Answer from William Murphy, professor of American history:
If Obama did a really good job as president, why did Hillary lose? I’ve been working on some stuff about the election that I haven’t finished fleshing out yet, and this question is ultimately asking why Clinton lost, which is the same thing as asking why Trump won, and both of those are really complex questions that take a lot of time to answer. I hope to be able to offer my own thoughts on this, in detail, for those who want to read it at some point in the future, if I can ever get it all down in a way that makes sense.
So this question is tying Obama to Clinton, and asking why Clinton lost if Obama was a good president. The implication here seems to be that if Obama really was a good president, Clinton would have won. And yet I don’t think those two questions are particularly related, for a number of reasons. In no particular order I’m going to list some of the reasons why, as I believe, Clinton’s performance in the election was not a reflection of Obama’s job performance as president.
In general, it is difficult for one party to hold on to the presidency for more than two terms in modern times. I will confess that before the election I was skeptical about this bit of conventional political wisdom, and expressed my skepticism in some answers I wrote about the campaign. But basically, since the adoption of term limits on the presidency in the early 1950s, the same party has won three consecutive terms exactly once: the Republicans in 1980, 1984 and 1988. That’s it. Now, before the election I thought the data on this was a little thin — that there were too many events that could lead us to that conclusion but might have been short-term aberrations that led to one party losing control of the White House when it otherwise might have retained it, like the Democrats and the Vietnam War in 1968 causing them to lose the presidency after two terms, or Republicans and the legacy of Watergate in 1976 causing them to lose the presidency after two terms. In short, I thought there weren’t enough “normal” elections to prove this point, that voters tend not to keep the same party in power for more than two terms, even when the incumbent president is popular. Bill Clinton left office with a 60% approval rating, but his successor was a Republican (and even if we allow for the madness of the 2000 election being an unusual circumstance, that election should not have been that close based on Clinton’s popularity.) This election seems to me to be another convincing point of evidence behind the argument that winning three terms in a row is a very difficult proposition in modern American politics.
Clinton was a unique candidate with unique liabilities. Most of the time, presidential candidates begin as largely unknown figures. Very few people knew much about Obama before he declared his candidacy in 2007. That’s the way it normally works—Americans get to know their candidates during the campaign. This campaign was different, because both Clinton and Trump were extremely well known well before they ran. Clinton had been in the public spotlight for much of the last 30 years. She was a deeply polarizing figure for whom many Americans had very strong feelings—either positively or negatively—since well before this campaign. So voters on both sides were strongly influenced by their pre-existing feelings about Clinton. The election was not so much about how voters felt about Obama (as it might have been if the Democratic candidate was less well known at the outset) and more about how they felt about Clinton.
Clinton’s email scandal was a weight around her candidacy unlike anything we’ve seen in recent American politics. That Democrats had to make arguments for why their candidate should NOT be indicted is the clearest evidence that Clinton’s personal liabilities influenced the election in ways that went well beyond Obama’s record as president. There were a lot of people who believed that Clinton’s email scandal revealed a pattern of bad judgement, a sense of entitlement, a willingness by the Clintons to ignore the rules or act as though they did not apply to them. I had a conversation with one of my students just before the election who made exactly this argument to me — that Clinton was someone who acted like she was above the law, and the email scandal was just the worst example. I’m neither validating nor contradicting this argument; the point is that a lot of people were looking at Clinton in ways they probably would not have looked at just about any other candidate.
Clinton’s campaign strategy was to focus on Trump’s unfitness for office, rather than on what she or the Democratic party could do for the country. She didn’t run on Obama’s record. She ran on not being Donald Trump. Given her own liabilities, this was a less effective strategy than she probably hoped.
And with all that, she still won the popular vote by about 3 million votes. There are a lot — and I mean a lot — of other reasons we could point to in order to explain the outcome of the election. I haven’t even begun to mention the things Trump did right — and he did do some important things that contributed to his win. The question here is focused on whether Clinton’s defeat is a repudiation of Obama. I’d argue there were enough factors working against Clinton (some of which were absolutely her own fault) that had nothing to do with Obama that can provide a clear explanation of her defeat. So Clinton’s loss is not an effective measure of Obama’s success or failure as a President.
Author: Quora Contributor Posted with permission from Newsweek