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I think there are some things the Obama administration could have done better to respond to the economic catastrophe it inherited from the Bush crowd, for example with respect to home foreclosures. But the impact of the Great Recession would have been considerable in any event — not only because of the wealth it destroyed, but because of how it changed the economy.
Take Wisconsin. The economy here mostly recovered from the Great Recession a couple of years ago, but “recovered” does not mean restored. The jobs lost throughout the rural parts of the state included many that never came back; the new jobs created have been concentrated in medical and information technology businesses concentrated in Dane County (around Madison) and to a lesser extent in businesses in suburbs of Milwaukee. This has altered the politics of the state. Previously swingy rural areas are now solidly Trumpish, the change bolstered by resentment of booming Dane County — where Democratic margins are even more lopsided than they were before.
There must have been similar changes in many states. Consolidation of many industries (certainly in agriculture, the one I’m most familiar with) has hollowed out rural communities across the country, leaving them full of grievance and resentment. It’s not fair to blame this on Obama — I don’t think, though of course some people disagree. But it is a fact of life that probably hurts Democrats politically because it became evident while Obama was President.
The other thought involves something you said about evaluating the Trumpers on their own terms, rather than as products of one thing or another Democrats said or did while Obama was in the White House. Democrats tend to spend much effort arguing about solutions to problems they assume are widely understood. They haven’t responded well to the enthusiasm Trump generates with rhetoric that describes a problem America faces in terms of non-white immigration — and with policies that, if anything, go well beyond the rhetoric.
Democrats think of tolerance here in terms of striking a pose of indifference to change, specifically to local increases of residents with a different skin color or native language. Many Americans respond poorly to indifference. They are not so interested in appearing tolerant, certainly not to themselves. In the last ten years or so they have seen a great deal of change, enough to be suspicious of more.
I don’t think this means they endorse cruelty to helpless people, or are deaf to arguments that America needs more immigrants. It doesn’t mean they are wedded to the explicitly racist ideology & practice that has taken such firm root of Trump administration immigration policy. I do think it means Democrats need to make affirmative arguments for more immigration. And it means, as I think you suggest, that Democrats need to acknowledge, explicitly and often, that intense dislike of non-white people is very important to this Republican administration and its partisans in Congress.
One last thought, one that does involve criticism of Obama. I’ve been trying to think of another politically significant President who handed off leadership of his party, not to the next generation but instead to the previous one. I can’t think of any besides John Kennedy, a special case for obvious reasons. And, of course, George W. Bush — whose administration was such a disaster he must also be considered a special case.
It’s just bizarre that nearly half of the remaining major Democratic candidates for President this year — two of them Democrats of convenience — would see their 80th birthday during their first term as President. It was, frankly, not much less bizarre to see the consensus among leading Democrats four years ago that Obama’s logical successor in the White House was the wife of his Democratic predecessor.
Obama excelled as a symbol, and as a personal example. He wasn’t much of a politician, once his own position was not at issue. He’s hardly the first President to give inadequate attention to who would follow him, but the absence of an Obama political “tree” is one of the most striking things about American politics.