Once Democrats saw Obama as Kennedy; today, they would settle for Clinton. That’s because Bill Clinton successfully made it through what Obama now faces. The parallels between Democrats’ two most recent presidents are striking. What is unclear is whether that similarity extends to success in dealing with a resurgent opposition.
Obama and Clinton’s first two years in office were marked by four major policy areas: health care, taxes, war, and the federal budget. Health care was a signal defeat for Clinton, while a major win for Obama. Taxes too were a setback for Clinton, who raised them markedly in an attempt to stem the deficit. Taxes have been a relative plus for Obama – foregoing increases taking effect during his first two years and even reducing some in an effort to end the recession.
War as an issue favored Clinton, who benefitted from the Reagan-produced peace following the USSR’s collapse. Contrastingly, Obama has suffered from his inheritance, still having two wars on his watch. The federal budget bedeviled both presidents. Though Clinton took an enormously costly political vote on taxes, the budget deficit still haunted him and it took Republicans’ spending cuts to balance the budget. While Obama did not make such a difficult political effort on it, the deficit has still proved politically costly and helped fuel today’s Republican resurgence.
If anything, Obama was slightly ahead of Clinton on the policy scorecard going into his midterm election. Yet both suffered severe setbacks. Clinton lost control of Congress, Obama lost the House and 2/3rds of his Senate majority.
Revealingly, their policy overlap and similar midterm fates belie very dissimilar routes to the White House. Yet here too, Obama comes out ahead of Clinton. Clinton was already damaged goods when nominated, weathering the Gennifer Flowers story and emerging from a weak primary field dubbed “the seven dwarfs.” Clinton’s primary experience lowered expectations for him; contrastingly, Obama’s raised expectations of him. He was a giant killer – pulling off what had been unthinkable just a year earlier.
Their primary experiences were reflected in their general elections. In 2008, Obama received the highest popular vote percentage for a Democrat since LBJ in 1964. In 1992’s, Clinton won the presidency with just 43 percent of the popular vote – 10 points below Obama and the lowest winning percentage since 1912.
Yet despite having a smaller reserve of political capital, having faced greater policy setbacks, and suffering a worse midterm defeat, Clinton did not just survive the next two years. He was reelected, and went on to have a more successful second term than first. How did he do it?
With Clinton there were always intangibles that came to the fore under duress. Following his midterm defeat, Clinton confronted an adversary he knew well. He was a southern Democrat, knowing and understanding conservatism from his own experience. He was a successful, lifetime politician, the most important part of which was executive experience as governor. This may seem damning praise in today’s climate, but governing – particularly in a crisis – is a skill. Some are born to it, others grow into it, but there is no replacement for it.
Clinton’s harder road to the White House also became an asset in dealing with his midterm setback. He had survived a crowded primary field, the Flowers story – which would have killed virtually any other presidential candidate before or since – and beat an incumbent the Democratic establishment had seen as unbeatable.
In this crucial area, Obama’s background could not be more unlike Clinton’s. The question now is: Does Obama’s background, which is far more alien to his challenge than was Clinton’s, work against him in confronting his midterm challenge?
As Clinton fought his way to the presidency, we came to know him. Obama got to the White House by first not being Hillary and then, by not being Bush. But in embracing his “not being,” America did not get to know him as well. Clinton became to be seen as warm; Obama has become to be seen as cool.
By Obama’s own admission, he took a “shellacking” in November’s election. Many a fighter can throw punches, but to be successful in the ring, he must be able to take them as well. The boxer’s greatest test is not taken while standing on the canvas, but in getting off it.
For that reason, if you are a Democrat, Bill Clinton looks pretty good right now. This is no disrespect to the White House’s current occupant, but right now you just want to know your leader can survive a severe setback. Yes, Obama is smart and articulate, but so was Clinton. Yet Clinton’s ultimate trait was resilience. Obama and Clinton have much in common, do they have this as well? Now we find out.