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Last weekend, a horde of dignitaries and operatives gathered in Little Rock to mark the twentieth anniversary of Bill Clinton’s entry into the 1992 presidential race. The affair, which in substance and tone easily could have been dubbed “the Making of the Last Successful President”, will contribute to the wave of Clinton nostalgia that is alive in the Democratic Party. And well it should: the Clinton saga is one of triumph on multiple levels, from a victory that broke the Republican hold on the electoral college map, to a presidency that recharged the economy, balanced the budget, faced down Serbian genocide, and ended with a 65% approval rating.
All of this is still sensitive, touchy territory in some Democratic circles. The left of the party has not forgiven the deregulation of Wall Street or the retreat on health-care reform that happened on Clinton’s watch; Rachel Maddow’s jibe that Clinton was “the last great Republican president” resonated with the ideological rivals in his own party that Clinton thrashed but left embittered. And then there is the Barack Obama/Bill Clinton interpersonal dynamic, a dance laced with ambiguity, the mutual wariness of two self-made men with a strong sense of their own gifts. Sometimes, the tension spills into plain view. Clintonistas recall the pointed barbs—candidate Obama’s unfavorable comparisons of the “transformative” powers of the Reagan and Clinton presidencies—and the more subtle intimations. If you saw the glare in Obama’s eyes when Clinton stole the show at their White House press avail last December, you know what I mean.
How this story ends is indeterminate, and even when the political book is closed, historians will still pick over the bones. But it is undeniable that Obama’s presidency is at its lowest ebb, stymied in Congress and stuck around 40 percent in the polls. It is worthwhile, therefore, to reflect on exactly how Clinton wore down a Republican opposition that was as fierce and contemptuous as anything Obama has faced, and how he regained the center of the debate both substantively and politically—two events that have heretofore eluded his Democratic successor.
I have a theory that the most discernible distinction in the Clinton and Obama mode of leadership is rooted in their respective paths to the presidency. Clinton rose to power in Arkansas, a conservative state trending toward Republicans, and his survival depended on convincing a trove of Reagan and Nixon voters that he was neither the spend-thrift nor the permissive cultural elitist that they generally believed national Democrats to be. Obama climbed the ranks in Illinois, a state with a progressive tradition moving inexorably toward Democrats, and his ascension required him, principally, to win over liberal leaning primary voters. Clinton, on one hand, lost a statewide race to Republicans, and came uncomfortably close to losing another in his last campaign in Arkansas. Obama, in turn, lost one intra-party primary that nearly wrecked his career but was not even grazed in winning a laugher over a hapless Republican in 2004.
The Democratic Party that Clinton sought to revive had been pummeled in three successive presidential elections; breaking the GOP’s lock on the electoral college meant reversing a host of demographic and sectional voting trends, and a raft of preconceptions about his party’s social and economic tendencies. Barack Obama, in contrast, was the beneficiary of both a national mood that had swung dramatically in Democrats’ favor just two years earlier, and a deterioration in America’s fortunes at home and abroad that discredited Republican policies.
Democrats in 1992 were desperate to prove they could win again at the presidential level, and to do it, they were willing to swallow a self-described moderate who had rankled teacher unions, and criticized welfare, and who didn’t blink when he permitted the execution of a severely retarded black man. The 2008 Democratic Party was blissfully devoid of serious clashes over ideology: each major contender promised to wind down the war in Iraq, implement universal health-care, and undo most of the Bush tax cuts, and the depressed state of the Republicans meant that there was no cost to bear from nominating an avowedly liberal candidate.
Had the second Bush term not gone so disastrously awry, Barack Obama would have had to run a campaign that resembled Clinton’s in 1992, and his victory would have required making a case about the distance between his party’s orthodoxies and his own views. If he had won that way, the triangulation strategy that Obama deployed this past summer—the effort to position himself between an unpopular Democratic congressional agenda and an equally unpalatable right-wing template—might have worked; at a minimum, it would have had a more authentic aura. Even more fundamentally, an Obama who had won running in the center would have had every incentive to forge a congressional agenda that was more conspicuously his own, and the counter-productive approach of deferring to congressional Democrats to craft the stimulus and the health-care law might have been averted.
A friend of mine who was prominent in the making of Clinton often says that Clinton knew he would never withstand a race that revolved on character or personal style; so he constructed an alternative bridge to swing voters in the economic and political middle ground, one that consisted of a narrative around how to make a fractious country more cohesive. The result was a tangible set of ideas about the strains in the middle-class and the limitations of the bureaucracy.
Obama, meanwhile, seemed to have it easier. The luminosity of his personality, and an absence of the tawdry laundry Clinton carried onto the national stage, gave Obama a more conventional basis for reassuring middle-class voters that his values matched theirs. It also helped that a country yearning to break free of its sordid record on race saw a historic kind of opening. But the power of Obama’s life story arguably spared him from having to invest in a specific content that would have better defined where he meant to take the country. To a striking extent, the details of Obama’s domestic goals never were spelled out during the campaign; George Bush’s and John McCain’s blunders meant they never had to be.
Clintonism, like it or loathe it, is a recognized model of governance from the center. Obamism as a concept does not exist; if it did, it is up for grabs whether it would represent the assertive liberalism that has made an entitlement of health-care or whether it is the sleight of hand that offered to trade reductions in Medicare and Medicaid for upper-income tax hikes. It is unclear, nearly a thousand days into his presidency, whether Obama, given his druthers, would smash Republican priorities or reach an elegant compromise with them.
Presidents don’t have to build a label to lead effectively. But the ones that endure tend to build a framework of how they would remake America if they had their way—their legacy becomes just how much of the remaking they accomplished. Bill Clinton excelled at that element of leadership. It’s why the opening of his campaign is a cause for celebration 20 years later, and it’s still a good message in a bottle to a presidency in genuine distress.