By the standards of the last eight years, Obama might be headed for a huge victory. The most optimistic predictions, at electoral-vote.com, now have him winning by as much as 153 electoral votes. But by the standards of the past 50 years it’s not an especially large win. Once you cut out the Bush victories, only the 1976 election was substantially closer. That fact should raise some red flags about thinking this will be a really big win, of the kind that inaugurates an electoral realignment, or ensures the new president will easily be able to implement his agenda.
It’s especially fruitful to bear in mind Bill Clinton’s first term here. It’s a bit difficult to assess how strong Clinton’s electoral victory was, because of the presence of Perot, but he did win 370 electoral votes. In the first few months of Clinton’s presidency, his approval ratings were in the low-50s. And the Democrats had House and Senate majorities comparable to what a president Obama might have. Yet Clinton’s first term rapidly went south, with his approval ratings suffering, and his major legislative goals being unmet. He lost his majority and only survived because of impressive political skill, and the Republicans overplaying their hand. He was an effective president, but few of his accomplishments were distinctively progressive. I don’t necessarily expect that scenario with Obama. However, I do think that the opportunity for progressive reforms will primarily be contingent on events after the election.
There are still reasons to be optimistic. Since McCain is probably the most popular Republican at this point in time, the popular and electoral votes may understate the level of support a President Obama could command. As Matthew Yglesias has been continually pointing out, the striking characteristic of the race is that it is a contest between two highly popular politicians. Once it’s Obama against congressional Republicans, he could have even higher levels of support, so long as he doesn’t squander it.
The worst case scenario would see Obama crippled by outside events. With the economy in a severe recession, he might find the nation short on the resources necessary to implement important progressive policies. Moreover, if economic troubles are beyond the government’s ability to alter–a plausible proposition–he could be blamed for that fact and be out after one term.