A young Democratic president comes into office with big ambitions, gets knocked back on his heels by Republicans in the midterm elections, then makes some deft moves to recapture the center and waltzes to reelection two years later.
It sounds easy enough. And after Tuesday night’s humiliation, it must sound tempting to President Barack Obama and his battered political team. Some commentators have even suggested that losing control of the House might be a blessing in disguise for Obama’s prospects in 2012.
But the widespread speculation that what Obama needs to do now is simply “pull a Clinton” —replicating Bill Clinton’s comeback after being trounced by Newt Gingrich in 1994 — grossly underestimates the challenge that Obama faces, even if he chooses to draw on a Clinton example he once disdained.
Clinton’s revival was hardly an easy process. It was a searing experience for him and his inner circle at both the personal and political levels. It came only after a stark — and intensely humbling — effort by Clinton to overhaul his White House team, recalibrate his ideological ambitions and rethink his basic assumptions of how to be an effective president.
And even then, the outcome was a tenuous thing. Clinton caught a series of lucky breaks from events and from his own enemies. And the comeback won him only 49 percent of the vote: The man widely regarded as one of the most talented Democratic politicians of modern history never commanded a majority in a national election.
The evidence is mixed about how relevant Obama finds the Clinton example. Obama recently told The New York Times that he was reading a book about Clinton, including his dire circumstances in 1994. But The Washington Post recently quoted a “senior White House official” saying archly, “This president is not like that president.” It’s a sentiment Obama aides have often expressed, often with undisguised scorn, over the past three years.
One Clinton veteran, former White House adviser Doug Sosnik, said Obama allies should disabuse themselves of the fantasy that the Tuesday results are a blessing in disguise: “The single greatest luxury you have in politics is the ability to control your own destiny.” Obama has now sacrificed some of that ability to Republicans.
In any event, there are a number of reasons why “pulling a Clinton” is a more formidable undertaking than even many political analysts and strategists imagine:
The circular firing squad
Clinton now is generally recalled fondly among most Democrats, and also regarded as a supremely effective politician. But in 1995, when he began a series of policy and messaging moves to move to the center — known as “triangulation” by his then-consultant Dick Morris — Clinton faced a resentful and bitterly divided party.
After he announced his support for a balanced budget, it was easy for reporters to fill up a notebook on Capitol Hill with hostile quotes from Democrats calling Clinton a quisling, especially after they learned he was being advised by a Republican consultant. Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado said Republicans were playing with the president “like a kitten with a string.” Rep. Dave Obey of Wisconsin jeered, “I think most of us learned some time ago, if you don’t like the president’s position on a particular issue, you simply need to wait a few weeks.”
During the midst of a troubled war in Afghanistan and more polarized politics generally, Obama has a tougher challenge keeping his party unified, and any moves that liberals interpreted as abandoning them for reasons of political expediency would probably earn a much harsher reaction than Clinton received.
- Can Barack Obama Pull A Bill Clinton? (newsone.com)
- The 2010 Election: Bill Clinton is the New “One” (tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com)
- Steve Clemons: The 2010 Election: Bill Clinton Is the New “One” (huffingtonpost.com)
- A lesson for Obama: how ‘reasonable’ Bill Clinton neutered Newt Gingrich (guardian.co.uk)
- Blitzer: Will Obama follow Clinton’s 1994 playbook? (cnn.com)
- Midterms 2010: Clinton heralded as an example for Obama after ‘humbling’ night (telegraph.co.uk)