Immediately following the Democrats’ 2010 electoral shellacking, a broad spectrum of pundits urged President Obama to "pull a Clinton," in the words of Politico: move to the center (as if he wasn’t already there), find common ground with the GOP and adopt the "triangulation" strategy employed by Bill Clinton after the Democratic setback in the 1994 midterms. "Is ‘triangulation’ just another word for the politics of the possible?" asked the New York Times. "Can Obama do a Clinton?" seconded The Economist. And so on. The Obama administration, emphatic in charting its own course, quickly took issue with the comparison. According to the Times, Obama went so far as to ban the word "triangulation" inside the White House. Politico called the phrase "the dirtiest word in politics."
Obama’s distaste for the Clinton-era buzzword seemed a tad ironic, given that he had packed the White House with insiders from the Clinton administration and began year three with prominent Clinton alums as his chief of staff (Bill Daley), top economic adviser (Gene Sperling) and budget director (Jack Lew). Obama’s first legislative deal after the election, on the Bush tax cuts, included major concessions to the GOP in a highly Clintonian compromise. And there was the Big Dog himself, at the White House press podium on December 10, defending the agreement while Obama was under fire from the left, a predicament Clinton was no stranger to. One could be forgiven for believing that the Clinton era had returned. The parallels between now and then are indeed striking.
After his party’s midterm rebuke in 1994, Clinton delivered a prime-time address in December of that year to pre-empt incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s "Contract With America" by unveiling a "Middle Class Bill of Rights" consisting mainly of tax cuts. Congressional Democrats were furious at the proposal, and noted liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that Clinton had "hoisted a white flag—and did so before a crowd that won’t be satisfied by anything short of unconditional surrender." Sixteen years later, following his own midterm thumping and in an attempt to preserve the sort of tax cuts liberal Democrats once vilified Clinton for, Obama agreed to extend all of the Bush tax cuts temporarily, including those for the wealthiest Americans. The deal demonstrated how far the pendulum had swung to the right, especially in the wake of George W. Bush’s tenure, and raised alarming questions about how Obama planned to govern against the backdrop of a divided Washington. If Obama continues to adopt Republican ideas, what was previously regarded as the center will shift even further to the right.
At the hopeful beginning of his presidency, Obama devoured biographies of Lincoln (Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan) and FDR (The Defining Moment by Jonathan Alter, FDR by Jean Edward Smith), two unquestionably great presidents who put their unique stamp on history. By the end of a productive yet rough two years in office, as he departed for a much-needed vacation in Hawaii, Obama’s reading list was replaced with biographies of Clinton and Reagan, presidents who stumbled in their early days and suffered bad losses in their first midterm election yet eventually regained their footing—though in markedly different ways. Clinton, for much of his presidency, shaded the difference between liberalism and conservatism in favor of a "third way," while Reagan held to an unabashedly conservative ideology on foreign and domestic policy. On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama argued that Reagan had "changed the trajectory of America…in a way that Bill Clinton did not." A few years later, however, Obama looks far more like Clinton than Reagan, a largely transactional, rather than transformational, leader (although there have been times, most recently during his mesmerizing speech at the Tucson memorial service, when Obama has powerfully risen to the occasion). The big question for years three and four of his presidency is, Which model will Obama follow?
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Before dissecting Obama’s strategy, it’s worth remembering the moves Clinton made after the ’94 election and whether they worked as popularly described. That December, Clinton summoned his old Arkansas friend Dick Morris, a shadowy and controversial political operative who’d worked for GOP senators like Jesse Helms and Trent Lott, for an urgent strategy meeting. Morris, using the code name Charlie, urged Clinton to "fast-forward the Gingrich agenda" and find a "Democratic way of achieving" GOP priorities. Heeding such advice came naturally to Clinton, who’d already cut deals with the GOP on issues like NAFTA and would continue to do so after facing a Republican Congress, most notably on welfare reform, reducing the size of the government ("The era of big government is over") and balancing the budget, while emphasizing less consequential issues, such as school uniforms and V-chips, that polled well with the electorate. Yet the half-dozen ex–Clinton advisers I interviewed for this article pointed out that Morris typically receives more credit than he deserves in the saga of Clinton’s comeback, and that triangulation was less responsible for Clinton’s re-election than conventional wisdom posits. "The truth is, triangulation was much more what Dick Morris said than what President Clinton did," says former Clinton adviser Paul Begala.
