to push the Obama coalition out of power, whether the tactics were legal or not.

Trump's 2016 election was in itself a result of restrictive anti-voting laws. Nearly half the states had passed laws after the 2010 election making it harder for Democratic-leaning groups to vote. Between that and partisan gerrymandering, Republicans had laid the foundations for undemocratically suppressing Obama's coalition long before Trump entered the picture. We will likely never know how much the Obama movement shrunk with Hillary Clinton on the ballot because of Republicans' anti-voting laws and social pressures. Trump himself was merely the beneficiary of this GOP scheming, whose obvious goal was to prevent Obama's emerging coalition from permanently seizing power.

The 2020 election left that task unfinished, with Joe Biden winning the presidency on his third try. Obama's former vice president, clearly viewed as his heir apparent, swept the Democratic primaries and earned more general election votes than any American candidate in any election. Biden had immense built-in goodwill from his years of being viewed as Obama's amiable best friend, making him a welcome contrast for voters fatigued by Trump's bullying theatrics and scandals. His candidacy was helped even more by Trump's tragic failure to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden's victory was no landslide, but his popular vote margin was roughly the same as McKinley's over Bryan in the milestone 1896 election. Like Madison after Jefferson, Harry Truman after FDR or George H.W. Bush after Reagan, Biden's victory marked the unofficial "third term" of a realigning president.

But it'a pointless at the moment to focus on the implications of the Obama triumph, since to this point the losers aren't accepting their defeat with wisdom and grace. Instead, they're refusing to admit they even lost and, under Trump's "leadership," are gaslighting America into thinking they really won, all in the name of further cheating.

First, Republicans are pushing a Big Lie that allows them to avoid the humiliation of their 2020 loss by claiming they were robbed. It doesn't matter that they have no proof, that Trump is a lifelong sore loser or that his claims wouldn't even rise to the Top 10 of worst American political injustices if they were true (which they are not). Like the Nazis before them, Republicans are bent on spinning falsehoods and depicting themselves as victims so they can justify an illegitimate seizure of power. They've also used the Big Lie and previously-debunked claims of voter fraud to pass more voter suppression laws, with the clear goal of making it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote and even of allowing Republicans to overturn unfavorable results. Biden's victory sent the message that existing voter suppression tactics were inadequate.

It is hard to overstate the magnitude of this threat. If Republicans can prevent their opponents from voting and change election results when they lose, they will be able to stay in power for as long as they like. The natural ebb and flow of American democracy — marked by an electorate that evolves as more people are allowed to participate and fresh ideas are infused into the discourse — will be brought to an abrupt end. A future historian looking at the totality of American political history might see an organic process brutally cut short by a fascist counterattack, channeled through a narcissist's delusions of grandeur. Trump's Big Lie about the 2020 election, like Adolf Hitler's fabrications about why Germany lost World War I, will be recalled as the pernicious fantasy that kicked the atrocities into overdrive.

Viewed in the context of presidential history, it appears that a realignment occurred in 2008 and was then met with an unprecedented backlash. The 2024 presidential election will almost certainly include a candidate associated with the Obama brand (either Biden himself or Vice President Kamala Harris, in all probability) against either Trump himself or someone else molded by his presidency, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The American people will have to decide which of those coalitions leads the nation into the future. It's a momentous choice.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa