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.