The Obama Watch

Looking Ahead to 2015

Obama’s potential predicament worse than Clinton’s.

By 6.12.14

UPI
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The Revolution of ’94 saw Bill Clinton staring down the cannons of righteous Republican fury. However, Clinton’s clashes with a Republican Congress resulted in an era of economic expansion and fiscal responsibility. Obama may be faced with such a Congress himself, the results of which may be ominous.

Clinton faced numerous disadvantages in his confrontation with this Republican majority. His policy and political missteps had delivered control of the House and the Senate to Republicans for the first time in almost 50 years. He confronted this Congress for the next six years, losing frequently and ultimately facing impeachment. However, Clinton’s apparent disadvantages propelled him to a favorably viewed presidency. If faced with a Republican Congress himself, Obama could have more trouble.

Obama appears to have a couple of advantages should Republicans fully control Congress after November. Clinton needed to compromise in order to secure re-election, something Obama need not worry about two years into his second term. Obama also won his two elections with much higher popular vote percentages than Clinton’s, so he can realistically feel he has a far stronger hand with an opposition.

Clinton’s failed health care reform effort helped propel Republicans into Congressional majorities and convinced them they could — and should — oppose him in future policy fights. Obama has already enacted and implemented his health care reform plan. Republicans could pass legislation repealing it, but with Obama in office, they cannot dismantle it. And unlike Clinton, Obama has a beneficiary base to offset Republican opposition.

When examined closely, however, Obama’s seemingly favorable position quickly disappears, while Clinton’s weaknesses emerge as strengths.

Clinton won both his elections with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. This made Democrats feel they had to support him. Many saw Clinton as an electoral fluke, but he reversed Republican White House dominance that spanned 20 of the previous 24 years. Democrats had to support their president and prevent him becoming either a Republican punchline or punching bag — lest past White House and Congressional losses continue.

In many ways, Republicans saved Clinton from himself — and Democrats in the process. Despite Clinton’s opposition to spending cuts and balanced budgets, Republicans forced them on him. The result: Clinton was president during several federal surpluses — the first in years — and these are now remembered among his presidential highpoints. They also helped propel an economic surge, which further bolstered Clinton. 

The strong budget and economy helped Clinton maintain vital public support at the crucial time of his impeachment. The court of public opinion saw impeachment as over-reach, further helping save Clinton from his own failings and from becoming a national laughing stock.

Just as Clinton’s apparent weaknesses retroactively appear as strengths, Obama’s apparent strengths in a potential Congressional confrontation could prove ephemeral. 

Obama could feel he doesn’t have to compromise if a Republican majority should emerge. Yet, compromise — albeit from political necessity — was precisely what not only saved Clinton’s presidency, but yielded its most significant accomplishments. And while Obama is the consummate campaigner, he is not the politician Clinton was — a skill easily dismissed by some, but a boon with the broader populace.

Clinton failed to pass his prominent health care reform proposal, while Obama passed his. The problem is he must now answer for it. Close Congressional examination of Obama’s reform — not to mention a number of other administration actions — could further reduce his public support, which is already eroding from the political center. 

Obama may have less time in office to confront a Republican Congress, but it also means he has had far longer to increase Republican animosity to both his policies and his pursuit of them. There is much more pent-up resentment of Obama’s actions than Clinton’s, which really amounted to a large tax hike and pursuit of Clinton Care. Clinton’s pursuit of these was done in the traditional presidential mode of operation — not so Obama’s, which Republicans (and some Democrats) see as circumventing Congress. 

Obama has virtually no advantage compared to Clinton should he find himself confronting a Republican Congress. Because of a Republican Congress, Clinton accumulated a reservoir of public support on the economy and the budget, which helped when most needed. Obama, with six years of his party controlling at least half of Congress, has accumulated little support on almost anything currently. That is a very dangerous position when confronting a unified opposition Congress with ample opportunities and reasons to examine the administration.

Obama has tougher circumstances, more animosity, greater polarization, and no experience on which to rely to help him navigate his last two years. And because of over-reach against Clinton two decades ago, Republicans are unlikely to make the same mistake again with Obama. 

Obama’s apparent advantages could be as self-reinforcing as Clinton’s apparent disadvantages proved to be two decades ago. If so, Obama’s remaining time in office could be far worse than Clinton’s last six years, and unlike anything seen in a very long time.

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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.