A young Democratic president comes into office with big ambitions, gets knocked back on his heels by Republicans in the mid-term elections, then makes some deft moves to recapture the center and waltzes to re-election two years later.
It sounds easy enough. And after Tuesday night’s humiliation, it must sound tempting to President Barack Obama and his battered political team. Some commentators have even suggested that losing control of the House might be a blessing in disguise for Obama’s prospects in 2012.
But the widespread speculation that what Obama needs to do now is simply “pull a Clinton”—replicating Bill Clinton’s comeback after being trounced by Newt Gingrich in 1994—grossly underestimates the challenge that Obama faces, even if he chooses to draw on a Clinton example he once disdained.
Clinton’s revival was hardly an easy process. It was a searing experience for him and his inner circle at both the personal and political levels. It came only after a stark—and intensely humbling—effort by Clinton to overhaul his White House team, recalibrate his ideological ambitions, and rethink his basic assumptions of how to be an effective president.
And even then the outcome was a tenuous thing. Clinton caught a series of lucky breaks from events and from his own enemies. And the comeback only won him 49 percent of the vote: The man widely regarded as one of the most talented Democratic politicians of modern history never commanded a majority in a national election.
The evidence is mixed about how relevant Obama finds the Clinton example. Obama recently told the New York Times that he was reading a book about Clinton, including his dire circumstances in 1994. But the Washington Post recently quoted a “senior White House official” saying archly, “This president is not like that president.” It’s a sentiment Obama aides have often expressed, often with undisguised scorn, over the past three years.
One Clinton veteran, former White House adviser Doug Sosnik, said Obama allies should disabuse themselves of the fantasy that the Tuesday results are a blessing in disguise: “The single greatest luxury you have in politics is the ability to control your own destiny.” Obama has now sacrificed some of that ability to Republicans.
In any event, there are a number of reasons why “pulling a Clinton” is a more formidable undertaking than even many political analysts and strategists imagine:
The circular firing squad.
Clinton now is generally recalled fondly among most Democrats, and also regarded as a supremely effective politician. But in 1995, when he began a series of policy and messaging moves to move to the center—known as “triangulation” by his then-consultant Dick Morris—Clinton faced a resentful and bitterly divided party.
After he announced his support for a balanced budget, it was easy for reporters to fill up a notebook on Capitol Hill with hostile quotes from Democrats calling Clinton a quisling, especially after they learned he was being advised by a Republican consultant. Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado said Republicans were playing with the president “like a kitten with a string.” Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin jeered, “I think most of us learned some time ago, if you don’t like the president’s position on a particular issue, you simply need to wait a few weeks.”
During the midst of a troubled war in Afghanistan and more polarized politics generally, Obama has a tougher challenge keeping his party unified and any moves that liberals interpreted as abandoning them for reasons of political expediency would probably earn a much harsher reaction than Clinton received.
Change is hard
Clinton’s political reassessment was carried out in tandem with an exceptionally painful personal reappraisal by both him and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Days after the election, she broke down in tears in a conversation with Morris, confessing: “I don’t know which direction is up or down. Everything I thought was right was wrong.”
The president himself was so disoriented he looked everywhere for guidance. At Camp David, he played host to self-help gurus like Stephen Covey (“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”) or Anthony Robbins (“Awaken the Giant Within”), whose late-night infomercials advised that people could train themselves to walk across hot coals. But he also opened his West Wing operation to talented outsiders who weren’t intimates or veterans of his campaign like then-chief of staff Leon Panetta.
Some of Clinton’s advice-seeking was eccentric, but it revealed a willingness to listen and an instinct for brutal self-critique that, at least to date, has hardly been Obama’s signature.
Out with the old
Obama advisers who suggest that he study the Clinton example do so at their peril. One of the first things Clinton did upon concluding that he needed to change was to change the people around him.
Like Obama, Clinton was initially surrounded with an exceptionally talented but sometimes brash group of advisers, who felt a sense of ownership of his presidency. They soon learned that they were tenants, not owners.
Without explaining his actions even to the people affected, Clinton simply dropped many of his advisers, such as pollster Stan Greenberg. George Stephanopoulos for months found himself coldly on the outs, fighting to get in meetings. One-time adviser Paul Begala left Washington for Texas rather than try to fight for influence with people he loathed like Morris. Clinton became weepy as he parted ways with people with whom he felt an early bond, like press secretary Dee Dee Myers.
“We hired too many young people in this White House who are smart but not wise,” Clinton told Stephanopoulos, as recounted in the latter’s memoir.
Some of the Washington operatives who are urging Obama to pattern his recovery after Clinton are also rooting for a West Wing shake-up. Obama has shown a willingness to change personnel like economic adviser Larry Summers or national security adviser Jim Jones, but he has not indicated that he thinks change is needed among aides he is more personally close to. If he eventually decides his political revival depends on this, the result may or may not be effective but almost certainly will be messy and full of Washington recriminations.
As bumpy as Clinton’s recovery was, he had an advantage. For the most part, he was returning in 1995 to a core set of values that had become obscured amid the clamor of his first two years in office.
Clinton was a centrist Democratic governor who learned in Arkansas how to navigate a conservative political environment. His speeches from the triangulation period may have seemed like lurches to the center compared to 1993, but for the most part they were lurches back to the rhetoric he had used when he began his bid for the presidency in 1991.
