The Obama campaign has worked hard to brand this year's presidential contest as a choice between two different paths forward. Considering the overlap between the two technocrats at the top of the tickets, it's less of a choice than the Obama administration would have us believe. Yet there is a choice to be made, not about the future but about how history remembers what President Obama has already done. Despite some similarities between the candidates, the outcome of Tuesday's vote will be viewed by those with political power as a referendum on the last four years.
If President Obama wins reelection, it will be seen by many, especially those who have made their careers in politics, as a vindication of his ambitious domestic policy agenda: The 2009 stimulus, the health care overhaul, the Dodd-Frank financial legislation, and the persistently large federal budgets (and high deficits to support them) that have accompanied Obama first term will have a combined stamp of approval to which supporters can point, even if individual components remain unpopular or controversial.
This understanding will be bolstered by the primary message of Romney's campaign, which has avoided policy specifics but insisted that whatever he would do, it won't be what Obama did. A Romney win will thus be taken as an overall thumbs down on the Obama years, his policies viewed through the lens of a loss and less popular as a result.
Political types will draw this less even if it's an extremely close election, as most forecasts suggest it will be. A loss is a loss, regardless of how close, and if Obama is not reelected, current and aspiring politicians will correctly judge that Obama's loss reflects poorly on the scope and specifics of his policy agenda. And they will think carefully before pursuing similar policies of their own.
The least popular parts of Obama's agenda will be judged the most politically dangerous. That means that large-scale health reforms like ObamaCare, which was unpopular before it passed and has remained unpopular since, will top the list of ideas that politicians who want to keep their jobs — which is most of them — will be highly cautious about trying again for many years. The same goes for giant-sized fiscal stimulus measures like the one President Obama passed shortly after taking office, which did not live up to expectations.
Big corporate bailouts like the one the Obama administration pursued with the auto industry will probably not fall out of favor quite as much; public opinion of the auto bailout has steadily improved over the years. But public-opinion minded politicians will still be more cautious about such efforts lest they be tagged as bailout friendly, a label President Obama has sought to avoid.
Regulatory measures like Dodd-Frank, which polls well, will likely suffer the least. But any similar effort will still be regarded with caution for being associated with a one-term presidency.
It's somewhat less clear what the effect would be on political class attitudes about debt and deficit levels. Polls suggest that when the public believes there is a binary choice between job creation or debt reduction, they prefer politicians who emphasize the former. But with high annual deficits now associated with both President Bush and President Obama, it may be that politicians look to the last president widely viewed as a success — Bill Clinton — and his relatively sound budgeting for inspiration.
If Obama loses, some of his defenders will likely argue that it was a poor economy and unreasonably expectations about what he could do to fix it that doomed his reelection bid. Given the real limits on a president's ability to improve a weak economy, there is more than a little truth to this. But that won't matter much. Politicians are herd animals, easily scared by the prospect of losing their jobs or political favor and the influence it gives them. Democrats won't engage in a wholesale rethinking of their preferred agenda if Obama loses, but they will probably scale back their domestic policy ambitions.
No matter what, the political establishment will take note and react accordingly. If Obama wins, it will be taken as proof that a policy agenda as ambitious as Obama's, even if the face of a struggling economy, need not prevent a second term, and can even enable one.
But if Obama loses, the next generation of ambitious pols will understandably and not altogether incorrectly judge that his choice and combination of policies, especially the expensive and frequently unpopular initiatives that defined his domestic agenda, played some role in his defeat. And so they will make a choice of their own: to avoid doing what Obama did, and hopefully avoid his fate at the polls.