Political Hay

You Can’t Get There From Here

This year is many ways like 1996 -- except there'll be no great political bargains.

By 2.16.12

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Unlike 1996, this year there will be no policy breakout from Washington's political logjam. With so many and such large problems facing it, there is a tantalizing prospect that Washington could still produce a major policy victory.

There is certainly precedent: 1996's welfare reform. Similar as 1996 and 2012 seem on the surface, the two will not yield similar results.

Sixteen years ago, Washington was also divided. Insurgent Republicans, fresh from momentous midterm gains, faced a weakened Democratic president seeking reelection. Twice the two parties attempted welfare reform and failed. However, the third try proved the charm and, in the words of President Clinton, ended "welfare as we have come to know it."

Welfare reform still stands as a signature achievement not just of 1996, but a fundamental change of one of America's major entitlement programs. Welfare became workfare, ended widespread dependency on government aid and saved money by giving states wide latitude in designing their programs.

So why couldn't Washington do something like this again in a presidential election year?

For one thing, today's problems are bigger than 1996's.

Sixteen years ago, the economy and the budget were relatively good. Then the deficit was $107 billion, amounting to just 1.4% of GDP. Real economic growth was 3.7% and the yearend unemployment rate was 5.4%.

Today, both are historically bad. Last year, the deficit was $1.3 trillion, amounting to 8.7% of GDP. Real economic growth was 1.6% and the yearend unemployment rate was 8.5%.

For another thing, the presidents' political circumstances vastly differ.

Clinton was a minority president, winning just 43% of the popular vote -- the lowest for a president since Wilson in 1912. Knowing he couldn't win reelection without increasing his coalition significantly, Clinton had no choice but to increase it and, with Republicans controlling Congress, no choice but to try to work with them.

Obama is a majority president, winning 53% of the popular vote -- the largest percentage for a Democratic president in 44 years. From Day One, Obama has known he could win reelection without increasing his coalition. Therefore, his primary motivation has been to retain it. And that doesn't require him to work with his opponents.

Despite suffering severe midterm election defeats, the two presidents' Congressional alignments are also very different.

Clinton's midterm defeat was a shattering setback -- Republicans gained full control of Congress for the first time in 50 years. This only confirmed Clinton's isolation and weakness in the wake of his health care failure.

Obama's midterm defeat was resounding, but Democrats still retained control of the Senate. Republican control of the House was hardly the shock it was in 1994 -- having regularly controlled it over the last 20 years. Democrats' retention of the Senate meant that far from isolated, Obama was insulated -- he has not had to face politically uncomfortable legislation -- as did Clinton.

Unsurprisingly, Clinton and Obama's first three years have been very different too. During Clinton's presidency, the Republican Congress and Democratic President were forced to work together. Results came, and difficult as they were to achieve, they provided the ground for further efforts. Both sides benefitted -- Clinton winning reelection and Republicans retaining Congress.

During Obama's presidency, the result has been fewer results. Even had they wanted to, working together would be far more difficult. And Obama and Republicans have not had to work together. Because Congress is split, both sides are buffered from the responsibility of legislating -- Republicans can blame Senate Democrats, Senate Democrats can blame House Republicans, and Obama can blame Congress (as he has) -- for not passing anything.

Also in contrast with Clinton's first term, both parties are seeking to avoid blame -- not share credit. Both sides want to avoid responsibility for the economy and budget. What better way of doing so than to claim you have the proposal for success, but have been frustrated from implementing it by the other side? Active but absolved at the same time!

Finally, initiatives start with the president and the two are very different. Clinton's executive experience was not only more extensive, but was obtained in conservative Arkansas. The new conservative majority, while politically a shock, was hardly an unknown to him -- he had navigated the same political terrain as governor. Obama's political experience has only been in very liberal circumstances -- Illinois and in his first two White House years.

While seemingly similar, 1996 and 2012 are different by order of magnitude. Today's problems are too great for ready solution; the stakes therefore too high; the two sides too evenly balanced; the election too near. Unlike 1996, in 2012 it would seem that "you can't get there from here." And America is unlikely to for another year.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.