By Jason Johnson
In the wake of 2010 mid term elections and President Obama’s recent deal with the Republicans on the Bush Tax cuts a curious narrative seems to have occurred in the press. Many have been saying that Obama needs to act more like Bill Clinton.
The storyline is that after Clinton’s 1994 mid-terms he ‘triangulated’— more moving to the center and avoiding liberal hot button issues such as Healthcare and Gays in the Military. The narrative further goes that Obama caves in to Republicans too often, resulting in policies such as the Tax Deal or healthcare that lead to him giving into Republicans, chastising his own base for not having his back and leaving the center annoyed that no real business gets done.
When Obama trotted out Clinton last Friday to justify his tax deal it even further solidified this discussion of Clinton post 1994 as a model for Obama. But let’s be honest, Bill Clinton isn’t a model for the Obama presidency and any suggestion that he is ignores the ineptitude of the early Clinton presidency.
It wasn’t even 20 years ago when Clinton first came into office with only 43 percent of the popular vote, managing to beat George Bush only because Ross Perot peeled off enough Republican and fiscal conservative independent voters to let Clinton slip through. Immediately after getting into office, Clinton pissed off the public and the right by putting in “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” through executive order. No one cared and no one wanted the policy at the time.
He then attempted universal healthcare and when he faced resistance from the GOP and insurers he backed off of the plan entirely. He then put through a crime bill that was a capitulation to the right, gutted welfare to appease right wing critics and generally waffled or caved or quit on most issues in his early presidency.
And let’s not forget President Clinton’s predilection for leaving his friends out in the cold when it got too hot in the kitchen, especially African-American women. Clinton totally sold out assistant attorney general nominee Lani Guiner to the right wing attack dogs and fired Surgeon General Joceyln Elders despite her support for the very policies he lacked the backbone to push through Congress.
Let’s be honest about history. Clinton’s first term was pretty much defined by his capitulation to the right, his penchant for frustrating his own base and his tendency to betray his friends? Does that sound like a formula for President Obama to follow?
The truth for Clinton, as it may one day be for Obama, is that a symbolic victory might turn around his public perception more than a policy one. Clinton was a waffling “Slick Willy” until the government shutdown staring contest with Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress. When Republicans in the House refused to pass the federal budget unless Clinton made drastic cuts in social welfare programs, he stood up to them and the government was shut down for weeks, from December in 1995 to mid January of 1996.
While it was non-essential government services (we were all still getting our mail) the public thought that Newt was going too far, sided with Clinton and the rest is history. Bob Dole was tainted by the whole affair weakening his run for president in 1996, where Clinton won re-election but STILL didn’t get 50 percent of the popular vote. He continued to waffle throughout his presidency, get in trouble, but his one major public standoff with the Republicans is remembered almost 20 years later as Clinton’s coming into his own presidency.
President Obama has made plenty of ‘rookie mistakes’ in his first two years in office, but the suggestion that Clinton was a model of presidential leadership is a specious one. Clinton’s presidency wasn’t saved by “triangulation” or moving to the center, he had been doing that all along. Clinton was just as much a back – tracking capitulation waffler then as many see President Obama as today. Clinton lucked out when the Republicans tried to overreach and he took advantage. You aren’t outmaneuvering someone when you simply have an issue fall into your lap.
At some point Obama too will have to make a public stand on some issue that symbolically makes Americans think that he’s got a spine, even if it’s followed by four more years of waffling and caving. Maybe he’ll figure it out and maybe he won’t , but if he’s smart he’ll leave the Clinton revisionist strategy in the past.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture, and the politics of sports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)