Friday, August 05, 2011

Why the Clinton analogy for the Obama Presidency is a poor one

David Bromwich gets to the nub of the political-style problem in Why Has Obama Never Recognized the Tea Party? Huffington Post 08/02/2011:

Obama likes to compare himself to Lincoln but the president he most nearly resembles is Clinton -- but it is Clinton without the knowledge of politics, without the passion for politics, without the sheer tenacity of devotion to the game of politics. Clinton beat his Tea Party and humbled their leader within a year of their midterm victory, and their only revenge was an impeachment which they also lost. Obama has awarded his opponents a hostage, the economy, which they won't release in a year, or two years, or ten.
I don't want to praise Bill Clinton excessively. This year, he endorsed Obama's proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare, showing that his personal commitment to Democratic Party core values and programs is superficial at best.

But as President, Clinton understood that as the leader of the Democratic Party, part of his leadership job was to confront the opposition Republican Party at times and to confront them on the basis of the Democratic Party's program and priorities. Clinton famously practiced a political strategy of "triangulation," which meant establishing some kind of practical working relationship with both parties in Congress.

Whatever his deepest inner convictions on particular issues, Clinton gave his own partisans the impression that the compromises he was making like that on welfare reform were a pragmatic but undesirable adjustment to the reality of Republican strength in the Congress. Clinton could manage soaring rhetoric and come off as the national pastor. But he was also a Democratic partisan who was willing to fight the Republicans and cast the issues on which he was fighting them in a clear way. The Gingrich Republicans looked bad on the government shutdowns because Bill Clinton made sure that they owned the shutdowns in the eyes of the public.

Obama shares Clinton's neoliberal economic outlook and his mid-first-term attempt to navigate a political atmosphere that seemed to have turned in favor of the Republicans. But Obama's version is "Clinton without the knowledge of politics, without the passion for politics, without the sheer tenacity of devotion to the game of politics." (Bromwich)

Then there's the actual state of the economy. The US economy was in recovery in 1994-6, and the tech boom/bubble was beginning. Steve Kornacki in The futility of playing Mr. Reasonable Salon 08/04/2011, a misleading title because Kornacki is actually arguing that the President's Mr. Reasonable act seems to be playing pretty well, acknowledges at the end the large fly in the ointment of partisan optimism for the Democrats:

So while it's good news for Obama that his base still isn't in revolt (and probably never will be), he's got a much bigger problem: He seems intent on following Bill Clinton's 1995/1996 playbook, but the magic ingredient that made it work for Clinton -- a growing economy that made "pure independents" eager to give him the benefit of the doubt -- is missing this time around. Playing Mr. Reasonable looks a lot different to voters when they're out of work or fearing for their jobs.
Matt Stoller has an interesting analysis of Obama's approach to liberals in What Presidency? Naked Capitalism 08/01/2011. My summary here doesn't do it justice. But he argues that Obama's strategy toward liberals is to try to have them focus only "on the ceremonial non-governmental aspects of the Presidency. You do it by making sure that they focus only on the televised aspects of the Presidency." But he capsulises the political risks in his concluding paragraphs. Not only will some proportion of liberal voters be disgusted by what he's doing, as in the debt deal and the Libya War. His substantively bad policies present major risks to his re-election prospects and to the general prospects of the Democratic Party:

It is only by focusing on the governor-in-chief role that one sees a different focus of the Presidency. It is absolutely the case, as [Paul] Krugman notes, that Republican detachment from reality is a threat to democracy. But it is worth noting that in ascribing to this the sole cause of our political situation is to diminish the notion that creatively using power can achieve good things for people. For instance, it's true that having a press corps with more balance about the goals of Republicans and Democrats would create a healthier democratic society – but then, it’s probably also true that a real foreclosure prevention plan in 2009 would have dramatically restored faith in government by touching the lives of millions of people in an affirmatively positive instead of malevolent way.

All of this is to say that how one sees government is critical to how one judges Obama. And if the only consideration is the boundaries of television, then of course, Obama is going to look like a mediocre narrator-in-chief constrained by wild forces he cannot control. Of course, Congress will make him seem like a somewhat inept but well-meaning legislative leader or party leader. It is only in turning off the boundaries set by a narrow TV-dominated discourse that one truly sees Obama’s real handiwork – the wars, the bailouts, and most tragically, what could have been but never was.
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