Saving the Obama Presidency
Obama needs to move to the right.
On this day in 1994, Bill Clinton's presidency was saved.
It didn't look that way at the time. After threatening to keep Congress in session until a health-care bill was passed, then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell gave up and let members return home for their recess. The legislative push for universal health care never recovered, and scarcely 11 weeks later Republicans led by Newt Gingrich woke up to find that they had just won control of both houses of Congress.
Mr. Clinton's presidency, however, did recover. And though the Republican revolution in Congress would ultimately run aground, in retrospect we can see two important legacies: It helped usher in a new era of prosperity for the American people, and in the process helped Mr. Clinton save his presidency.
Today the lesson that President Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress take from that 1994 defeat is that they need to avoid Mr. Clinton's "mistakes." Avoiding mistakes, however, is not a winning strategy. A far more productive strategy would be to embrace Mr. Clinton's success, which was freeing himself from his party's left and returning to the centrist themes he had campaigned on.
No doubt that would be a bitter pill for Mr. Obama, given how he has made health care his signature issue. Still, a wiser West Wing ought to have seen this train wreck coming. For months polls have shown a huge gap between the popularity of the president and the unpopularity of his policies. Sooner or later, one of these had to give.
Mr. Obama's bet was that his personal popularity would be enough to push his agenda through. Perhaps that would have been possible before the $787 billion economic stimulus package, the $410 billion omnibus bill that funds the government, the House-approved cap-and-trade bill, and so forth. But these big-ticket spending bills have helped define what the president means by "hope" and "change," and it is through this prism that the American public now views his health-care proposals.
Public skepticism increased when the Congressional Budget Office issued findings contradicting Mr. Obama's claims that his health-care reform would lower costs. And the more Americans have learned about the specifics, the more they dislike the plans. The president understands that he loses when he talks about substantive issues, which is why he's been fudging on the public option. He may not understand that he is closing the gap between his unpopular policies and his personal popularity in the worst way a president can: by reducing his own credibility.
Back in 1994, Mr. Clinton faced pretty much the same problem. Though he too had won the White House promising to be a new kind of Democrat, his first two years had a distinctly liberal tenor: battling over gays in the military, promoting a new energy tax, turning a promised middle-class tax cut into a huge tax hike, and trying to push through universal health care. Though he continues to deny GOP contributions to his success, after his 1994 health-care defeat, Mr. Clinton did what all smart pols do: He appropriated the most appealing parts of his opponents' agenda.
The result was a new Bill Clinton, embracing everything from deregulation and welfare reform to the Defense of Marriage Act. In his 1996 State of the Union, he even struck a Reaganite chord by announcing that "the era of Big Government is over." From this newly held center, Mr. Clinton advanced his presidency and pushed, both successfully and unfairly, to demonize Mr. Gingrich. Mostly he got away with it.
In his book "The Pact," historian Steven M. Gillon puts it this way: "Ironically, Gingrich's revolution may have saved the Clinton presidency by freeing him from the control of his party's more liberal base in Congress, giving him the opportunity to return to the moderate message that helped him win election in the first place.
"It was Gingrich who changed the language of American politics and forced Clinton to play the game on his turf," he writes. "But it was Clinton who ultimately got the credit and emerged as the decade's most popular leader."
Even in the midst of a Republican resurgence, Mr. Clinton would go on from the defeat to become the first Democrat since FDR to be elected to two terms. By contrast, Mr. Obama's handling of the health-care debate—making villains out of cable television and insurance companies, questioning the motives of those who disagree, imposing artificial deadlines—suggests a rigidity typically associated with a lack of executive experience and responsibility.
At the moment, Mr. Obama plainly remains wedded to the view that the 1994 failure to get a health-care bill through Congress marked a catastrophe for the Clinton presidency rather than its liberation. On Friday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said his boss was "quite comfortable" with the idea that sticking to his agenda may well mean "he only lives in this house" for one term. Sounds like a man who appreciates the limits of a president's personal popularity.