In fact, during his first major confrontation with the GOP Congress—over the 1995 budget—Clinton ignored Morris’s advice, according to Begala, and refused to cut a deal with Gingrich, pledging to resist cuts to "Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment." Begala recounts an oft-told story in which Clinton, during a meeting with Gingrich, pointed at the Oval Office desk (named The Resolute, a present from Queen Victoria in 1880) and told the GOP leader, "If you want to pass your budget, you’re going to have to put somebody else in this chair." Begala wants Obama to study that Clinton, not the Morris concoction. "It is that Gary Cooper type of leadership," Begala says, "that people are now looking for in President Obama."
Gingrich stubbornly plowed ahead with his spending cuts and forced a government shutdown, which backfired spectacularly and jolted Clinton’s sagging poll numbers upward. Clinton’s outmaneuvering of Gingrich, his reassuring handling of the Oklahoma City bombing and the steady growth of the economy since he took office—by 1996 the unemployment rate had fallen to 5.4 percent—propelled him to a second term. Morris had little to do with it, which is one reason the former Clinton advisers I interviewed unanimously urged Obama not to follow Morris’s triangulation formula. "What Obama should take from the Clinton experience is that you absolutely have to pick some early battles to stand strong on," says Mike Lux, Clinton’s special assistant to the president for public liaison. "The Republicans will give us a hundred different opportunities, between bills they introduce and crazy shit they say…. The hardest decision will be picking which ones to focus on." Former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg says Obama "should be drawing red lines on things that are central to the purpose of his presidency and ought to be looking to get work done with the Republicans in other areas."
Even Morris doubts that his strategy is applicable today. A New York Post column after the election was titled "This Time, Triangulation’s Not an Option." Morris and his co-author, Eileen McGann, pointed out that Republicans have little desire to work with Obama. "If they compromise to suit Obama’s big-government objectives, they’ll muddy the waters, antagonize their energetic base and provide no clear alternative to his socialism," he wrote. According to Morris, Obama’s "socialism" can only be defeated, not appeased. Despite calls for a more civil dialogue in the wake of the Arizona shootings, Republicans are unlikely to abandon their oppositional strategy. "The concept of the third way or triangulation is that reasonable people from both sides can come together and strike a deal," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network and a veteran of Clinton’s war room in 1992. "And I think what we’ve learned in the last few years is that formula requires both sides to be reasonable. And we’ve discovered the Republicans are not."
Not only is the political context between now and 1994 different; so too are the backgrounds of Clinton and Obama. Clinton viewed himself as a liberal in a conservative era and governed accordingly. Obama was elected at the very moment when conservative governance—in the form of George W. Bush—was being widely repudiated. Clinton hailed from the center/center-right of the Democratic Party and consciously tried to shed the "big government, tax and spend" stigma of the McGovern/Mondale years by associating himself with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and New Democrat movement. Obama represented a new day for his party and appeared less bound by the ideological baggage and fights of the boomer generation. In part because of his early opposition to war in Iraq and his progressive record as a state and US senator, he was more enthusiastically embraced by liberal Democrats and linked to a younger, diverse, more grassroots constituency. As a state senator, Obama had found Clinton’s maneuvering on welfare reform "disturbing," identified himself as a member of the "liberal wing of the Democratic Party" in 1999 and, in a signature speech in Iowa during the 2008 primaries, promised an end to "triangulating and poll-driven positions." Obama has already accomplished some major things Clinton did not, such as the stimulus bill, healthcare reform and financial regulatory reform, and he will not be able to fast-forward the agenda of new House Speaker John Boehner without disowning his signature achievements.
