President Obama is fond of saying he's not on the ballot again, because it deceptively suggests he's no longer acting politically or with calculation for the next election.
Obama isn't running for reelection, but he is methodically setting the stage on which Democrats will fight for the nomination and the presidency in 2015 and 2016. Democrats who wish to succeed Obama will have to either align themselves with, or distance themselves from, his policies and methods while they court donors, votes, and momentum through 2015.
Indeed, the Obama legacy is already on the march and will be a real-time factor in the prenominating battle. It could also pose significant policy tangles for the Democratic nominee in 2016. Consider the issues Obama has set in motion that will ripen politically when the battle for the Democratic nomination goes blood-sport in late 2014.
Climate change comes first. With Obama's speech Tuesday, he has thrown down the gauntlet on using the regulatory reach of the Environmental Protection Agency to limit carbon emissions at existing coal-fired power plants. Obama's goal is a proposal from EPA and the states by June 2014 and a final rule implementing the carbon-emission cuts by June 2015. However, Obama's rules for limiting carbon dioxide from future power plants are way behind the original schedule (and may not be seen until September).
And remember, most of the gains achieved in reducing U.S. pollution arose from the recession, which cut electricity demand, and the greater use of natural gas to fuel power plants. A growing economy will curtail that misleading progress and put real costs next to real benefits: Limits on carbon-dioxide pollution will lead to higher utility bills. Litigation and congressional scrutiny--possibly legislation to block pollution rules for existing plants--will put the issue of federal environmental regulation and its costs and benefits squarely in the 2015 and 2016 presidential conversation, and not just in coal country.
Obama's big speech on the future of the war on terrorism also set a course--possibly a choppy one--for Democrats seeking the White House. The president made the closing of Guantanamo, placing new restrictions on armed drones, and ending the war in Afghanistan part of a strategy to de-emphasize large force deployments in the terrorism fight.
Obama didn't declare the war over, but he came closer than ever before when he quoted James Madison's admonition: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." Then came the announcement of supposed peace talks with the Taliban that blew up in the administration's face when the Taliban acted as if it were a sovereign country instead of a terror network, and, oh yes, when it staged an armed assault Tuesday near the presidential palace--behavior that infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Democrats seeking the nomination will not have Obama's advantage of opposing the Iraq war and of clean votes by his opponents for that war to exploit. They will have to live with the Obama political legacy on three fronts--his decision to pull out of Afghanistan in December 2014, regardless of the status of reconciliation talks with the Taliban; the state of U.S. phone and Internet surveillance; and the long shadow of Edward Snowden's "Where's Waldo" exploits. Snowden's revelations will reverberate for months, if not longer, and will change counterterrorism operations and congressional oversight. They have already raised unnerving questions about Obama's ability to exert American power and persuasion in China and Russia. This will be another legacy.
Then comes health care. The Affordable Care Act will influence the midterm elections rhetorically, just as it did the 2010 and 2012 cycles. But after 2014, the law will be real and its effects measurable in terms of premiums paid, access to health care secured, and the raw numbers of Americans who feel the law has improved their lives or made it worse. No Democrat running to succeed Obama will call for repeal or even a substantial overhaul. But the Democrats will have to answer for, and respond to, real-world problems already rising with small-business insurance exchanges, higher premiums, and the potential that many younger Americans won't sign up for health care but will instead opt to pay the fine (thereby undercutting a finance structure based on collecting premiums from those less likely to get sick so that coverage can be extended to those who do).
There is also the future of budget cuts under sequestration, which Obama failed to derail this year and has no known plan to forestall next year (other than waiting for Republicans to cry "uncle"; good luck with that). The bite of more discretionary cuts will continue to fester in key Democratic constituencies and may crop up as an anti-Obama, anti-austerity rallying cry in 2015 and 2016, not in the national campaign, but in the contest for the nomination.
No, Obama is not on the ballot. But his legacy is and will be. That's always true when a party tries to extend its hold on presidential power. It was true of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. What's different this time is that much of the Obama legacy will be roiling through American life as Democrats vie to succeed him, and their proximity to and distance from that legacy could exert enormous and complicated political pressure on them as they try to secure the nomination and then win the White House.