What worked for Clinton probably won't for Obama
Watching Bill Clinton in the White House pressroom this week called back memories of the former president, 16 years ago, standing in the same place. Like Obama today, Clinton had taken a shellacking from the midterm voters, losing both houses of Congress. In the pressroom he insisted, almost mournfully, "The president is relevant. The Constitution gives me relevance . . . And the fact that I'm willing to work with the Republicans."
Clinton's endorsement of the Obama tax compromise and his counseling visit to the Oval Office gave rise to speculation that Obama will seek to emulate the Clinton strategy -- ignore his base, tack to the center and seek compromises with the GOP. If so, we might look at some of the differences between now and then.
On the first day of Clinton's presidency, he discovered the federal deficit was $360 billion, up $60 billion from what George H.W. Bush admitted during the 1992 campaign. A pittance perhaps in today's world, but it had a clarifying effect on the Clinton agenda, raising deficit reduction to a prime spot.
Clinton found that his three major campaign promises -- a middle- class tax cut, health-care reform and ending welfare as we know it--were a difficult brew under the circumstances. So he dropped the tax cut, postponed welfare reform and put Hillary in charge of reforming the health-care system. "If I don't get health care done," Clinton said, "I'll wish I didn't run for president."
Minority Leader Bob Dole promised there would be no Republican votes whatever for anything that raised taxes. Facing that, the Clinton health-care plan emerged as a botched initiative that drew fire from nearly every special interest it affected. The massive 2,409-page bill never even came to a vote in Congress. Still, it was the defining issue in the Republican seizure of power in the midterms.
Obama came to office facing a much different landscape: two wars, a collapsing financial industry, an auto sector facing extinction and a federal deficit that dwarfed that of 1993. Facing an even more determined GOP opposition, Obama pressed forward and by any measure his legislative accomplishments dwarf those of Clinton's first two years. Still, on Election Day, unemployment stood at 9.8 percent, there was an atmosphere of hostile partisan gridlock in Washington and Obama was hammered in the midterms.
So, can Obama recover by following the Clinton playbook? Remember, Clinton wandered in the wilderness for nearly six months wondering what to do. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the ascendant leader in national politics, and Clinton's 1995 State of the Union was a surrender document.
Then Clinton hit on his recovery strategy of "triangulation," getting halfway between Republican and Democratic positions, picking the issues and extolling the virtues of compromise. That appears to be what Obama sought to do on the Bush tax cuts, though many Democrats think he went far more than halfway.
The difference in the times, however, is that Clinton had real issues to work with. Welfare reform was guaranteed to get Republican support, though Clinton had to use his veto twice before the GOP gave him a bill could sign. Trade liberalization, NAFTA, originally was a Republican idea and triangulating worked there as well. Control over the sale of assault weapons and regulation of tobacco gave Clinton popular issues by which to define differences.
Out of Clinton's season of doubt came a pragmatism that paid off. Accepting his party's nomination in 1996, Clinton could trumpet 10 million new jobs, 1.8 million moved from welfare to work and a budget deficit down 60 percent and headed toward zero.
If Obama chooses to follow the pragmatic, centrist path of his predecessor, it is hard to see where he finds the kind of issues that Clinton employed, hard to see where he gets similar accomplishments. Education reform and renewable energy are possibilities. But determined obstructionism still defines the GOP agenda -- repeal Obamacare, roll back financial regulation, deny Obama a second term. If that's the game, the president will more likely spend the next two years fighting a rear guard action.
Bode is the former national political correspondent for NBC News and a former political analyst for CNN.
January 2022 December 2021 November 2021 October 2021 September 2021 August 2021 July 2021 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