In the wake of sweeping Republican gains in yesterday’s elections, the biggest question facing President Obama is whether to “do a Clinton”-- adjusting to changed political realities with a sharp shift to the political center. The fact that White House aides tell the press that Obama will never preside over such a transition, or emulate Bill Clinton’s ideological flexibility, clearly exposes the hypocrisy in Democratic propaganda that previously praised Obama as the second coming of “Slick Willie.”
As a matter of electoral expediency, it made sense of Democratic apologists to try to talk about the “good old days” of the Clinton era rather than defending Obama’s own record of soaring unemployment and staggering budget deficits. In particular, liberal pundits and politicos loved to compare the prosperity and shrinking deficits of Bill Clinton’s reign to the financial reverses that characterized the last two years under George W. Bush—as if the choice between President Obama and his vociferous GOP critics actually amounted to a choice between Clinton and Bush.
But this nostalgic pitch ignored the sharp contrast between Clinton and Obama – two Democratic presidents with radically different policies and priorities. Clinton came to power as a centrist “New Democrat,” pledging to avoid the big government excesses of an older generation of liberals. Obama campaigned for activist government with a host of new initiatives, welcoming comparisons with FDR.
In a much-quoted State of the Union address (after the Republican sweep of 1994), Clinton announced that “the era of big government is over”; Obama insists the expansion of big government is just beginning.
Clinton pushed a pro-business agenda of deregulation and free trade; Obama bashes business and pledges to impose new regulation and a more protectionist trade policy, regardless of GOP opposition in Congress..
Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act and, after abandoning an early push for gays in the military, instituted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’; Obama wants to repeal both Clintonian policies.
Clinton worked with the Republican Congress to achieve welfare reform, ending a dysfunctional federal entitlement; Obama enacted new and even more costly Washington entitlements, like the trillion-dollar health care bill.
Clinton dropped his plans for a government takeover of health care in face of ferocious public opposition; Obama rammed through an even more poorly designed “health care reform” and ignored the even more fervent resistance of an engaged electorate.
In the end, Clinton- under pressure from the Gingrich Congress—turned big deficits from the first president Bush into surpluses; Obama took moderate deficits from the second president Bush and tripled them.
No wonder news reports suggest that Bill Clinton, not Barack Obama, is the most popular campaigner for Democrats in this election cycle. Embattled candidates who want the current president to stay away because they fear close association with his unpopular record, welcome President Clinton with enthusiasm and gratitude.
But those candidates fail to acknowledge that the turning point that saved Bill Clinton’s presidency came in November, 1994, with the Republican sweep of the midterm elections. Newt Gingrich and the “Contract with America” GOP captured 53 Democratic House seats, and 8 Democratic seats in the Senate. Almost immediately, Bill Clinton reoriented his presidency toward a strategy of “triangulation”: positioning himself as the sensible centrist who stood mid-way between the aggressive conservatives who controlled Congress and his own stridently liberal Democratic allies on Capitol Hill. Abandoning the activism and sweeping goals that characterized the first two years of his presidency, Bill Clinton rediscovered his identity as a New Democrat and governed successfully for the next six years as a pragmatic centrist.
Ironically, yesterday’s GOP gains could provide Barack Obama with the same opportunity to shift to the center that enabled Clinton to win his most notable political and budgetary successes. But Anne Kornblut of the Washington Post reported that “White House officials” privately resist comparisons between the two presidents. “If the House falls into Republican hands, they say, Obama will not repeat the Clinton governing script of 1995,” she writes. “Obama advocates argue that he is temperamentally ill-suited to such a strategy, both because is more interested in broad change than small bore tinkering and because it requires a level of deal-making that he has not appeared comfortable with.”
In other words, the president (who leaves on an Asian tour this Friday rather than meeting with the newly elected Congressional leaders) counts as the sort of haughty, inflexible ideologue who isn’t capable of adjusting his approach, even when his own political survival may require it. Having declared repeatedly during the campaign that Republicans must ride “in the back seat” while he continues to drive the government in the far left-hand lane, he’s hardly ready to invite them to ride shotgun, regardless of yesterday’s election returns.
In other words, it never made sense for the stiff, sour and self-righteous Barack Obama to compare himself to the ebullient, resilient, cheerfully amoral Bill Clinton. Despite the former president’s vigorous campaigning for beleaguered Democrats, a yearning to recapture the Clinton years played little apparent role in helping protect Obama’s Congressional allies.
Instead, even self-described moderates and independents who greatly admired President Clinton turned overwhelmingly to the GOP, voting for more balanced and mainstream policies in the only way they could – sending Republican re-enforcements to provide a sharp and decisive block to Obama’s calamitous lurch to the left.