There was plenty of chatter this fall about the role (or lack thereof) of Bill Clinton in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Why, many observers wondered, wasn’t the Democratic presidential nominee more interested in taking pointers from the only Democratic nominee since Jimmy Carter to win a national election?
In the end, of course, Mr. Obama’s refusal to go to Clinton School didn’t hurt him on Election Day. But now, as he transitions from campaigning to governing, Mr. Obama would be very wise to consider very carefully the example of Mr. Clinton – and to make sure he doesn’t emulate it, at least not in the early days of his administration.
Mr. Clinton’s presidency is generally remembered warmly, mainly because he presided over domestic prosperity without plunging the nation into any protracted military conflicts. But his first two years were an unmitigated catastrophe, from both a policy and a political standpoint. In that time, Mr. Clinton’s approval rating slipped into the 30’s and the centerpiece item on his agenda – universal health core – unraveled. By November 1994, his unpopularity triggered a seismic political shift, with the G.O.P. winning majorities in both the Senate and the House (ending a 40-year drought in that chamber).
Mr. Clinton, of course, ultimately found that ’94 debacle liberating, recasting himself to the public as the reasonable middle man between the extremes of both congressional parties. Even though that strategy ended up working perfectly for the president (but terribly for his castrated party, which ended the 1990s in its weakest state in decades), his administration very nearly collapsed in those first two years. Surely, Mr. Obama doesn’t want to flirt with the same kind of disaster in 2009 and 2010.
So where did Mr. Clinton go wrong?
First, he was intimidated by the Permanent Democratic Congress, a decentralized collection of senior House and Senate lawmakers who enjoyed unchecked and seemingly eternal power. They had seen presidents come and go and outlasted them all. Mr. Clinton showed them deference – particularly in one of his first governing debacles: a $16 billion economic “stimulus” package, the outgrowth of his campaign pledge to focus on the economy “like a laser beam.”
The ballyhooed stimulus plan was, in reality, a gigantic piece of pork, consisting of one powerful lawmaker’s home-state spending wish list piled on top of another. Republicans rightly and devastatingly ridiculed it, painting the new president and his congressional allies as old fashioned tax-and-spend liberals – the stereotype that Mr. Clinton had worked so studiously to subvert in his ’92 campaign. The stimulus bill died in April ’93, but the cost to Mr. Clinton’s popularity was profound.
Mr. Clinton’s first budget was also politically costly. He’d campaigned on a pledge to cut middle-class taxes and to raise rates on only the wealthiest Americans – just like Mr. Obama this year – a pledge that he knew full well he’d never be able to keep, given the ballooning budget deficits he inherited. He was forced to break his promise weeks after taking office, and Republicans – and the media – never let him forget it. Mr. Clinton ultimately pushed his budget through in the summer of ’93 without a single Republican vote and with public opinion overwhelmingly against it. Just like the stimulus, it looked like Mr. Clinton had abandoned centrism for traditional liberalism.
He also proved alarmingly tone deaf, starting with his grossly mistaken assumption that he could end the military’s ban on gay service members by a quick and tidy presidential order. Instead, all hell broke loose. The military revolted. Conservative Democrats abandoned the president. And polls found the public far more conflicted on the subject that Mr. Clinton apparently imagined. The fiasco badly distracted his presidency in its earliest days, cost him political capital and undermined voters’ confidence in him.
He showed similar instincts when he (and his wife) rejected overtures from a bipartisan congressional coalition for a health care compromise in early 1994. This refusal sent Mr. Clinton’s signature agenda item, which had already been teetering, into a tailspin from which it never recovered.
It doesn’t have to be this bad for Mr. Obama, of course. Congressional Democrats are a more cohesive and centralized lot these days. Committee chairmen in the House are now term-limited (an initiative undertaken by the Republicans after 1994) and Mr. Obama already has a strong relationship with most of his party’s movers and shakers on the Hill, many of whom endorsed his campaign early. All indications are that he will enjoy a more balanced and cooperative relationship with them from day one.
That said, his insistence during the campaign that he can provide a broad tax cut calls to mind Mr. Clinton’s hollow pander in ’92. With Mr. Obama poised to offer a stimulus package of his own – one that there is bipartisan agreement is necessary – and a host of other costly initiatives, his promise seems just as impractical. If so, he’d better hope his explanation for going back on his word goes over better with voters than Mr. Clinton’s did.