Some of Clinton’s moves from the period of his recovery were easy to mock, such as allowing Morris to poll where to take the family vacation and giving speeches on such non-traditional presidential topics as support for school uniforms. But these seemingly trivial moves had a serious purpose. They were part of a sustained effort to reestablish Clinton’s connection with middle-class values and concerns. Almost every day brought a new speech or new presidential directive designed to show that he could still be a robust leader even without a legislative majority behind him.
Obama, who ran for president mostly on the strength of his biography and personal qualities, does not have the same set of clear first principles to guide his political rehabilitation. And he and his aides have been vocally critical of what they regard as Clinton’s instinct for “small-bore” politics. For the Obama team to adapt Clinton political techniques would require a radical shift in their own assumptions about how to use the power of the presidency.
Clinton’s comeback benefited immeasurably from some well-timed bounces.
Ghoulish as it is to contemplate, the reality is he and his political team took advantage of the horror of the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City to invite people to reassess him as commander in chief. The incident also put the most extreme anti-government rhetoric of Washington conservatives in a menacing light.
In Obama’s case, by contrast, no one during an age of terrorism is unaware that he is commander in chief—but issues of national security are much more contentious than in the 1990s.
Clinton was most fortunate of all that his main antagonist among the Republicans was a flamboyant and undisciplined figure like Newt Gingrich, who announced modestly, “I think I am a transformational figure.” When Gingrich whined that Clinton had made him exit from the back of Air Force One rather than invite him upfront for budget negotiations, the New York Daily News depicted him on the cover as an infant in diapers holding a baby rattle.
Obama has no reason to suppose that such stolid and conventional politicians as John Boehner, the presumptive next House speaker, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will present him with quite the same opportunities to draw politically winning contrasts.
This points to what may be the most important reason it will be hard for Obama to easily draw upon the Clinton lessons. To this day, there is considerable debate even among Clinton aides themselves what those lessons are.
People like pollster Mark Penn, a centrist and one-time Morris ally, believe the essential ingredient was Clinton reclaiming the center through such steps as endorsing a balanced budget and signing welfare reform—as a way of showing that he shared the values of swing voters. People like Begala, James Carville, and Stephanopoulos believe the more important element was Clinton’s willingness to show spine during the budget showdown with Republicans, in which the GOP took the blame for two federal government shutdowns.
Tom Freedman, a Clinton 1996 campaign hand who remains an adviser, said both conciliation and conflict are important—so long as a president keeps the conflict on favorable political and policy terrain.
"The three keys: get the policy right, welcome cooperation, but be on high ground for a possible fight and be ready to win," Freedman said.
So, despite the obstacles, is the Clinton experience relevant to Obama? Veterans of that White House say it is—within limits.
“I don’t think it’s a perfect match, but I think it has some relevance,” said Don Baer, a former White House communications director. The most important similarity is Obama’s need to show he can be “the nation’s leader even beyond what [he] can do with Congress,” where he and Republicans aren’t likely to allow many legislative victories.
“It took a long time over many months, with lots of trial and error, and lots of internal battling, to get to something that was eventually successful,” Baer said.
As Sosnik sees it, what Obama must recover from 2008—more important than the debate over whether he should be more liberal or more centrist—is the widespread belief that he represents a clean break from what many voters regard as a broken political culture: “What’s most important for him is to keep himself separated from the same-old, same-old in Washington.”
John F. Harris, POLITICO's editor in chief, is author of "THE SURVIVOR: Bill Clinton in the White House."
John F. Harris
June 2021 May 2021 April 2021 March 2021 February 2021 January 2021 December 2020 November 2020 October 2020 September 2020 August 2020 July 2020 June 2020 May 2020 April 2020 March 2020 February 2020 January 2020 December 2019 November 2019 October 2019 September 2019 August 2019 July 2019 June 2019 May 2019 April 2019 March 2019 February 2019 January 2019 December 2018 November 2018 October 2018 September 2018 August 2018 July 2018 June 2018 May 2018 April 2018 March 2018 February 2018 January 2018 December 2017 November 2017 October 2017 September 2017 August 2017 July 2017 June 2017 May 2017 April 2017 March 2017 February 2017 January 2017 December 2016 November 2016 October 2016 September 2016 August 2016 July 2016 June 2016 May 2016 April 2016 March 2016 February 2016 January 2016 December 2015 November 2015 October 2015 September 2015 August 2015 July 2015 June 2015 May 2015 April 2015 March 2015 February 2015 January 2015 December 2014 November 2014 October 2014 September 2014 August 2014 July 2014 June 2014 May 2014 April 2014 March 2014 February 2014 January 2014 December 2013 November 2013 October 2013 September 2013 August 2013 July 2013 June 2013 May 2013 April 2013 March 2013 February 2013 January 2013 December 2012 November 2012 October 2012 September 2012 August 2012 July 2012 June 2012 May 2012 April 2012 March 2012 February 2012 January 2012 December 2011 November 2011 October 2011 September 2011 August 2011 July 2011 June 2011 May 2011 April 2011 March 2011 February 2011 January 2011 December 2010 November 2010 October 2010 September 2010 August 2010 July 2010 June 2010 May 2010 April 2010 March 2010 February 2010 January 2010 December 2009 November 2009 October 2009 September 2009 August 2009 July 2009 June 2009 May 2009 April 2009 March 2009 February 2009 January 2009 December 2008