Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Can Obama Pull a Clinton?

After his party's 1994 loss, Bill Clinton adopted a course of "triangulation." He became more moderate, actually supporting some Republican ideas and taking credit for them. He presented himself between the most radical elements of the left and the right. It worked. He went from having to argue that the presidency was still relevant to winning reelection by a good margin (although still failing to capture 50% of the vote). Barack Obama took a worse drubbing in 2010 with Republicans winning back the house and more state governments than they have held since the 1920s. Will President Obama follow Clinton's example? Is it even possible for him to?

Short answer - no to both questions. Here's why.

Obama is not temperamentally suited to triangulate. Near the end of his presidency, Clinton admitted that he was a "C" level president with a shot at rising to a "B". Obama came to office planning on being an "A" level president. The only question that he had not decided was if he would be an FDR-style trasformational president or a Reagan-style one. A president who triangulates does not go down in history as an "A" level president. Beyond that, Clinton's first priority was always himself. He was quick to abandon health care when it looked like it might hurt him and he accepted a number of compromises. Obama only compromises on his own terms and presses on regardless of the cost.

The Republicans will not let him. In 1995, the Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. They had an agenda that they wanted to pass - ideas that had been pent up for years. They were more interested in pushing their long-term agenda than in picking fights with the President. In 2011 the Republicans will only have been out of power for 4 years, 2 of them with Obama in the White House. Their agenda mainly consists of rolling back everything that Obama did in the last two years. There is not much room for compromise there.

Obama's base will not let him. The far-left Progressives never forgave Clinton for turning his back on them. This is why Hillary Clinton is not president today. She tried to run to the left of her husband but they didn't believe her. They chose Obama over her. They are already upset that Obama did not force single-payer on the country. If Obama moves to the center they will challenge him in 2012.

Congress is different. In 1995, Republicans controlled both houses. In 2011, the Republicans will control the House and Democrats will control the Senate. Anything that makes it through both houses will have to have some bipartisan appeal. That crowds out the space that Obama needs all to himself in order to triangulate.

This could work the other way if Obama was willing. He would have to take a more active position in regard to Congress. So far he has tended to be hands-off, leaving Pelosi and Reid to do the heavy lifting. If he was willing to take a moderate position he might be able to find enough votes in both houses to pass legislation. This leads back to the original problem of Obama's temperament.

In the end, Obama's desire to be an "A" level president and to preserve his achievements from his first two years will probably drag him down. He may be reelected if the economy suddenly improves but he will never rise beyond a "C" level president who did not live up to expectations.

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