The spectre of one-party rule – by the other party – prompted an unprecedented intervention by a sitting president in the race to succeed him. But until Tuesday night, it looked like Barack Obama's furious campaign pace was just an insurance policy against his own worst fears.
As he raced from rallies in North Carolina to ones in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Hampshire in the final 72 hours of the campaign, most observers figured Mr. Obama's personalization of this election – insisting that his legacy was on the ballot – merely aimed to seal the deal on behalf of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Clearly, he knew then it was more than that.
The paradox of the Republican clean sweep of the White House and Congress is that it comes as Mr. Obama's approval rating hovers at one the highest levels of his presidency, comfortably above the 50-per-cent mark. This was supposed to ensure that the coalition of young, minority and progressive voters that ensured his victories in 2008 and 2012 would heed his pleas and turn out once again.
"I may not be on the ballot this time, but everything we've done has been on the ballot," the President said in Florida on Sunday, imploring his supporters to get to the polls. On Monday, in New Hampshire, he added: "All that progress goes down the drain if we don't win tomorrow."
In the end, four of the five swing states Mr. Obama visited in the final three days of the campaign backed his worst fears on Tuesday as Republican nominee Donald Trump rode a populist wave to the White House. Only New Hampshire, which was still too close to call by Wednesday morning, supported Ms. Clinton by a razor-thin margin.
How the United States veered from backing the "better angels" invoked by Mr. Obama, to taking their anger out on the "bad hombres" Donald Trump vows to deport, will be the subject of deep analysis – even psychoanalysis – for years to come. But the consequences could be devastating for the agenda Mr. Obama pursued in the hopes of making his presidency a transformational one.
Mr. Trump and Republicans in Congress have promised to dismantle Mr. Obama's most controversial reforms, starting with his signature health-care law, his executive orders halting the deportation of some illegal immigrants, his nuclear agreement with Iran, and his tough climate-change proposals. The president-elect has also released a list of potential Supreme Court judges he would name to ensure a right-leaning top bench for a generation, as he fills existing and expected vacancies.
Republicans, however, risk the same kind of backlash that Mr. Obama faced in 2010 and 2014 if they go too far in their efforts to unwind his legacy. Scrapping Obamacare, ending public funding for Planned Parenthood or stacking the Supreme Court with harshly conservative judges could draw a stiff rebuke from voters in the 2018 midterm elections. Such is the pendulum in U.S. politics.
Besides, it's not clear that Mr. Trump and Republican leaders in Congress will be able to sort out their own differences and settle on a common agenda. Mr. Trump has been at odds with House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on issues of both substance and style throughout the campaign. Mr. Ryan in particular advocates reforms to rein in Social Security and Medicare spending, programs Mr. Trump has vowed to preserve in their current form. Republican House members who strongly backed Mr. Trump could, at his urging, even seek to oust Mr. Ryan from the leadership. The GOP civil war may have just begun.
No one, after all, expects Mr. Trump to be magnanimous in victory. Those in his party who doubted or renounced him will be ostracized, if not punished outright. GOP foreign policy hawks, such as senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are likely to remain in open warfare with Mr. Trump as he pursues more isolationist policies or cozies up to Russia.
Mr. Trump owes more to the party than he is ever likely to acknowledge. The organizational and financial help of the Republican National Committee provided the professional and logistical elements his own campaign lacked. It is not clear he could have won without them.
Still, Mr. Trump defied every U.S. establishment that exists – party, business, intellectual, foreign policy, cultural – to stage one of the most stunning political upsets of the modern era. Even if he loses the popular vote by a small margin, he will have oodles of political capital to burn.
And from everything we know about him, burn it he probably will.