In my column on the main site, I talked about why I think President Obama is likely to react differently to electoral defeat in the midterms than Bill Clinton did. I argued that unlike Clinton, who was always a politician first and foremost, Obama is an ideological liberal who will continue to press his agenda.
I’m seeing now that the National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein has a piece up comparing his conversation with Clinton days before the 1994 election and his recent interview with Obama. He also comes away with the sense that Obama is taking the prospect of political defeat a lot differently than Clinton, though he has a bit of a different take. To Brownstein, the difference is more a matter of temperment. It was Clinton’s despondence about losing that prompted him to change course in his presidency, Brownstein reports, while it’s Obama’s trademark calmness that prevents him from doing the same.
Where Clinton agonized, Obama analyzed. It was clear that Obama has started to think seriously about how he will navigate a Washington with many more Republicans in it. But nothing about him suggested that he viewed the impending arrival of those Republicans as evidence that he needed to radically rethink his presidency. Obama sounded neither shell-shocked nor defiant. He seemed entirely focused on the practical: where he might work with Republicans, and where he expects confrontation (education, infrastructure, and energy in the first group; taxes, health care, and Social Security in the second).
Everything about the conversation reinforced the signal of continuity the president sent this fall when he named confidants Pete Rouse as chief of staff and Tom Donilon as his national security adviser. In private, Obama appears just as unruffled, one White House aide said. Asked whether the president had displayed “angst” over the looming losses, the aide said, “I don’t think that is the right word. He’s come to all these challenges with the same steadiness that people saw on the campaign trail in 2008—never got too hot, never got too cold, but just faced each day and did his best to take it on.”
Obama’s equanimity was indeed a great strength for him in 2008. But if Democrats are routed next week, some of them may wonder whether it is possible to be too cool and collected in the face of calamity.