There is a lot of quick reaction to Obama’s landmark victory, ranging from those who think that the country is now going to be dragged down the path of socialism, to others who see a chance for a renewed and vibrant America. We’ve been here before.
In 1992 there were similar hopes when a man about the same age, Bill Clinton, became President. That election took place in a recession, and Republicans held out hope until the end that Clinton’s inexperience would combine with harsh negative attacks from the right (draft dodger, womanizer, anti-American, radical, liar, etc.) to cause Americans to choose to re-elect President Bush. Bush had been commander in chief during a popular war and victory, and at one point had an approval rating over 90. In fact the negative views about Clinton were so intense that the Republicans continually tried to defeat him, and in the 1994 off year election took control of Congress.
Clinton survived, and while the US enjoyed economic growth in the 90s, it ultimately wasn’t sustainable, and Clinton did not change the country in the ways many hoped for or many feared in 1992. He not only did not introduce radical socialism as the right tried to claim he would, but he oversaw the biggest cuts in social welfare programs in history. He involved the US in a risky war in Kosovo, though luckily he ignored neo-conservative calls for him to invade Iraq in 1998 to spread democracy and undercut terrorism. He ended with high approval ratings, but only because the GOP overshot when they tried to remove him from office late in his term. Ultimately Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in 2000 when Clinton left office.
So we’ve been here before. A young, charming, agent of change elected because people think the country is headed in the wrong direction. We really didn’t get much change last time; will this time be different?
I believe it will. First, the world is different. In 1992 we were facing record low oil prices, and the start of a globalization inspired stock bubble which would hide growing economic imbalances. As bad as things seemed in 1992, the US current account deficit, total debt, and financial institutions were generally in good shape. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, and the US appeared to be the unipolar power. China’s economy was growing, but was still focused on generating cheap goods for the US. Once the economy improved — and that started before Clinton came into office — the desire for real change dissipated. When the Republicans took Congress, in large part because a serious of missteps by an undisciplined President Clinton, Clinton was chastened. His health care plan and other initiatives had failed. He decided that rather than fight for change, he’d look out for his own political survival. The result was a relatively effective centrist government.
The world now is different. There is no quick economic fix, the need for change isn’t going to flitter away as the economic news improves. Moreover, while oil prices now have been going downward, the long term prospects remain bleak. All indications are that we are at a production peak of a non-renewable resource, and the recession only delays the coming oil crisis — and perhaps not by much. It also could be that any sign of economic recovery will be met with sudden oil price increases, limiting the chances of sustained recovery. The health care system, broken in 1992, is virtually in collapse by 2008. Obama may not get his plan through, but something will need to be done.
Moreover, there are fundamental differences between Obama and Clinton. Clinton, coming from an abusive household, seemed to use politics as a way to bolster self-esteem. He loved being loved, and often let his personal needs lead him to political folly. This made him less focused on the political result, and more on his own role and popularity. Bluntly, it was more about him than the people. This isn’t new — politics draws people like that, especially those willing to do what it takes to reach the Presidency — but it undercut his capacity to achieve greatness.
Obama is obviously quite disciplined. His campaign was perhaps one of the best run ever, and that’s because the candidate stayed focused, avoiding sudden gambles or impulsive statements/actions. The negatives used against him were mostly from past associations — ones that were politically useful in the past — and not anything done in his campaign. He will no doubt take that discipline to the White House.
Moreover, Obama seems to be more concerned with results than just being liked. He’s been criticized as too aloof and cool. Unlike Clinton, he doesn’t seem to really care if he’s loved by the people, he just wants them to work with and for him. I suspect this means he’ll won’t make the mistakes Clinton made the first year or two of his Presidency, and thus accomplish more. Clinton’s early mistakes were to move quickly to advance his agenda: allow gays in the military, push a health care reform through, guided by his wife Hillary, and essentially ignore the Republicans to try to use his large Democratic majority to make change happen quickly.
It didn’t work. Not only does Obama know his history, but his advisors include veterans from the Clinton years, who also recall how the bold ‘move quickly’ strategy failed. It didn’t fail because it was too much too fast, it failed because it was too partisan. Clinton didn’t think he needed compromise, he just needed a disciplined Democratic majority. I suspect Obama realizes that while he may have a big majority now, to maintain it and to achieve results he has to be effective. He can only do that through compromise and persuasion. Ronald Reagan was effective in building coalitions with Democrats. To be sure, many were southern conservative Democrats, but Reagan turned out to be far more centrist than his rhetoric and reputation coming into power. Ultimately, he turned out to be an idealistic pragmatist. Obama might be coming from the left, but he appears to share an idealist pragmatist mindset.
So I expect Obama to work with Republicans on his agenda items like health care reform, tax reform, and economic change. He’ll use his majority to make sure what passes is closer to his preference, but he’ll recognize the need not to anger the other side or simply ride roughshod over them. Some believe his choice of Rahm Emanuel to be chief of staff suggest a hyper partisan approach. But others report that Emanuel talks to and works well with Republicans, and in fact he’s one of the best positioned to communicate and build coalitions with Republicans. He had to be partisan when fighting for Congressional control in 2006, but I see choosing him as a sign that Obama will try to gain as much consensus as possible for major initiatives. Given the state of the US and the economy, he’ll have a strong argument that something needs to be done.
I suspect those on the left who want a partisan Administration who will implement and fight for Democratic ideals will be disappointed. That just doesn’t seem to reflect the kind of person Obama is, and more importantly, it doesn’t reflect the views of the advisors with which he has surrounded himself. Unlike Bill Clinton, I doubt he’ll end up shifting to the right or find himself hemmed in by scandals of his own making.
I certainly hope he can build a center-left consensus for real, effective change. The problems we face are immense, and we need a President who can effectively compromise and cooperate with the opposition to create change that is built on relatively broad support, and not on partisan ideology.