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?