Triangulation, to the extent that he pursued it, was a political strategy for Clinton—he believed in policies like welfare reform and balancing the budget, but he deliberately highlighted the issues that brought him the largest gain among the center of the electorate. Obama, on the other hand, has disparaged the bite-sized politics of the Clinton era and has said that he’d rather be a transformational president in one term than a middle-of-the-roader for eight years. When his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, another Clinton alum, urged him not to pursue healthcare reform in 2009, Obama responded, "I wasn’t sent here to do school uniforms," according to Jonathan Alter’s book The Promise: President Obama, Year One. Yet here’s the rub: compromise, for Obama, appears to be even more of a core value than it was for Clinton—he believes instinctively, from his days as a community organizer onward, in getting what he can out of a deal, even if it’s less than he wanted, and moving on. What he considers the purism of the left bothers him as much as the ideological extremity of the right, and as president he has often lumped both poles together, even as the center continues to drift to the right. "I don’t believe that either party has cornered the market on good ideas," Obama said when he signed the tax cut compromise. "And I want to draw on the best thinking from both sides." Yet the president has often gone too far in adopting the other side’s arguments, watering down his own agenda in an attempt to lure GOP votes that never materialize. "In the spirit of trying to find common ground, the president sometimes gave too much ground," says Rosenberg.
Washington Post blogger Adam Serwer has persuasively argued that "what in the past the administration has referred to as ‘pragmatism’ is merely triangulating by another name." The difference is rhetorical, not substantive. "Obama makes it clear that he agrees with liberals on substance, before arguing that the political situation necessitates some kind of compromise," Serwer writes. Obama may profess not to like the compromise he’s agreeing to—abandoning the public option on healthcare, loading up the stimulus with tax cuts, agreeing to extend tax cuts for the wealthiest—but he compromises all the same. This impulse will likely become more dominant as he negotiates with Republicans over the next two years.
Obama said he wanted to be like Reagan, not Clinton, but he has yet to make a sustained case for his corresponding ideology or vision for the country, as Reagan successfully did. Reagan attacked liberalism throughout his presidency—big government was the problem, and lower taxes and fewer regulations were the solution. No matter the deals he eventually struck, whether it be with Tip O’Neill or Soviet Russia, capitalism was the hero and government the villain. Reaganism became an ideology, and the GOP is still following that script today. One can scarcely say the same about Obamaism—whatever that may be. "Just where Mr. Obama actually lives on the ideological continuum," wrote Matt Bai of the New York Times, "is the most vexing question of his presidency." Obama has been quite clear about his allergy to ideological thinking. "I don’t think in ideological terms," he told The Nation in 2005. "I never have." But the president’s relentless attachment to "pragmatism," which has become an ideology unto itself, has allowed the GOP’s dominant narrative about the economic crisis—that big government, once again, is to blame—to go unchallenged, especially when Obama sides with Republicans thematically on issues like deficit reduction and freezes on discretionary spending and federal pay. "In the absence of an alternative narrative the Republican story is the only one the public hears," Robert Reich, Clinton’s labor secretary and a onetime Obama economic adviser, noted on his blog. Hence the rise of the Tea Party and the potency of antigovernment right-wing populism nowadays.
