After Obama Win, Democrats Look for Successor

Barack Obama has just won reelection but Democrats will soon look ahead to 2016.

Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo of New York in Manhattan, October 12, 2009
Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo of New York in Manhattan, October 12, 2009 (Flickr/saebaryo)

Even if Barack Obama was reelected mere days ago, his Democratic Party has already to look for presidential candidates to run in 2016.

One of the reasons for Republicans’ poor showing in the 2008 election was that George W. Bush didn’t have a successor. His vice president, Dick Cheney, had always ruled out a presidential run of his own. Several high-profile Republicans, including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Arizona senator John McCain and Mitt Romney, tried to secure the nomination. McCain won but failed to enthuse conservatives.

Romney, similarly, was nominated after a long primary battle this year and without fully winning the confidence of his party’s base.

Obama proved in 2008 that a long and divisive primary campaign hasn’t to stop a candidate from the winning in the general election while Al Gore’s defeat in 2000 showed that an orderly succession isn’t a guarantee for victory.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to have a presumptive nominee early, especially if the other party is locked in a fierce nominating contest as Republicans could well be again in less than four years’ time.

In a country where 40 percent of voters identifies as “moderate,” the Democratic candidate wouldn’t want to be hampered from appealing to the center while vying for left-wing primary votes. Settling on a candidate early in the process should help Democrats position themselves as the natural ruling party for the twenty-first century while chastising Republicans as old fashioned and out-of-touch as Barack Obama’s reelection campaign did successfully this year.

Joe Biden

The vice president will be 73 years old in 2016; three years older than Ronald Reagan was when he assumed the presidency in 1981. Nevertheless, Joe Biden doesn’t seem ready yet to leave the stage and may throw himself into the primary race for a third time — which, incidentally, was how many times it took Reagan to be nominated.

Biden has great foreign policy experience and could hope to do well as the elder statesman in a general election, especially in Midwestern swing states where he appeals to blue-collar voters. His favorability among other groups is low though. The necessarily more partisan role that has assumed as vice president will make it difficult for him to reach out to centrist and conservative voters.

The Delaware native is also prone to gaffes and erred repeatedly both in terms of policy — he opposed the surge in Iraq and criticized General David Petraeus for it — and theatrics. Democratic Party primary voters may be willing to forgive those mistakes but will also likely recognize that Biden is far from a perfect candidate who could even cost them the White House in 2016.

Hillary Clinton

The secretary of state looks set to retire from politics but Democrats hope that she’ll run again. As in 2008, Hillary Clinton would be considered the frontrunner if she decided to enter the race. Indeed, other potential candidates are likely to wait for the former senator of New York to make her intentions clear before considering whether to run themselves.

Like Biden, Clinton is popular with working-class voters in the northern industrial states. In the 2008 primary, she carried Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio as well as Florida, four states that could well be battlegrounds in the next presidential election. She also polls well among minorities and women and, unlike the vice president, is respected by many Republicans after four years of diplomatic service. If Republicans were to nominate a reactionary candidate for the general election, she could well garner the support of moderates who might otherwise considering voting Republican.

Andrew Cuomo

In one of the most reliably Democratic states in the country, New York’s Andrew Cuomo has governed as a centrist. He held off raising taxes and reduced spending at the expense of alienating public-sector union workers. His greatest liberal accomplishment, legalizing gay marriage, was done with Republican support. It’s doubtful if he would generate much enthusiasm in a primary campaign but could with some credibility run as a third term custodian of Barack Obama’s legacy — if the president makes true on his promises of bipartisanship in years to come.

If, on the other hand, Obama is seen governing as a leftist, Cuomo, who has no ties with the administration like Biden and Clinton, could present himself as the “Third Way” progressive who will take the party back to the center like Bill Clinton did in the 1990s.

In any event, Cuomo has yet to build an impressive record to run on in the next two years. If he doesn’t, his tenure as housing secretary in the late 1990s could be more closely scrutinized. He pushed the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy more loans from troubled homeowners at the time which contributed to the subprime mortgage bubble and subsequent financial crisis that led the United States into recession. The governor wouldn’t want to be defined by that.

Martin O’Malley

If Democrats interpret Barack Obama’s reelection as a victory for the left rather than a defeat of the right, they could do worse than nominate Martin O’Malley. The governor of Maryland made education a priority and has been a stalwart supporter of gay marriage and immigration reform.

Centrist and Republican voters will be less easily persuaded. As governor, O’Malley balanced spending exclusively by raising taxes. His approval rating has fallen in recent months and just 22 percent of voters in his own state say that he is ready for the presidency. He could appeal to the “coalition of the ascendent” — college educated young voters, racial minorities and single women — that propelled Barack Obama to victory twice but if Republicans nominate a reasonable alternative, blue-collar and suburban voters in the Midwestern states and Virginia may well decide that O’Malley is too left-wing.

Mark Warner

Virginia’s junior senator isn’t a Democratic Party leader yet but could become a key figure in upcoming budget negotiations between the two parties in Congress. As Republicans maintained their majority in the House of Representatives in Tuesday’s election and Democrats still control the Senate, compromise will have to be found to stabilize federal spending for the long term. Mark Warner’s behind the scenes talks — he participated in two bipartisan efforts to achieve fiscal reform — haven’t borne fruit so far but very well could if the president again shrinks from introducing a comprehensive plan for deficit reduction and it’s up to Congress to take the initiative.

As the former governor of a state that has thirteen electoral votes and was safely Republican in presidential elections for forty years before Barack Obama carried it in 2008, Warner is fairly pro-business, supports free trade, school choice and an expansion in offshore drilling. That’s a record that could well endear him to centrist voters and he would almost certainly keep Virginia in the Democratic column. He left the governorship in 2006 with a 71 percent approval rating.