I never thought it would come to this. I never imagined a time post 2000 when I would actually lament a return to the past. But here we are, facing a recession as deep and even longer than the one in the early 1990s, a recession that ushered in none other than the Comeback Kid – President William Jefferson Clinton.
His was a presidency that brought us DNA samples, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, school uniforms, and wagging fingers regarding a certain intern.
But set all that aside (if you can), and recall some of the fiscal successes of his presidency. Yes, the United States enjoyed years of growing surpluses during the Clinton presidency – many of which could be attributed equally to the Republican Congress – but pair them together, and it’s easy to see why the country could use another Bill Clinton in place of the current Oval Office occupant. Here’s why:
I lead with this because it’s easily the quickest thing President Obama could accomplish to help set the economy on the right footing again. President Clinton bucked the powerful labor unions and even some of the most liberal wings in his party to push through Trade Promotion Authority during his tenure. For the first time, the Administration had the power to negotiate trade deals and send them to the Congress for an up-or-down vote. TPA was a signature legislative jewel in the crown of the Clinton presidency, and it took none other than Clinton himself to put his own political capital on the line to marshal it through the Congress.
Clinton was a master of acknowledging the concerns of labor rights yet channeling them into meaningful legislation. It was not enough to just fight and lose the battles. Clinton needed to win. And when it came to trade, and the United States’ continued dominance on the world commercial scene, he was one of the best trade envoys for the nation.
He didn’t always welcome freer trade policies, but in the end, he reasoned that expanded trade with the rest of the world was a net benefit for U.S. workers and manufacturers. President Obama would do well to emulate Clinton’s behavior in this regard, especially since many in Congress have teed up three free trade agreements (Korea, Panama, and Colombia) for him to carry over the finish line. Just as it took Clinton to move Trade Promotion Authority, so it will take the leader of the Democratic Party again to lead his members to pass these FTAs this year.
Bill Clinton proved bipartisanship was more art than science. Here again, he didn’t always practice it, but when he did, it was a thing of beauty, and it worked.
Remember “triangulation”? The practice of leveraging support from the opposition party - or even a smaller minority in your own – to move legislation or force compromise was sheer Clintonian. Frankly, that’s how consensus-building should work in this town. It’s one of the few ways to move public policy, and chances are it yields positive outcomes. We’ve entered an era where 60-votes is the goal, when super-majorities are the only numbers that matter, and yet it’s evident they are nearly impossible to secure.
Bill Clinton would never have endorsed a Super Committee for debt reduction. Why? Because he wouldn’t have been a part of the solution. His ego was larger than that. Plus, the numbers were decreased, meaning he’d have less elected leaders to motivate or coax. Sure, the Clinton White House had plenty of special commissions. But one that dealt with such an important topic would never have been relegated to just 12 individuals.
Remember “It’s the economy, stupid!”? It was the single-largest issue facing President Clinton in the 1990s, and it’s the same today facing President Obama. Clinton threw everything he had at the problem, even if it meant borrowing votes from the other side of the aisle. He gave to get.
Just this week, however, the Obama Administration has signaled a shift left, away from the middle where compromise is forged and consensus is found. That does not bode well for a bipartisan solution when clearly one is needed.
“The Era of Big Government is Over”
One thing is evident regarding the Clinton years: he knew when he had been beat. Following the loss of both houses of Congress in 1994, the president rightly declared, “The era of Big Government is over.” He spent the next several years resisting that fact, but enacting policies that matched the statement. Remember welfare reform in 1996? It took a Republican Congress to force a liberal president to enact that landmark law. Yet it took a chief executive to do his part.
President Obama knows the era of big government in 2011 is over. It took the Tea Party to prove to him this fact. Now, he must repeat the steps of Clinton and work with Republicans to enact meaningful, center-right policies that reflect the will of this nation. Resistance is futile. Just look at the imminent loss of the Democrat-controlled Senate in 2012, and perhaps even the loss of Obama’s own job if he’s not careful in these upcoming months.
There were a lot of things wrong with the presidency of Bill Clinton. I would have much rather preferred a second term of Bush 41. But comparing the Obama presidency to Clinton’s accomplishments of the 1990s, and it’s easy to see why the travails of President Clinton were good “problems” to have.