Barack Obama still has three months left in his presidency, but he's already trying to prevent his legacy from washing away when he goes. First step? Make sure that Hillary Clinton wins the election. Donald Trump, and Obama don't agree on much, but they do agree on this: Electing Clinton means retaining and expanding Obama's agenda. There's a more personal motivation too: The election of a xenophobic fascist wannabe would be a pretty depressing coda to the story of the first black president. So, unencumbered by health problems (like Ronald Reagan), lack of popularity (like George W. Bush), or scandal (like Bill Clinton), Obama has taken a more active role in campaigning for his successor than any president in modern history.
It's hard to quantify the effect of Obama's vigorous campaigning, but it can't hurt to have one of the two most popular politicians in America (he and Bernie Sanders have taken turns wearing this mantle) stumping for you. Trump is collapsing in the polls, and his weakness as a candidate is turning what would probably have been a narrow defeat for a generic Republican into a predicted blowout. That doesn't mean much by itself; presidents don't actually get any bonus points for margin of victory.
But Trump's unprecedented unpopularity is already dragging down the rest of the Republican ticket, and his loose talk about the election being rigged is compounding the damage. People won't waste their time going to the ballot box if they think their votes won't count anyway. Even for those who don't believe the election is rigged, Trump's refusal to say whether he'll accept the results of the election if he loses is basically an admission that he probably will lose. It's hard to come up with many reasons to vote for a candidate you don't like and who doesn't have a chance.
Recent polls have illustrated how Trump's defeatism is taking a toll: Enthusiasm and intent to vote are both down for Republicans. That means Trump's collapse has opened the door for Democrats to take back the Senate and make big gains in the house — making 2016 a wave election.
That's the second part of Obama's transition plan: Get down-ballot Democrats elected in both houses of Congress on his way out the White House door. Some Republicans in moderate districts are trying to free themselves from the wreckage of Trump's candidacy, but Obama's play has been to rhetorically handcuff them to their sinking nominee. California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, for instance, sent out a mailer touting the fact that Obama had signed a piece of legislation that Issa had co-sponsored. Obama responded by saying at a state fundraiser that it was the “definition of chutzpah” to try to tie himself to Obama, that Issa was “Trump before Trump,” and then touted the Democrat who was running against Issa. Last week, Obama entered the fray in an even more pronounced way, cutting ads for Democrats in contested down-ballot elections.
He's doing this because it's the composition of Congress that determines which parts of Clinton's agenda — again, which he sees as an extension of his own — might be feasible to accomplish, and the amount of compromise it will take to get any legislation passed. The next Congress will also shape Obama's own legacy, because it will determine the future of the policies he enacted.
Obama's signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, is a good example of this. A new report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that insurers will increase the price of Obamacare plans by an average of about 25 percent next year. While about 85 percent of consumers are protected from this increase in prices by subsidies, some of those who aren't are bound to drop Obamacare. The problem is that those who leave are going to be the healthier ones, because they'll be the ones willing to run the risk of not having health insurance. This means that healthcare for those who are left cost more (reminder: health insurance works by healthy people helping to bear the cost for those who need more care). This leads to higher premiums, smaller enrollment rates, and lower profit margins for insurers. While there's no real reason to care about how much money insurance companies are making on Obamacare, lower profits have already led some insurance companies to stop offering Obamacare plans.
There are ways that Congress can act to fix some of the problems with Obamacare, but that requires a Congress that actually wants to fix it, rather than see it collapse under its own weight. Practically, that's probably going to mean electing more Democrats to Congress over the next few election cycles. The path that Obamacare and the rest of Obama's legislative accomplishments will take is going to be determined by the political landscape of the future.
And part of that landscape is man-made: The lines that determine congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years. Both parties try to control this process so that the lines are drawn in ways that maximize their representation in Congress — a process called gerrymandering, which is as important as it is dry and technical. (The Washington Post has a good, intuitive explanation of how gerrymandering works.)
What does this have to do with down-ballot races? The congressional districts are determined at the state level, and in most every state, it's a partisan affair — either the state legislature determines the lines, or a commission is appointed by the state governor. So if you want the lines drawn in a way that gives your state party the advantage, you've got to win state elections and the performance of Democrats at the presidential level has obscured the fact that the GOP still dominates state politics. Republicans have control over both houses of the legislature in 30 states to the Democrats' 12, and they hold governor's offices in 31 states as well. So in a very real way, what president can accomplish — and which of their accomplishments endure — is ultimately partially determined by small-bore, state level politics. Obama knows the impact that redistricting can have first-hand — it aided his own rise to power when he was a young politician. Without a district gerrymandered in his favor, his political career might have ended in Chicago.
That's why it's so important that Obama is dedicating his post-presidential political career to helping Democrats ensure that the maps are drawn in ways that are more in their favor. As Politico reports, Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder are spearheading a new PAC called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is dedicated to both helping Democrats win state elections and affecting the process. Obama lending his name and popularity to this effort will raise its profile, help it raise money, and make it more likely to be successful. It isn't the most glamorous thing that Obama could pursue in post-White House spare time, but it just might be one of the most practical ways he can ensure that his legacy is secure.