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Opinion: Columnists

Where will the Obama years lead us?

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Opinion,Noemie Emery,Columnists,Barack Obama,2016 Elections

Late in 2008, after Barack Obama's near-landslide, liberals said we had entered a progressive era, that the spell cast by President Reagan had finally ended and the country had made a left turn.

Now, going into his sixth year as president, it is quite apparent that this didn’t happen, but what happened instead is unclear.

Obama survived (he won re-election), but failed to prevail, as he lost big in the 2010 midterms, and his support fell during his first term in office. But if it isn’t a liberal age, it isn’t conservative either, and both sides appear to have serious problems. Last month in the Washington Post, George Will presented the risks for them all:

"Republicans haven't decisively won a presidential election since 1988," he informed us. "Since then, no Republican nominee has won more than 50.8 percent of the vote. In the six elections 1992-2012, Republicans averaged 211 electoral votes, Democrats 327. Republicans lost the popular vote in five of these races," and the sixth, in 2004, showed the smallest spread for an incumbent in history.

So is the GOP itself over? Not yet.

Turn it around, and the picture is different: Obama dropped 3.6 million votes from his 2008 totals, winning what we can call a vote of less confidence, and presided over a stunning rebirth in conservative fortunes.

Under his watch, Republicans gained 63 House seats and cleaned up in state governments, where they now control 29 statehouses and have unified control of 24 state governments with 53 percent of the nation’s population, as opposed to the Democrats' unified control of 13 state governments with 24 percent of the population.

In these 29 states, energetic conservative governors are steering their states to the right as hard as Obama is wrenching the wheel in the other direction. Put the 327 electoral votes Democrats seem to have averaged since 1992 alongside the 302 electoral votes held by the 29 states now led by Republican governors, and you have either two opposite national mandates, or no national mandate at all.

Obama is becoming the third president in a row to be elected twice and fail to establish his own party’s dominance or leave office with a formula that was accepted by more than one-half of the national audience. From 1995 on, Bill Clinton governed with a Republican Congress. The 2000 election was a split decision. Today’s split between the states and the federal branch mirrors that of the Clinton era, but Clinton and Gingrich got some things done and today’s versions just snipe at each other. A mandate remains to be seen.

Historians speak of the "sun and moon" theory, in which for several decades one party dominates and the other reflects the light cast off by the dominant party, responds to it and more or less echoes its themes: the Republicans from 1900 to the Great Depression; the Democrats from the Depression through the mid-1960s; the Republicans from the late '60s through about 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Since then, there has been no sun and no moon, just angry planets, and the so-called ‘realignments’ — in 1992, 2004 and 2008 — seemed to die out almost at birth.

What seems clear now is that Obama’s win was greatly inflated (if not caused by) the economic meltdown in September 2008, which turned a tight race in either direction into a rout in his favor; that people bought him, but not his agenda; that they were moved by his style, his speech, his persona and the symbolic nature of what his election would mean.

The ball's in the air, both sides have fumbled and how it will end, no one knows.

Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."
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Noemie Emery

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The Washington Examiner