Over the past two years Obama has won a number of legislative battles, but he has lost the broader philosophical war—as Democrats passed bill after bill, the electorate drifted further away. "Reagan often gave ground on policy substance—most notably, he ended up enacting multiple tax increases," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently noted. "But he never wavered on ideas, never backed down from the position that his ideology was right and his opponents were wrong." Reagan had what Obama needs most—a master narrative and rationale for his presidency. "Reagan took his case to the people and sold his program," says Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, whose book President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime Obama read on his latest vacation. During his first two years in office, "Reagan really stuck to his guns during the recession," Cannon says, defending his massive tax cuts and increase in military spending while backing Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker’s controversial management of monetary policy. By the time the 1984 election rolled around, the economy was growing rapidly and unemployment had eased from 10.8 percent in 1982 to 7.2 percent. Reagan could legitimately claim it was "morning again in America." Obama, according to Cannon, needs to look less like a legislator and more like a president; to focus on communicating with the American people and not become preoccupied by negotiations with Congress. "Obama is inspirational, but he’s not a salesman," Cannon says.
Obama’s speech in Arizona reminded Americans that his rhetorical skills are unparalleled; now he must display that same eloquence and urgency when it comes to solving the economic crisis, especially since many Americans remain perplexed by the length and depth of the recession. "What’s missing is a story line," says Reich. "What caused the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression, and why are we having such a hard time getting out of it? Why are working- and middle-class people hurting so much, and what are we going to do about it? That story line has to be reiterated over and over."
The opportunity is ripe for Obama to pull a reverse Reagan—articulating a progressive populism that is more relevant now than at any time since the 1930s, indicting the excesses of corporate conservatism and runaway capitalism. "We often talk about how upset Americans are at government," says pollster Cornell Belcher, who has worked for Obama and Howard Dean. "You know who they’re also upset with? They’re upset with the big corporations and the banking industry, who they think have been gouging them and not playing by the rules." The best estimates for 2012 forecast unemployment above 8 percent, a statistic no president since FDR has recovered from in his first term, which underscores the need for Obama to side with struggling Americans.
"The narrative is obvious," says Stan Greenberg. "We have an economic philosophy centered on making the middle class richer, and they have an economic philosophy which says trickle-down." Making that story stick would require both a rhetorical and policy shift from the Obama administration—sharpening the populist language and outlining ambitious proposals to turn the economy around. Yet there’s little evidence that Obama’s team is prepared to adopt such an approach, especially given that his core advisers are former Wall Street insiders or policy-makers sympathetic to them. Obama’s aversion to populism has turned him into what Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne calls a "Wall Street Liberal"—a big-spending friend of the banks.
Progressive Democrats have pushed Obama to shed that label. Last summer Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America’s Future, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Robert Kuttner of Demos/The American Prospect met with Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod and urged the White House to unveil an ambitious job-creation plan that Democrats could run on in 2010 and 2012. They wanted the White House to embrace a more expansive economic vision, not just to think tactically about legislation before Congress. Axelrod rejected the advice, arguing that the Senate didn’t have the votes to pass a jobs plan and, anyway, polling showed that the public didn’t want the government to spend more money. "They think they’ve done a great job and it’s just a matter of time before the economy recovers," Hickey says. The public evidently disagrees. Roughly 50 percent of Americans say Obama has spent too little time "trying to create jobs and fix the economy," according to a December New York Times/CBS News poll. In another postelection poll, 56 percent of Americans ranked the economy and jobs as their top priority for the new Congress, while only 4 percent named the deficit.
Despite those numbers, these days the Obama team seems far more preoccupied with deficit reduction than job creation. "What I want to hear is jobs," Begala says of the upcoming State of the Union address. "What I predict is the deficit." Indeed, the administration just hired Bruce Reed, former head of the DLC and executive director of the president’s deficit commission, as Vice President Joe Biden’s new chief of staff. The president has been boxed in by the GOP: unable to raise taxes or spend money. Under the GOP’s formula, budget cuts are his only option. Austerity politics rules the day. As a result, Hickey and other progressive organizers are looking outside the White House for leadership on the economy. "We need the highest-level group in Congress to say to the White House, We need a jobs plan," Hickey says. The Local Jobs for America Act, introduced last year by Representative George Miller and Senator Sherrod Brown, could be the basis for those discussions.
Ultimately, though, the president has the nation’s bully pulpit. It’s up to Obama to use it.